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How sustainable was Asdrubal Cabrera’s power surge in 2016?

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How likely is the shortstop to regress in 2017?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Mets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Asdrubal Cabrera had one of the best seasons of his career for the Mets in 2016. His wRC+ of 119 and his fWAR of 3.1 were his best marks in those respective stats since 2011. The great season for Cabrera came in large part from his career-best power numbers; he hit more home runs than he had in any season since 2011, and his slugging percentage of .474 and isolated power of .194 were both career bests. In fact, he hadn’t even come close to those numbers since that 2011 season in Cleveland.

Power numbers did increase last year throughout all of baseball, but as you can tell, Cabrera’s power increased at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the league:

Some might automatically assume that the 31-year-old would be due for some power regression in 2017. And on the surface, that seems reasonable. After all, most of the spike in his offensive numbers was driven by a ridiculous second half of the season in which Cabrera slugged .549, had an ISO of .240, and hit 11 home runs over just 56 games—a 162-game pace of about 34 homers. Cabrera’s never put up anything close to those numbers before, and his HR/FB ratio of 15.7% in the second half is also far beyond anything he has ever done in that category, which suggests there may have been something funky going on with the shortstop’s fly balls.

Simply put: by the numbers, this is a profile that screams regression. But what if Cabrera isn’t actually due for significant offensive regression? What if he just pulled a Daniel Murphy and made some adjustments that allowed him to tap into more power and become an overall better hitter? Let’s look a little further.

If Cabrera were following in the footsteps of Murphy, his power increase would have come from an increase in fly balls to his pull fields, as pulling more fly balls often results in more home runs. Cabrera was already notoriously a heavy pull hitter from both sides of the plate going into 2016, and then pulled a career high 51.2% of balls last year, which was sixth-highest among all qualified hitters. And that number stayed rather static between the two halves of the season. So he did pull more balls in 2016 than ever before, but the increase was actually not that significant. He had pulled the ball more than 45% of the time in all but one season since 2009. So the change doesn’t fully explain the drastic spike in power.

Moreover, he didn’t actually hit more fly balls. His fly ball rate last year was just 39.6%, his lowest mark since 2012. Cabrera’s fly ball rate only went up about four percent in the second half—from 38.1% to to 41.9%, which brings us back to Cabrera’s astronomical HR/FB ratio as a possible sign that he was getting lucky on some those balls in the air. But it’s also possible that his fly balls were just hit harder, if not necessarily more frequently. The exit velocities lend credence to that point:

From 2015-2016:

Brooks Baseball

As you can tell, Cabrera’s exit velocities on fly balls for every month from June to September 2016 are harder than they had been at any point since exit velocity became publicly available in 2015. Unfortunately, though, that seems to be where the encouraging numbers end. According to Baseball Heat Maps, by his actual average fly ball distance, Cabrera’s fly balls were actually shorter in 2016 than in any other season in his career:

Year Avg. HR/FB Distances (ft.)
2016 269.20
2015 269.43
2014 284.88
2013 279.20
2012 276.38
2011 284.14
2010 270.89
2009 301.09
2008 273.22

This is in contrast to Murphy, who has seen his average fly ball distances increase steadily from in 267.52 feet in 2014 to 280.63 last year. Additionally, according to Statcast data, Cabrera actually had a lower average home run distance in 2016 than he did in 2015, and had a lower percentage of “barrels”—well-struck balls with an exit velocity and launch angle that would result in estimated BA/SLG of at least .500/1.500—in 2016 than in 2015.

Year Avg. HR Distance (ft.) # of Barrels Barrels/PA
2016 374 20 3.5%
2015 393 25 4.5%

So what can we conclude from all of this? While Cabrera may have been hitting his fly balls at a slightly higher velocity late in the year, the declining distances on them and the fewer number of barrels he hit hurt the hypothesis that Cabrera was just hitting his fly balls better and further, resulting in more home runs. The decrease in fly ball rates and minimal increase in pull percentage show that he wasn’t pulling more fly balls to generate more power like Murphy did, either.

So while it’s still possible that Cabrera altered something that allowed him to hit for dramatically more power, the underlying numbers here show very little evidence of anything like that actually occurring. Cabrera always had good power for a shortstop, but there’s not much here telling us that 2016 was the new normal or that we should be expecting another season of 20 or more homers and an ISO nearing .200 again.

That said, Cabrera is still a solid offensive shortstop, even with a little less power. So it’s fair to assume that he’ll still be a very valuable offensive player for the Mets in 2017, just not as valuable as he was in 2016.