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Is Asdrubal Cabrera's strong defense a mirage?

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Terry Collins has praised Cabrera's glove work, but the numbers tell a different story

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

With another pair of dynamic plays from Adrubal Cabrera in Thursday night's loss to the Padres, including a cross-body throw in the fifth, the 30-year-old shortstop continues to look like a stable defender at a position that has been in flux since Jose Reyes left seven years ago.

When the Mets signed Cabrera to a two-year $18.5 million contract in the offseason, numerous outlets raised questions about his defense. Over an eight-year major league career, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) only rated Cabrera as a positive defender once. That was his 2007 rookie season when he played just 42 games.

Coming in with that scouting report, Cabrera's strong glove work has taken Terry Collins by surprise. Collins told NJ.com:

"I told you guys, I really believe in scouting and what they have to say. Last winter, when we signed this guy, I had a couple tell me that he was done at shortstop. Well, they were wrong. This guy has proved that he can still play shortstop at a high, high level. He's made plays that we haven't made in a couple of years. He's been outstanding out there."

Those advanced fielding statistics, though, have barely budged. Through 226.2 innings games in 2016, his UZR is -2.7, putting him on pace for the second-worst fielding season by that metric of his career. There is also little precedent for a player dramatically improving his defense at age 30, particularly at a skill position like shortstop.

However, range-based fielding metrics are notoriously unreliable over short periods. Fangraphs even advises, "in small sample sizes, a good scout is ALWAYS better than statistics."

Nevertheless there are some stats that suggest Cabrera may have actually turned a corner, or that at least help explain why he has looked so good through the first month of the season.

Created in 2012, Fangraphs' Inside Edge Fielding breaks down each ball a fielder faces by the play's difficulty:

Impossible (made 0 percent of the time)
Remote (1 to 10 percent)
Unlikely (10 to 40 percent)
Even (40 to 60 percent)
Likely (60 to 90 percent)
Routine (made 90 to 100 percent)

This season, Cabrera has fielded 98.3 percent of 58 routine plays, his highest career percentage at shortstop. He's converted four of five "likely" plays, and, in the apogee of small sample size, fielded cleanly the only "even" ball he's received all year.  He's failed on all five "remote," five "unlikely," and five "impossible plays" so far.

So it may be that Cabrera is fielding ordinary grounders exceptionally well, and succeeding enough on the few semi-difficult balls hit his way to stand out. All the "unlikely" and "remote balls" he's not reaching simply look like hits, rather than balls he should have nabbed. After completing about half of "even" plays and three quarters of "likely" plays over the last three years, however, there's little evidence to suggest that he will continue to nab such a significant percentage of balls as the number of opportunities grows.

Yet it's also possible that Cabrera has improved his hands and footwork, allowing him to convert more routine plays, as well as a few harder ones.

What is clear, though, is that the 30-year-old Venezuelan is playing better than any Flushing shortstop since old No. 7. In 30 games, Cabrera is hitting .306/.359/.426, and at least so far, his glove has been much better than advertised.