SSTN Mailbag: Oswaldo's Struggles, Walks and Errors, and Minor League Insights!
Burnout can be a real struggle. I know that I had been feeling that way in my day job, but I needed to push through until this week, where I took my first real vacation time in a year and a half. What surprised me is that for the first time, I realized that my burnout even extended to watching professional baseball. I watched a little bit of baseball this week, particularly the game for which I wrote the game recap, but I realized I needed to step away for a few days. I'm back to feeling refreshed and ready to talk about the Yankees again...and if I'm being honest, I think I even notice the difference in my responses in the Mailbag below, so I hope you all enjoy!
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll talk about Oswaldo Cabrera's struggles this season, evaluate how many baserunners Yankee pitchers allow to score, and catch up on the minors! Let's get at it:
Jim asks: You’ve been a big Oswaldo Cabrera fan in the past, but he’s been terrible this year. Honestly it’s kind of amazing that more people aren’t talking about it. Is this who Cabrera really is, or is there more than meets the eye here?
Yeah, this is a tough one. Give the Yankees truth serum, and I think you’d hear two things. One is pretty obvious: he’s struggled enough in the big leagues this year that sending him back to AAA just to get some good at-bats in and regain some confidence at the plate would be hugely beneficial, but they can’t do it right now until there is more outfield depth around. The second is that the Yankees likely didn’t plan on giving Cabrera this much playing time early in the season, and that he’s likely getting overexposed against pitchers he likely wouldn’t face under normal circumstances, unless he played well enough to earn those opportunities. Those basic truths speak to not just where Cabrera is on his development path, but also the reality of the Yankees’ dire depth and injury situation. If it were me, I’d send Cabrera to AAA anyway, add Florial to the 40-man to take some reps while Cabrera is in the minors, and not care about releasing him when Cabrera proves he’s ready to return. Unfortunately, the Yankees don’t much care what I think, and I don’t see that happening.
I have always been the high man on Oswaldo Cabrera dating back to the days when he was just a projectable body in low-A with a nice swing and some of the best hands in the organization. The simple answer to your question is that yes, I am still a believer in Oswaldo Cabrera, but I think we also need to put that belief in proper context. I have never thought that Cabrera would be a perennial All-Star. I liked him relative to the common belief that he would be somewhere between a Quad-A infielder and back-of-the-bench depth. Relative to that projection, I have maintained that Cabrera would either be an excellent super-utility player, or possibly a decent regular if he A.) found a position where his skillset played up and B.) fully maximized his potential with the bat, which would be imperfect, but very playable.
By sheer dumb luck, the Yankees found Point A for Cabrera: he’s a surprisingly good defensive outfielder and with more reps, I firmly believe he’s plus out there – certainly in RF, possibly in LF, and I even think he could be average in CF (it boggles my mind that the Yankees haven’t played him out there at all in the regular season, but that’s a conversation for another day). I am not alone here; multiple scouting outlets have noted that they now view Cabrera as an outfielder with good defensive upside, and all of the metrics we have available to us through Statcast back that view up: he’s well above-average in OAA and Sprint Speed, nearly elite in Outfielder Jump, and he has elite Arm Strength, consistently throwing it in the low-90 MPH range while peaking in the mid-high 90s. Even if he remains a super-utility player, due to the fact that he can still pick it at 3B and 2B at least, Cabrera could be good enough to find a home in an outfield if he maximizes his potential with the bat. That, of course, is a big if right now.
Cabrera has largely been awful at the plate this season, with most metrics putting him at roughly 50% below the MLB average. We have a few things going on here. Some of it can easily be seen with statistics, but some of it is mechanical. I’ll briefly dive into both.
Statistically, there are a lot of similarities between Cabrera this season and last season. Some would argue that regression should have been expected for Cabrera, given that his XWOBA was 35 points lower than his WOBA. This is obviously much more regression than could have been expected. Cabrera’s Zone Swing %, Zone Contact %, Chase %, Swing %, and 1st Pitch Swing % are all right in the same range as last season. The greatest flaw in Cabrera’s profile, as we saw last season, is his chase rate, which is well above the MLB average. We knew this already, though…more on that in a minute.
Interestingly, Cabrera’s Average Exit Velocity is up significantly this year, but his launch angle has dropped by 7 (!) degrees. That sounds crazy, but it still sits at 14.5 degrees on average, which should be more than acceptable. However, Cabrera’s Sweet Spot and Hard Hit rates remain low. Additionally, Cabrera’s pop-up rate is up a bit, but his groundball rate has skyrocketed to 51.1% at the expense of fly balls and line drives, all indications that his quality of contact has fallen off precipitously. Anyone with a computer can tell you the above; the question is why?
Part of the answer lies in Cabrera’s swing decisions, which brings us back to Cabrera’s known tendency to chase. Cabrera is striking out, whiffing, and walking less. Two out of those three sound like good things, right? Not exactly. While Cabrera is seeing more strikes this season, he’s seeing more pitches on the edges of the zone, far fewer meatball pitches, and here’s his biggest problem: he’s making significantly more contact with pitches he chases out of the zone, 61.4% in 2022 compared to 53.9% in 2022. That is part of the reason Statcast expected regression: Cabrera was getting lucky by whiffing on certain pitches out of the zone instead of making poor quality contact. Check out a map of all pitches with which Oswaldo has made contact in 2023:
Oswaldo is particularly susceptible to balls off the plate low and pitches running away from him both as a lefty and righty batter (I reviewed video to confirm). On occasion, he barrels up a ball of the plate for hard contact, as evidenced by 2 homers and a double. Far more often though, he rolls over these shots for weak grounders. A large part of his problem is making contact with bad pitches off the plate.
Additionally, Cabrera has a hole in his swing. Cabrera has a very pronounced upper-cut lash at the ball, which makes it difficult for him to impact hard fastballs up in the zone. It is also why we saw Cabrera pounce and feed on off-speed pitches low in the zone in 2022. The league has adjusted to Oswaldo by forcing him off of the plate and giving him more fastballs. It’s Oswaldo’s turn to adjust. I believe he has the talent to do it, but it won’t be easy, and I’m not sure he can do it while playing everyday at the MLB level.
Mike G. asks: The Yankees have given up 129 runs in 34 games. I'd be interested in knowing how many batters who walked came around to score and how many batters who reached on an error scored. (It seems to me that the official scorers are confused as to what is an error. Too many errors are called hits, but that's another issue.)
This is an interesting question for which I wish I had a better answer. Unfortunately, a little less than one week didn’t give me enough time to get through every box score to create the tally and hopefully find something interesting in the data generated (I do think this is a very worthwhile task, though, so Mike, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to continue tallying and include any insights gleaned in a future Mailbag with even more game data).
Enough with what I didn’t do, though. What I did find was that Yankee pitchers have stranded a higher percentage of runners on base than all but 4 other MLB teams (take a guess who sits at the top…that’s right, the Rays). Yankee pitchers have stranded 75.2% of baserunners, just a bit behind the league-leading Rays, who have produced a 77.6% LOB% (Left On-Base Percentage). The other stat I was interested to see was the team’s walk rate, which is pretty average at 9%, or 13th in the league. The Yankees combine that walk rate with strong strikeout rates, which places their K-BB% at 15.8%, tying for 6th best in baseball. So, what does all of that mean?
On the one hand, the traditional thought process around LOB% is that, much like the traditional thinking on BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), any numbers well outside league averages will eventually regress to the mean, and any wacky numbers aren’t really indicative of any inherent talent. We know now that this idea isn’t really true as a rule in some cases. For instance, very fast players with high groundball rates will almost always beat BABIP expectations because of their speed. Preventing walks while generating strikeouts are ways in which pitchers can expect to beat LOB% expectations.
Add it all up, and we can see that Yankee pitchers succeed at striking out opposing batters at a high rate, while limiting walks just enough to limit run scoring opportunities for batters that reach base. To take it a step further, the team’s pitchers have produced the 8th best WHIP in baseball, which means they also limit hits effectively. To sum it all up, I would expect to find that the Yankees allow fewer runners to score who either walked or reached on error to score than other teams.
Given the above, I believe that the LOB% Yankee pitchers have achieved thus far is sustainable, as long as their performance with regards to strikeout and walk rates remain stable or improve.
Steve asks: Can you give us an update on some minor league players you find interesting? Feels like we haven’t heard much about the minors – does that mean that we don’t have any help coming this year?
No, I think there will be help coming. I should really do a longer piece on this, but I’ll give a short version here. I think many local publications have done a terrible job covering certain minor leaguers this season, so let’s set the record straight:
Jasson Dominguez – In 107 plate appearances this year, Dominguez has hit .200/.393/.413, with 4 HR, 11 SB, 1 CS, .377 wOBA, 130 wRC+. The narrative in some of the local papers seems to be that Dominguez hasn’t been any good at AA, but that isn’t true at all. He basically didn’t see hittable pitches for the first 3 weeks of the season, which caused him to expand the zone a bit, leading to unsustainably high strikeout rates and an artificially low BABIP. Dominguez has maintained a good eye though, producing some of the best walk-strikeout rates in the Yankee system at 1-1 (25 walks, 25 strikeouts). He has also showed more pop than previous minor league seasons with a .213 ISO. Lastly, the Yankees are clearly looking to later this season, as Dominguez has sprinkled in work in LF. Rumors of Dominguez’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and it wouldn’t shock me at all if he gets a shot in August/September in New York.
Spencer Jones – The Yankee 1st round pick has hit 5 homers with 7 stolen bases down at A+ with an eye-popping .286 ISO. Jones has impressed thus far with his tools, but his 34.9% K% is particularly worrisome for a guy who played major D1 college ball, with a frighteningly low 5.7% walk rate. The top-level numbers are very good, but I want to see better plate discipline before I get too excited about Jones.
Randy Vasquez – Without much pitching depth at AAA, the Yankees were really counting on a Vasquez breakout, but it hasn’t happened yet. In 31.2 IP, Vasquez has an unsightly 5.97 ERA, with a high strikeout rate, but poor walk, fly ball, and HR rates that indicate that his seriously elevated .383 BABIP might not be due for too much regression. He has fantastic stuff, but if Vasquez can’t put all of the pieces together soon, his future is in the bullpen.
Clayton Beeter – Beeter is out to prove me (and others) wrong this year. Beeter has maintained some of the improved control he flashed after coming to the Yankees last year in return for Joey Gallo, and that has taken his performance to a new level. Beeter has averaged more than 5 innings per start for the first time in his professional career, while posting a 30.1% K% and an almost manageable 10.6% BB%. Most importantly, Beeter has limited runs, with a 1.35 ERA and 1.16 WHIP at AA. Beeter has MLB quality stuff right now, and if he continues to flash this level of control with some fastball command, he could shoot up the ladder relatively quickly.
Elijah Dunham – In his first taste of AAA action, Dunham’s season has come with mixed performance, though he’s been trending upward in the last week or so. In total, Dunham has produced a 93 wRC+ with good walk and strikeout rates while playing solid defense in LF. The bat needs to heat up in order for Dunham to be viable this season at the MLB level.