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The Yankees may have found a special outfielder in Oswaldo Cabrera

Statcast suggests the Yankees have an elite glove hiding in a place they didn’t expect.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In the minors and as a prospect, Oswaldo Cabrera’s bat has been his calling card, and for good reason. Even with a juiced ball and bandbox minor league parks, switch-hitting middle infielders who can put up nearly 40 homers and 30+ steals over barely 162 games in the high minors don’t grow on trees.

We didn’t see Cabrera up the middle when he hit the big leagues, though. Rated a a 45 fielder and second base-only prospect by FanGraphs prior to the season, the Yankees’ infield logjam and dearth of reasonable outfield options forced him into the grass despite clocking a grand total of four (4) games in the outfield as a minor league. It actually went pretty well! Better than the White Sox infielders-in-the-outfield experiment, at the very least.

Jeff Middleton touched on it briefly here in September while the experiment was still ongoing, and it’s aged even better since then: his three Outs Above Average and nine Defensive Runs Saved in right field wound up among the best marks on the Yankees, no small feat considering they’re a counting stat.

It’s a small sample, but with the Aarons Judge and Hicks far from sure bets to return to their corner outfield spots next April, it’s worth asking: might there be something to the idea of easing the way to a future with Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza on the infield by simply keeping Cabrera in the outfield?

The good thing for us is that OAA isn’t quite as much of a black box as other advanced defensive metrics. I’ll leave the deep explanations to the crew at Baseball Savant, but it’s possible to break down OAA into a number of different components.

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Guardians at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Cabrera’s run was limited enough that it’s not worth spending too much time poring over how effective he was directionally. The sample size is just too small to make any judgments about whether he’s any good at breaking back or in, or whether he gets to balls hit to his left better than those hit to his right.

There are other components that don’t need quite as much input data to tell us something. Other fielding elements captured by Statcast include jumps and route running, which can be measured whether an out was recorded or not. This asks and answers a few questions that are critical for evaluating an outfielder: when the ball is hit, how quickly does the fielder break in the right direction? How long does it take them to get up to speed when they’re going in a straight line? Do they run straight to the spot where the ball is landing, or do they reduce the chances of a catch by taking an inefficient route?

In a nutshell, the metrics seems to like Cabrera in the outfield largely because, despite his very limited experience, he seems to be preternaturally good at getting a jump on the ball. Out of the 196 players that saw at least ten balls in play with a catch probability below 90% — measuring reaction speed on a total can of corn is like judging speed by a home run trot, in a sense — Cabrera ranked 11th overall by covering almost a foot and a half more ground than average in the initial 1.5 seconds after contact, which Statcast calls the reaction part of the overall “jump.” His coverage in the burst component, the subsequent second-and-a-half of time elapsed after the reaction, was even better, tying for seventh at 1.7 feet more than average. You don’t necessarily notice an elite jump when plays like this get made, but you sure notice the lack thereof when they don’t:

The camera doesn’t quite do it justice, but we have Statcast for that, too. This ball got down quickly enough that Margot started heading back to the dugout hardly halfway down the line, and it’s easy to see how a different player might have had to leave their feet without Cabrera’s ability to instantly get himself moving in the right direction.

Even with that tiny sample size, only Jose Siri, José Azocar, Brett Phillips, and Kyle Isbel clocked at least 1.4 feet above average in both reaction and burst, a genuine who’s who of wizard-like outfielders who almost certainly wouldn’t be near the big leagues without their gloves. We’re talking 39 total outs above average split between four players, none of whom were getting anything close to everyday reps. It’s an understatement to say that Cabrera is in elite company when it comes to outfield instincts.

That part is important, because there is one more critical part to being an outfielder that Cabrera wasn’t quite so good at in his introduction to the grass this year: route running. Statcast has Cabrera’s route efficiency as more or less average. An analysis of all of his opportunities shows that he didn’t gain anything relative to other fielders with the directness of his approach to the spot, but he didn’t lose anything either. Not having a good feel for batted ball spin and exit velocity can lead to some adventures on the outfield on otherwise routine fly balls, especially when going backwards:

The good thing, though? Routes and reads are a lot easier to teach than the combination of quickness and instinctual reflex that allows Cabrera to get as good of an initial jump as he seems to. And when you cover as much ground as Cabrera does, you can live with some mediocre route running. His average of 37.7 feet covered in the initial three seconds after contact ranked fifth among those 196 peers, sandwiched right in between the aforementioned Siri and Daulton Varsho, who led all major league outfielders with 17 OAA in 2022.

Even Varsho doesn’t get the bulk of his value from efficient route running: he barely registers above Cabrera in that category, deriving almost all of his superb play from an outstanding ability to react and get on his horse in the right direction.

To wrap it up, plays like this don’t usually scream “elite outfielder in the making.”

The degree of difficulty that we register from watching on TV is only a tiny part of the picture, though. Elite fielders doesn’t always make elite plays. They make hard plays look easy. It’s only been a handful of games, but Oswaldo Cabrera might have already shown enough to be counted on as a valuable contributor, even if it’s not quite in the way we might have initially expected.