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This Week in Statcast: Where’s Oswaldo? His struggles stem from the shadow zone

The scuffling switch-hitter has been a major negative on pitches on and around the corners of the strike zone, causing him to pound the ball into the ground.

Oswaldo Cabrera on deck during Wednesday’s game. The always-smiling utilityman has struggled with the bat in the early going this year.
Oswaldo Cabrera on deck during Wednesday’s game. The always-smiling utilityman has struggled with the bat in the early going this year.
Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images

Last season, in a 171 plate-appearance cameo, Oswaldo Cabrera posted an above-average .247/.312/.429 line, good for a .322 wOBA. The unexpected offensive polish, which came along with a solid glove and a cannon for an arm (his seven assists tied for 23rd among all outfielders despite his small sample), was good enough to grant him the starting job in left field to begin this year. Fast forward to the present, and the switch-hitter is a candidate for demotion. What gives?

For starters, his slash has cratered to .193/.237/.294 with a paltry .231 wOBA to match. But it isn’t just a case of regression to the mean: sure, last year he overperformed his Statcast expected wOBA (gleaned through exit velocity and launched angle numbers), but this year, he’s right in line with what his quality of contact indicates, and it’s far below even last year’s expectation. Cabrera is still hitting the ball hard: his max exit velocity is just 0.7 mph off of last year’s and his hard-hit rate is actually up 2.4 percent. The problem is that he’s been pounding those hits into the ground.

It’s not only that he’s been stingy with the line drives, as Andrés wrote last week. It’s that he’s replaced them, and some flyballs, with grounders. According to FanGraphs, the utilityman hit just 28.2 percent of his balls in play on the ground last year, the eighth-lowest mark among the 417 hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. This year, his worm-burner rate has soared all the way up to 49.4 percent, tied for the 41st-highest among the 199 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. His 21.2 percent increase in grounder rate is easily the largest change (positive or negative) among the 185 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this season and last, edging the next-largest (Gunnar Henderson’s 15.7 percent decrease) by 5.5 percent.

Yankees’ hitting coach Dillon Lawson has had Cabrera implement mechanical changes recently, including the introduction of a quicker stride for use against tougher pitchers, in an effort to introduce more lift into the switch-hitter’s swing from both sides of the plate. While not the most stringent opponent, Cabrera showcased this limited stride in his Monday home-run swing against JP Sears:

Meanwhile, here is what he looks like with a full leg kick from the right side:

An off-balance swing may be part of the problem, but to me, it seems like the excess grounders are coming largely as a result of poor pitch selection.

The first metrics I look at when examining a hitter’s plate discipline are O-Swing and Z-Swing — the percentage of balls and strikes, respectively that a hitter swings at. Depending on the source you use, Cabrera has either marginally improved in these areas or marginally declined. We won’t find a smoking gun here.

But Statcast goes a step further than O-Swing and Z-Swing by splitting up the plate and its surrounding area into four “attack zones.” The “heart” zone describes pitches that are almost universally called strikes, “shadow” denotes pitches that sometimes get called strikes as well as near-misses, “chase” pitches are rarely strikes but sometimes still swung at, and “waste” offerings aren’t ever called strikes and are rarely swung at. A cursory glance at Cabrera’s profile here told me what I should hone in on.

Last season, Cabrera made below-average swing decisions in and around the strike zone, in the heart and shadow zones, but did a good job on pitches off the plate and well off the plate, in the chase and waste zones. In other words, Cabrera sometimes failed to pull the trigger on strikes and close pitches but did a good job laying off especially poor ones.

This year, the same is true. In fact, for the most part, Cabrera has posted the exact same run values by zone as he did last year. There’s just one major exception: the shadow zone. Pitches on the corners and just off of them have gone from costing Cabrera one run to costing him 10 this season. Essentially, what this means is that, on pitches with a 50/50 chance of being called strikes, Cabrera has been swinging at all of the wrong ones.

The utilityman’s futility in the shadow zone, on pitches on and around the corners, helps to explain the discrepancies in O-Swing and Z-Swing across the various data platforms with their slightly different strike zones. But one thing they all agree on — if Cabrera is swinging at the wrong pitches in the shadow zone, he’s making a lot more contact on them. His O-Contact rate — the percent of swings on pitches outside of the strike zone that connect — has increased by at least six percent according to all of Statcast, Pitch Info, and Sports Info Solutions.

Generally, more contact is a good thing; cutting down on your swinging strikes is the one surefire way to limit your strikeouts. And Cabrera certainly has, lowering his K rate by 5.5 percent. But when that extra contact is coming on bad pitches, and those bad pitches are being put into play, it will lead to a lot of rolling over and balls on the ground.

The good news for Cabrera is that maintaining success (or failure) on 50/50 pitches is really hard to do, since they are by nature tossups. So, with any luck, his shadow-zone swings will start to come on better offerings. In other words, don’t think that this is the real Cabrera — his true talent probably lies somewhere in between this year’s numbers and last year’s. As for the tweaks he’s working on with Lawson, maybe they’ll unlock a higher ceiling, but I’m more confident that the youngster will get it in gear due to positive regression than anything else.