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Oswaldo Cabrera’s slugging woes stem from issues with the fastball

The Yankees’ utilityman has gotten worse at hitting velocity and that’s not a particularly promising development.

MLB: SEP 20 Blue Jays at Yankees

Oswaldo Cabrera entered the 2023 season as one of the Yankees’ most promising young hitters. He had 15 extra-base hits in 44 games last year, including six homers, and his .740 OPS in his age-23 campaign, coupled with his defensive versatility, invited fans to dream.

It’s fair to say things haven’t worked out as planned in 2023, though. The utilityman has taken a considerable step back and is, as of Sunday morning, slashing a disappointing .221/.291/.315 with a .605 OPS. That .315 slugging percentage is the 11th worst in baseball among hitters with at least 200 batted balls. If we examine players with at least 250 plate appearances, only 20 have a lower OPS than that .605 mark. In short: he has been bad.

Why has he struggled so much in 2023? Well, it might have something to do with his awful performance and production against the most frequently thrown pitch in the league: fastballs.

Here is a concerning trend: Cabrera had a .465 slugging percentage and a .363 expected slugging (xSLG) last year, with three home runs against fastballs. This year? He owns a .312 slugging percentage and a .327 xSLG against the pitch, with just one homer and with significantly more plate appearances ending with a four-seamer (83 in 2022, 159 so far in 2023).

Yes, he exceeded expectations against fastballs last year considering his expected stats, and has slightly underperformed his xwOBA versus the pitch this season. Still, there is still a considerable gap between his xSLG from 2022 and 2023. Last year, Cabrera had a .349 wOBA (weighted on-base average) against heaters, but it has dropped to .290 in the current campaign. His future in MLB will be murky if he can’t hit fastballs, and with increasing velocities all over the league, pitchers won’t be afraid to challenge him with heat.

Based on the fact he hit just two home runs in 234 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter and three round-trippers in 63 trips to the plate as a righty batter, it would be a quick assumption to make that he should consider giving him hitting from the left side of the plate. However, his OPS as a right-hander (.633) wasn’t that much better than the .597 he had as a lefty. If he is going to remain a switch-hitter, he needs to improve both swings and approaches.

To be an above-average hitter, he shouldn’t miss these types of pitches as often as he has this year:

You can see how he is a little late to put the bat in the contact zone. If it was, say, a 91-mph fastball in that exact spot, he probably would have crushed it for a home run or at least an extra-base hit. It was 96 mph, though, which usually gives pitchers a little more room for error.

Still, Cabrera is also capable of doing this:

Fastball inside, but at a similar velocity (95 mph). With the count 1-2, it’s hard to say if he was waiting on a fastball, but logic indicates that’s highly unlikely since it was a pitcher’s count. Perhaps the Pirates read the scouting report and opted to challenge him with a fastball even in that situation. It backfired, but it’s hard to blame them given the data available at that point.

With Cabrera, it’s probably a matter of finding consistency with his swing(s), but it’s clear that he has some issues hitting velocity even if he will run into a fastball and hit it far every once in a while. Will he be afforded enough playing time in 2024 to make adjustments and show he can hold his own against fastballs? It’s impossible to know at this point, but he will have to work on his bat speed/power in the offseason and show some results in spring training in order to have a leg up for at-bats.