Why Doesn’t Mauricio Cabrera Strike Out More Batters?

For many years, the undisputed king of velocity in Major League Baseball has been Aroldis Chapman, with his fastball that averages around 100 mph and regularly reaches higher. Few pitchers have even been able to approach the level of Chapman’s fastball since he came into the league, and none have surpassed him. However, in 2016, one pitcher finally did it. Mauricio Cabrera of the Atlanta Braves averaged nearly 101 mph on his fastball in 2016 and he regularly touched 103; but yet there was still a major difference between Cabrera and the incredible Chapman. Chapman struck out over 40% of the batters he faced last year, while Cabrera struck out less than 20%. Strikeouts are intuitively related to fastball velocity. The faster that a pitcher can throw the ball, the less time a batter has to react, making it harder to make contact. So how does a pitcher such as Cabrera, who throws as hard as anyone in the game, strike batters out at a well below-average rate?

I first thought that maybe his perceived velocity is not as great as his actual velocity, and sure enough Cabrera does gets very little extension toward the plate when he delivers the ball. He only extends about six feet toward the plate before he releases the ball, which is a full foot shorter than fellow reliever, Zach McAllister, and several inches shorter than average for fastball-heavy relievers. This lack of extension means that the velocity that the batter perceives is slower than the actual velocity coming out of Cabrera’s hand, because it has farther to travel before it gets to the plate. However, this is only a minor difference, as Cabrera’s perceived velocity is still above 100 mph. This is not a huge drop, but it does bring him closer to the pack, as many relievers get good extension that increases their perceived velocities above their actual velocities. Chapman, for instance, gets great extension toward the plate on his already incredible fastball, which results in his excellent perceived velocity of over 101 mph. Cabrera’s lack of extension is likely a contributing factor to his low strikeout numbers, but it does not seem to be the main culprit.

Next, I wanted to see if there was something about the spin rate on his fastball that doesn’t lend itself to strikeouts. Spin rates correlate quite strongly with strikeout rates. Pitchers with high spin rates on their fastballs typically generate more swings and misses, and thus more strikeouts. It turns out that Mauricio Cabrera does have a low spin rate on his fastball. His fastball spin rate of 2300 rpm is well below average for fastball-heavy relievers, which is probably a major reason why he doesn’t miss many bats.

While it makes intuitive sense that something like the amount of spin on his fastball could be the reason for his low strikeout totals, it is still puzzling to see that his spin rate is so low, because spin rate is typically correlated with velocity. For most pitchers, the harder you throw, the more spin you will put on the ball. Aroldis Chapman, for example, has one of the highest spin rates in the sample. In order to single out the spin rate from the velocity, I divided the spin rate by the velocity to find the Bauer Unit, named after Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer. Cabrera’s average Bauer Unit of 22.85 is one of the lowest in the entire sample of fastball-heavy relievers. This means that he has some of the lowest spin per MPH in the game. There must be something inherent in how Cabrera throws a baseball that just doesn’t allow him to generate the amount of spin that is typically commensurate of how fast he throws.

Cabrera’s low spin is not all bad, though. Just as high spin rates lead to strikeouts, low spin rates lead to ground balls. An average spin rate is really where you don’t want to be, as those are the pitches that get squared up more often. While Cabrera actually has an above-average spin rate for the entire population of major-league pitchers, his spin rate is one of the lowest in the league compared to his velocity. This effectively makes him a low-spin pitcher, and last year’s batted-ball numbers bear that out. Nearly 50% of the batted balls Cabrera gave up last season were on the ground, and he didn’t surrender a single home run all season despite giving up the hardest average exit velocity in the game last year on his fastball. Cabrera got away with that extreme exit velocity by only allowing an average launch angle of 5.9 degrees, which was one of the lowest among the fastball-heavy relievers. It is hard to do much damage on balls hit on the ground, even if they are hit 95 mph. While the myth that the harder the ball is thrown the harder the ball can be hit has largely been disproved, it is interesting to see that the pitcher who throws the hardest also gave up the highest average exit velocity.

Of course, strikeouts aren’t just about swinging strikes; you have to get called strikes as well. Throughout Cabrera’s minor-league career, he struggled to throw strikes consistently. So much so that many thought his strike-throwing ineptitude might prevent him from ever even reaching the big leagues. However, once he started pitching in the majors, he suddenly discovered how to find the strike zone. Of course, walking four and a half batters per nine innings is still poor, but that mark represented his lowest walk rate since rookie ball in 2012. Even with the high walk rate last year, he actually threw strikes at an above-average rate. His Called Strike Probability, according to Baseball Prospectus, was 47%, which is slightly above league average. For a guy like Cabrera who has always struggled with control, it is probably a good thing to see him filling up the strike zone at an above-average clip. However, the tendency to pitch within the zone could result in more contact and thus bring his strikeout numbers down. Since he doesn’t command his pitches well, he cannot nibble at the corners or trust himself to throw his pitches just off the plate to generate swings and misses. This allows hitters to either lay off pitches that are safely outside, or lock in to the pitches that are squarely in the zone. This could be another significant cause for his lack of strikeouts.

Another reason Cabrera doesn’t strike out many batters is because he doesn’t possess a bat-missing secondary offering. His secondary pitches are all used primarily to get hitters off of his fastball. He throws the hardest change-up in baseball at 91 mph, and a mid-80s slider with good depth. The change-up got squared up pretty often in 2016, which makes sense, seeing that he throws the pitch with the velocity of a league-average fastball. The slider also does not get many whiffs, but hitters were not able to do much damage off of it in 2016. Batters only slugged .136 off of his slider last season, and the pitch generated the highest rate of fly balls of any slider in the game. Perhaps what is even more significant is that hitters had an average exit velocity against his slider of 85 mph and an average launch angle of 30 degrees. For reference, hitters that hit the ball with an exit velocity of 85 mph at a 30-degree launch angle went 4 for 72. His slider may not be a swing-and-miss offering, but it sure seems to be a good out pitch for him.

It looks like Cabrera’s low spin rate on his fastball relative to its velocity is the main reason for his lack of strikeouts. However, it is also likely that that same low spin rate allows him to induce an extreme amount of ground balls, which helps him limit the damage from the opposing batter. His lack of extension toward the plate and his tendency to live in the strike zone are also contributing factors. He also doesn’t have a secondary offering that gets many swings and misses. His slider, however, does produce a great deal of pop-ups, which is another way he limits damage on his batted balls. A major reason for his success last season despite his low strikeout totals and high walk numbers was that he didn’t give up any home runs. While a complete lack of dingers is very unlikely to persist, the types of batted balls he allows on his fastball and slider make it difficult for batters to hit it deep off of him.

Cabrera walks too many batters, and while I wouldn’t be surprised to see some progression in his strikeout rate, I don’t expect him to ever strike out batters at the same rate as someone like Chapman. He should be able to persist for several years as a good late-inning reliever, but he probably will never reach the elite levels that his fastball might suggest.

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