Edward Cabrera‘s highly anticipated debut came this past season, with the touted prospect throwing the first twenty-six and a third innings of his Major League career. That came over seven games started; Cabrera only threw more than four innings in one start. As the soon-to-be twenty four year old looks to make improvements heading into next season, going deeper in games will certainly be high on the wish list. How can Cabrera accomplish that goal?
I went through Cabrera’s first seven Major League starts to try and find an answer. My conclusion: Edward Cabrera is going to be a very good Major League pitcher. The fastball, athleticism, movement, breaking balls… there is too much here to not result in an impressive big leaguer. However, it was not long ago when Cabrera was considered to be a likely relief pitcher. The development of his slider and changeup as he matured resulted in this becoming a starter’s profile, but command remains the biggest area for improvement before Cabrera can take that next step.
It is important to keep in mind that Edward Cabrera has a unique repertoire. His 2021 pitch mix was fairly evenly distributed among four pitches:
|Pitch Type||% of Pitches Thrown||Average Velocity (mph)|
Throwing such a low percentage of fastballs is not unheard of, but is unusual, especially for a pitcher so young. One of the first thing scouts are looking for is velocity; Cabrera having a fastball that sits 95-97 and can touch triple digits gained him a lot of notice. Velocity is not everything though, as Cabrera struggled with his ability to command the pitch in his MLB starts. I think this may in part be due to Cabrera trying to make the fastball something that it is not.
For instance, Cabrera’s pitch has a lot of “tail” on it. The fastball has more of a 2-seam look to it at times, because it is sinking so much and has horizontal movement. Cabrera is massive, at 6’5, and the ball is coming in on a downhill plane. That fastball movement pairs very well with operating low in the zone, getting ground balls, and working with an effective changeup and slider. But, Cabrera does not use the pitch in that way. Instead, he tried to throw it up in the zone often to change the eye levels of hitters. That can be an acceptable strategy, but the movement of the pitch would be much more appropriately located with the goal of getting ground balls in mind. It is not enough of a swing-and-miss generating pitch to be used up in the zone.
Commanding this pitch is easier said than done. Cabrera had several starts where he had to take something off of the fastball (sitting more around 94-95) in order to get it over the plate. That is less than ideal, so Cabrera needs to make sure he can throw the pitch at it’s usual velocity for a strike when he needs it.
In his September 7th start at home against the Mets, Cabrera made the mistake of throwing consecutive fastballs at the top of the zone to Pete Alonso. The first one got by, but the second sunk right into the bat path of the powerful Alonso. That sinking fastball is going to look attractive to hitters with high launch angles like Alonso, especially if it is thrown up in the strike zone. That is running right into the bat path of these powerful sluggers, as Cabrera learned to his detriment.
Moreover, Cabrera’s secondary pitches profile better for a groundball pitcher. He does not possess a big, 12-6 curve like many pitchers who throw up in the zone consistently do. Those pitches pair well together, for a variety of reasons including tunneling, and make it difficult on the hitter. Think of Justin Verlander or Walker Buehler as these styles of pitchers. They have the type of fastballs that hitters often describe as “rising” (even though this is not actually the case).
The curveball is the pitch in Cabrera’s repertoire that has the most vertical break, but it is still not a traditional 12-6 breaker. Instead, it is a slightly slower, more vertical version of the slider. Many scouts did not differentiate between the two pitches because of the similar shape to the pitches. But, Cabrera did use the pitches a bit differently in his 2021 starts. He liked to use the curveball as a “get-me-over” strike in 0-0 counts, and for the most part it worked well to surprise hitters.
Cabrera not working in a traditional way was effective in this regard. In his second start, against the Mets, he managed to induce two double play balls off of the curveball because he was not afraid to throw off speed pitches in non-traditional counts. It led to some timing issues for hitters, which became awkward swings and weak contact. In this regard, Cabrera was quite successful in using his curveball. It had the highest pitch value of any of his four offerings in 2021, in part because hitters were so rarely expecting it. Also, Cabrera was able to control the pitch better than any of his other offerings. It was the only off-speed pitch that was actually in the strike zone for the majority of it’s offerings from Cabrera.
The slider was the pitch that had scouts most excited about Cabrera entering last season, with both Fangraphs and MLB Pipeline rating it as his best off speed pitch. However, there may have been some disagreement with classifying his curveball versus the slider. In his Major League cup of coffee, the curveball was Cabrera’s better pitch because he threw it in unexpected counts and was more consistently able to get it over the plate. Still, the slider was easily the pitch that Cabrera was able to command best, other than the curveball.
He was often able to get it in on left handers, for a sort of backfoot slider. In his September 18th start against the Pirates, Cabrera effectively located the slider twice in the first inning for swinging strikeouts. It was his best put-away pitch in many scenarios, and resulted in the highest swinging strike percentage of any of his four offerings. This pitch can work so well when paired correctly with the fastball, because it is thrown at a high velocity still while completely breaking in the opposite direction of the tailing fastball. Both pitches work well in the bottom of the zone.
Where Cabrera got into trouble with the slider was leaving it in bad locations. Because the pitch is thrown at a high velocity, it can get hit hard if it is left over the plate. This was the case in a few situations where Cabrera was trying to use the pitch as a backdoor slider against lefthanders, but it ended up flat and over the plate.
The pitch that Cabrera struggled with the most in 2021 was the changeup. Yet, this still has the potential to be a plus pitch because of the spin and movement on it. Frankly, it should not be an easy pitch to hit. When located well, it is a downward moving, spiraling pitch that results in some ugly hacks. It is only a few ticks slower than the fastball, which is not typical, so it is not working in the way changeups traditionally do. As a result, Cabrera is not afraid to throw it to right handed hitters. Traditionally, changeups were taught mostly as a weapon against opposite-handed batters.
The way Cabrera chose to throw it resulted in a lot of problems. This may be due to mechanical issues that Cabrera and the Marlins coaching staff needs to work through, but Cabrera was often trying to locate the pitch low in the zone and it ended up hanging over the heart of the plate. In his first two big league starts, Cabrera gave up three home runs, all of which came on changeups. He was trying to use it as his out pitch, but it ended up catching too much of the plate.
At other times, Cabrera was not able to get the pitch close enough to the plate. Finding this balance will be imperative in 2022; Cabrera needs the pitch to be competitive enough to entice hitters to chase, while also not catching too much of the zone. Only 44% of his changeups actually ended up in the strike zone. When hitters know that the pitch will often be a ball, they can hone in and look at it only in an ideal location. This led to some trouble for Cabrera with the long ball. This make sense; as a slightly slower version of his fastball, it will be hit hard if it is left right over the plate.
Cabrera clearly has a lot of trust in his off-speed pitches, as evidenced by how often he throws them. But, the sinking changeup and the devastating slider work better when paired with that tailing fastball at the bottom of the zone. Those are all pitches that work best low in the zone, so it makes sense to throw them off of each other. The classic “sinker-slider-changeup” type of pitcher does not describe Cabrera perfectly, as his fastball is still a 4-seamer that can be used up in the zone. However, because of it’s typically tailing movement, Cabrera may be better off adjusting his own approach and trying to throw it lower in the zone to work more effectively with his other pitches.
In Cabrera’s final start of the season, in New York against the Mets, he made one notable change that could be a sign of things to come in 2022. He threw fastballs for over 50% of his pitches in that start, which was the first MLB start in which Cabrera had done that. Commanding that pitch is not easy for Cabrera; he walked several batters, and threw five consecutive fastballs out of the zone at one point. However, I think that it is a good sign in that he is trying to build his pitches off of one another. His breaking pitches will be much more effective against MLB hitters when they have to keep the 97 mph fastball at the top of their mind.
Ultimately, it may not be the sexy approach, but I think it will lead to Cabrera having the most success in the Major Leagues. Embracing the strengths of his current arsenal will make Cabrera a ground ball pitcher with the ability to still get swings and misses with his breaking balls. This will all have to start with Cabrera gaining a better feel for when to throw his pitches, and not having quite as even of a distribution among the four pitches.
Of course, as previously noted, the best thing that Cabrera can do for himself in 2022 is improve his command. That could include his control, as his BB% of 15.8 was far higher than any Major League pitcher will be able to have success with. In a limited sample size, that should not be too much to worry about. Many pitchers struggle throwing strikes early in their Major League careers, as they adjust to nerves, mechanical aspects, and throwing against the world’s best hitters. But, if Cabrera can just gain a bit more confidence in getting his fastball over the plate, he will find that hitters will have a much harder time laying off his filthy secondary pitches.