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Asdrubal Cabrera is making more contact

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How has he done it?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Asdrubal Cabrera has turned his season around. Just a few days ago, he broke the 100 wRC+, meaning that on the season he's been an average offensive player. That doesn't sound very impressive for someone who until this season has usually been thought of as a bat-first shortstop, but Cabrera's first half was so bad that making it back to average is a very impressive feat.

I've chosen some arbitrary endpoints for no reason other than to help understand what's happened. They may not be the best choice of endpoints, but they will work. I'm splitting the season into March through May and June through August. That gives us roughly equal samples.

PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP ISO BB% KK%
First Half 185 0.211 0.270 0.327 0.274 0.117 6.5% 24.3%
Second Half 220 0.309 0.347 0.485 0.356 0.176 5.9% 18.2%

Most of these numbers astute readers will already know not to pay attention to. Batting average on balls in play is extremely volatile and basically meaningless when considered over the span of less than half a season. Isolated power is nearly as bad, making the triple slash line nearly entirely descriptive and nothing more—that is to say that it tells us what Cabrera has done, but almost nothing about how he's doing it and where his true talent lies.

The two numbers at the end, though—walk rate and strikeout rate—are meaningful in the sample sizes we've got, and the story they tell is very interesting. While Cabrera's walk rate has fallen slightly from the first half to the second half, he's cut his strikeout rate by a full six percentage points, and that's been a big part of his improved play at the plate.

A look at the change in his approach with the FanGraphs plate discipline numbers shows that the oft-repeated narrative about the Rays offense and Asdrubal Cabrera in particular being more aggressive at the plate looks entirely true.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
First Half 32.4% 72.4% 64.2% 80.7%
Second Half 42.0% 76.2% 74.1% 89.0%

He's swinging at more pitches overall, but the biggest increase comes from swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone. It's clearly an intentional change in approach, because while he's chasing those pitches more than before, he's also hitting them when he goes to chase. His contact percentage is up both inside and outside of the zone.

I wasn't able to find any clear patterns as to specific pitch types and areas like I did when examining Kevin Kiermaier's increased strikeout rate (although I recommend Jeff Zimmerman's tools at Baseball Heat Maps if you want to look for yourself). Cabrera is more aggressive across the board without any single areas standing out, and that makes sense to me, as we're talking about a veteran who's developed his approach against major league pitching for many years now.

What does show a clear story is a comparison of run values by location from the first half to the second. Blue means that Cabrera has been less effective against pitches in that location in the second half of the season, while red means he has been more effective.

By being less selective about which pitches to swing at, Cabrera has given up some value on the edges of the strike zone, but he's taken it back by hitting those pitches that come over the heart of the plate with authority.

It's an interesting change, and one that's clearly worked for Cabrera so far, although I think it takes a certain kind of player for things to play out this way. First off, the player must have the bat control to make contact with those extra pitches he's swinging at, or the result will be more strikeouts, not fewer. Secondly, the player must be strong enough for the extra swings he gets over the heart of the plate to be worthwhile.

Neither slap hitters (who only hit singles when they swing) nor true sluggers (who have too many holes to make contact when they chase) fit the model, but Cabrera, as a shortstop with just a bit of pop is making it work.