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Mauricio Cabrera hasn’t lived up to his potential

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You’d think Cabrera, with his 100-mph heat, would be a strikeout artist. You’d be wrong, however, and that’s why his outlook isn’t great.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

We’re still figuring out what to do with all the data that Statcast is producing, and what it all means, but one of the first applications is pretty intuitive: effective velocity. The idea is that the closer to home a pitcher releases the ball — usually because of a frame that can get good extension, but sometimes for other reasons — the faster the pitch “effectively” is, because the batter has less time to react.

If we head over to Baseball Savant, we can see all the pitchers who threw a pitch with an effective velocity over 100mph in 2016. Unsurprisingly, Aroldis Chapman heads the list, with 62 percent of his pitches qualifying, but his velocity (and general excellence) is a known quantity. Behind him is Noah Syndergaard, with a 16 percent figure that is lower but still absolutely stunning, given that he’s a starting pitcher. Then, between the two of them, there’s one other pitcher. It’s not Carter Capps, but only because Capps was injured for all of 2016; he sat at 57 percent in 2015. No, it’s Mauricio Cabrera, with 39 percent of his pitches hitting effective triple-digits in 2016.

Now is an appropriate time to ask: who is Mauricio Cabrera? He’s a 23-year-old righthanded giant — 6’3”, 245lbs — who, on the surface, had a fairly impressive debut in 2016, throwing 38 13 innings with a 2.82 ERA. But there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about his potential to follow that up in 2017 and beyond. His peripherals weren’t great; a 7.5 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9 are pedestrian at best, and his success was mostly the result of the zero home runs he gave up. (Even in his 33 23 innings at AA!)

The problem is that, while Cabrera has legitimate triple-digit heat, he doesn’t have too much else. At FanGraphs, Eric Longenhagen gave his fastball an 80 (the highest possible ranking), but gave him a 40 (below average) for command and potential 50s (average) for his slider and changeup, and described him as “lack[ing] a true out pitch.”

The result is a heater that isn’t doing too much for Cabrera despite its heady velocity. Per Brooks Baseball, the pitch had a 12.5 percent whiff rate; for comparison, Chapman ran a 18.0 percent whiff rate on his fastball, and in 2015, Carter Capps had a 17.8 percent whiff rate. If we keep those two pitchers as comps, there’s a clear difference in the way the two of them use their fastballs and the way Cabrera does:

Both Chapman and Capps elevate their heaters, attacking the top of the zone and generating swings-and-misses. Cabrera does go high sometimes, but stays low much more often, which means his fastball yields more contact. That might not be the best approach for a hard-thrower; when a batter makes contact with a 100-mph pitch, it tends to go a long way. And the data backs that up, to an extent — Cabrera’s average exit velocity allowed of 91.8 mph ranked 26th among the 517 pitchers with at least 50 pitches in 2016.

But there’s some indication that Cabrera’s different approach might not be without merit. While elevated heat is very much in vogue around baseball right now, the game is one of constant adjustments, which means if enough other flamethrowers stick to the top of the zone, there’s an incentive to zig where they zag and move toward the bottom. Cabrera’s 49.1 percent groundball rate isn’t Britton-esque, but it’s above-average.

It’s possible, therefore, that Capps and Chapman are the wrong sort of comp for Cabrera. He’s pitching less like a flamethrowing strikeout artist, and more like a contact manager, an approach that makes some sense given his lack of quality secondary stuff and precise command. (A slip of a few inches at the bottom of the zone yields a ball; a slip of a few inches at the top of the zone yields a juicy, middle-middle fastball.)

But there’s a reason we don’t see many contact managers with 100-mph heat. It also requires precise command, and slips tend to be pretty costly when you’re throwing as hard as Cabrera does.

In 2016, Cabrera found a way to make his poor peripherals work. There’s no guarantee that they’ll stay poor — he clearly has gobs of raw talent, and it’s possible something will simply click at any moment — but throughout his time in the minors, he ran high walk rates without the strikeout rates to justify them, so it’s not as if this is unprecedented. And his method in 2016 relied on the kind of felicitous outcomes on batted balls that can’t really support a career.

Cabrera, like one of his peers atop the velocity leaderboards, has a fastball that flies incredibly fast, and also incredibly straight. He’ll need more than that if he wants to succeed in the majors.