Versatility is something that oftentimes gets overlooked in baseball. Injuries are a constant, and when injuries happen it’s extremely important to have good depth to cover for that. The Yankees didn’t have a proper UTL player they could trust to start for stretches of time in case of injury, that was until the emergence of the 23 year old phenom Oswaldo Cabrera.
An excellent infielder with a rocket arm when playing the outfield, he’s arguably the best defender on the team outside of Jose Trevino. This isn’t even mentioning his switch-hitting capabilities and HR power, with a flare for the dramatic with his expressive personality on the field. On top of not getting much credit for being genuinely a phenomenal player last season, Cabrera isn’t given enough hype for what should be a breakout campaign for the Venezuelan star in 2023.
A Swing Built For Yankee Stadium
Oswaldo Cabrera is a pulled flyball machine, generating lots of loft on his swings. This leads to a lot of HR power in the Bronx, especially from the left-hand side. Despite the fact that Cabrera didn’t hit his 1st HR until his 23rd game in the big leagues, he still managed to hit 6 in 44 games which would have given him 20 over 150. It seemed as if Oswaldo Cabrera was going out of his way to try to pull more of his flyballs while hitting left-handed, and it resulted in more power and better production.
Pulled flyballs are the best variant of the three (pulled, straightaway, opposite field), with the highest average distance, highest SLG%, and highest wOBA in 2022 per Statcast. Typically, when a player attempts to pull the ball more, they add on more strikeouts and fewer walks due to increased chase and whiff rate. You’re committing to a swing decision earlier, thus less time to fully recognize a pitch, but Cabrera had the opposite occur when he began generating pull-side power.
- First 22 Games:
- 42.7% O-Swing%
- 14.9% Swinging Strike%
- 0.19 BB/K
- 28.8% Hard Hit%
- Final 22 Games:
- 30.7% O-Swing%
- 12.0% Swinging Strike%
- 0.48 BB/K
- 41.5% Hard Hit%
An improving BB/K rate and improving plate discipline are traits that show signs of growth for the youngster, and he found his power stroke at the same time. He clubbed all 6 of his HRs in those final 22 games, with a 180 wRC+ and whopping .600 SLG%. Hitting the longball is something Cabrera has excelled in since 2021, with 38 HRs in 170 MiLB games. The short porch in RF should give him some strong HR totals in 2023 even though his Max EV numbers weren’t that impressive (107.5 MPH Max EV).
Last season Cabrera posted a 111 wRC+ despite his initial struggles, but what he did consistently well all season was play gold-glove defense.
One of the Best Defensive Players in Baseball
Oswaldo Cabrera’s defensive resume is truly remarkable, playing all positions outside of catcher and center field in 2022. Per Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera graded out as an above average defender at these positions:
- 2B (+1)
- 3B (+1)
- SS (+2)
- RF (+9)
He only played 13.1 innings at 1B, and in LF he graded out as an average defender, but to be a good option at 4 different positions and serviceable at 2 more is truly unique considering Cabrera’s also a good hitter. He’s got a rocket arm that allows him to make throws other position players just can’t as he averages a whopping 92.1 MPH on throws from RF (90th Percentile), and it makes him a weapon in the outfield.
His arm’s so good that he can make throws deep in the hole, playing from the 15th deepest fielding position amongst all shortstops. Playing back more means you can get to more baseballs due to extended range, and it’s something we’ve seen him do successfully already.
Cabrera is only initially able to get to this ball because he’s playing back, but not only does he get to the ball, but with his body going away from 1B he’s able to generate enough force to throw on target to Anthony Rizzo and get Alejandro Kirk at 1st. There’s no way for us to know if Kirk would have scored if he reached, but the Run Expectancy of a runner on 1st with no one out is 0.86 versus the 0.29 Run Expectancy for 1 out and no one on. That’s a massive swing in the Yankees’ favor, and it’s due to Cabrera’s great arm (and Rizzo’s strong scoop to complete the play).
Strong defense will go a long way for any player’s total value, and Cabrera not only is a strong defender, but he’s one who can play almost anywhere and do so at a pretty high level.
What Does Oswaldo Cabrera Need to Improve Upon in 2023?
Oswaldo Cabrera was a 1.5 WAR player per FanGraphs last season in 44 games, giving him a 5.1 WAR/150 pace. It’s not realistic to expect that he continues to be on pace to put up historically-great defensive metrics. At some point that’s going to regress from elite to good, and the bat and baserunning value will have to fill in the void of that defensive value being lost. Cabrera posted a modest 0.4 BsR last season, good for a 1.4 BsR/150, which is a tad above league average. We’ve seen Cabrera run wild in the lower levels of Minor League Baseball, and with bigger bases at the Major League level, we could see him be a ~15 SB threat.
Cabrera swiped 16 bases in 96 games across the MiLB and MLB levels in 2022, though he did so at a 72.7% success rate, which is a tick below the range of 75-80% you want baserunners to steal at. He doesn’t have to really increase the volume of bases he steals, rather the efficiency should be what goes up. If he attempts 20 stolen bases and converts 80% of them, he’ll steal 16 bases next year and have a much improved BsR. A slight bump to his baserunning value could be a huge swing for his WAR value, but the biggest key here is his bat.
Steamer projects Cabrera for a 106 wRC+ next season, but he could see a wRC+ between 110 and 120 next season if he improves his raw power. We’ve seen plenty of young players increase their Max Exit Velocities in year 2, as typically we don’t see players peak physically in year 1. Oswaldo Cabrera added muscle after the pandemic to get to a 5’10 200 pound frame, but his Max EV of 107.5 MPH was only in the 34th Percentile. For example, Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s Max EV was 109.8 MPH last season, so it’s not too hard to imagine Cabrera could generate an exit velocity on a ball or two nearing 110 MPH.
Another aspect of Cabrera’s offensive profile that needs to improve is how he handles high velocity, as he had just a .177 wOBA and 36.0% K% against pitches at or above 95 MPH. The league average wOBA was .310 with a 24.3% K%, so he needs to make that adjustment because pitch velocity is going to continue to be a point of emphasis for pitching development philosophies. It should help limit strikeouts and increase his total production, which is what can get him to sustain a wRC+ in the 110-120 range.
Oswaldo Cabrera’s Role on the 2023 Yankees
Oswaldo Cabrera is currently the starting left fielder, but I hope he’s playing off the bench in a UTL role. Now at first that sounds harsh, after all of this praise why shouldn’t he starting? Well that’s because he’s going to play a lot, just not at a set position. The Yankees could sign a Conforto/Brantley type for LF, and with their injury history he’s going to have to fill in the outfield. Harrison Bader has injury issues as well, so if they need to slide Judge over to CF for a couple of games he can fill a hole there as well in RF. What if someone in the infield is struggling or needs a day off?
These are all situations that are going to arise during the season, and Cabrera pencils himself in as the glue for the Depth Chart. Wherever you need insurance; Oswaldo Cabrera’s on it. That’s what makes him so valuable defensively, and the Yankees shouldn’t take that value away from him. At the plate, Cabrera’s switch-hitting capabilities makes him versatile, as he could hit 9th and turn the lineup over, but he could also hit 3rd in between Judge and Stanton if need be. He’s got the HR power to run into one, and who knows what strides he takes at the dish next season.
His explosive personality shines through on the field as well, providing a spark and passion not many players on the team express. That’s not due to a lack of care on their end, but it’s just not who they are. Cabrera wears his heart on his sleeve, and that’s not just entertaining, but good for the clubhouse. He’s a spark for this ballclub, and there are few UTL players who can compare to him production-wise. The Yankees have a great weapon in Oswaldo Cabrera, and 2023 is going to be a great year for him to put himself on the map on the national stage.