So far (hopefully it's over)
34.1 IP, 40 H, 28 BB, 32 R, 19 ER, 13 K
The key numbers I want to look at are the third one (obviously), the fifth one (a massive indictment on the defense as well. Five of the runs in Monday's outing were unearned because of one error, but it's just disgusting to think that a pitcher could allow thirteen unearned runs in 34 innings), and the final one.
We'll work backwards, and start with the complete lack of strikeouts. They were what made him a sexy fantasy pick for a couple of years in Baltimore, despite the fact that he's never been known to attack the zone much. At the time, his fastball topped off in the high 90s and usually stuck between 94 and 96 when he wasn't reaching back for something extra. I'm sure that I'm not the only Nats fan that's seeing Cabrera's fastball top off around 92, while seeing the radar gun pop in the 88-90 range more often than not. Without watching his starts (past and present) a little more closely, I couldn't say if/what the mechanical differences are, though I'm far from certain that mechanics are the only things affecting his major dropoff in velocity. There are countless things that could be wrong here.
- It could be an arm injury that he's been disguising the past couple of years.
- It could be that he's tried so hard to work on his command that he's simply lost the ability to propel a ball quite as hard as he once did.
- He could have to change his arm slot.
- Finally, there's that old tried and true possibility of the past few years. Cabrera started to lose velocity on his fastball (subsequently watching his strikeout rate drop off significantly) within a year of when performance enhancing drug testing went league-wide. (I'm not speculating... just sayin')
Whatever the reason is for Cabrera's dropoff in velocity, the fact of the matter is that it's happenned. While the dropoff in velocity will obviously have an effect on his strikeout totals, it will also affect his batting average against. In Cabrera's first three seasons, when the velocity was all there, he maintained batting averages against of .259 (2004), .235 (2005), and .241 (2006). As his velocity started to go, Cabrera watched his BAA balloon to .265 in 2007 and .286 last season. It was .269 entering play tonight, when he allowed 8 hits in 4.2 innings.
His strikeout rate has taken a similar turn, in recent years. It went up in each of his first three seasons (his rookie showing was poor, but was followed by 8.8 K:9 in 2005 and 9.5 in 2006). He lost 2.2 K:9 in 2007, dropping from 9.5 the previous season to 7.3. That was followed by an attrocious (seriously... lower than 46-year-old finesse lefty Jamie Moyer's) 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2008. Following Monday's outing, Cabrera's strikeout rate in 2009 is 3.4.
As if the much maligned defense needs any more of a kick in the butt, Cabrera has allowed thirteen unearned runs in six starts. Seriously... that's more than two unearned runs per start. As this post is about Cabrera (not the defense), I'm not going to harp on this any more than to say that the continued lack of fundamentals are clearly showing up in the box scores.
Moving along, we'll take a look at the biggest issue. It's one that has drastically affected not only Cabrera, but the entire bullpen (you can throw Scott Olsen under the bus here as well if you'd like). He's either incapable of throwing strikes, or he lacks the confidence to do so consistently.
Cabrera has always operated with high walk totals, going back beyond his Baltimore days to his time in the minors. Cabrera's lifetime BB:9 rate in the minor leagues was 5.19. In Baltimore, his BB:9 rate was 5.11 from 2004-2008. With the Nationals so far this season, he's walked 7.35 batters per nine innings.
The fact that Cabrera had one huge strength early in his career was worth taking a gamble on. I don't begrudge the signing at all, as (by baseball contract standards) it was a fairly minimal investment by the team. They took him on as a low-to-medium risk, high reward option. The simple fact of the matter at this point, though, is that you've given him 20% of the season to show why you had the faith to take the chance on him. There's not a single area (the velocity's not back... his walk rate's even worse than it was in Baltimore.... he hasn't come up with another pitch to help him keep hitters off balance, etc.) that he was worth that minimal risk. In fact, he's actually regressed across the board.
Once you've seen that the risk isn't going to pan out, it's time to cut your losses. At this point, he's on a contract that's edible enough so that he's doing nothing but blocking guys who could play a part in this team's future that are ready. It's time for Balester... or Stammen... or Clippard... or anyone who actually figures to have a future with the organization to take his place.