If the New York Mets finish the 2016 season as world champions, they’ll have done it with a drastically different approach than the one with which they began the year. See, the Mets are something like a bat-first team now. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and now Steven Matz won’t pitch again until 2017, and while they’ve still got Noah Syndergaard and a suddenly impressive bullpen, it’s the offense that’s really carried their second-half resurgence. Since the All-Star break, the Mets have baseball’s seventh-best wRC+, among non-pitchers. Over the last month, they’ve had baseball’s third-best offense by that same measure.
And so, barring some unforeseen heroics from the likes of Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, it seems that the World Series aspirations in New York that began with the starting rotation now fall heavily on the starting lineup. If the Mets want to win this thing, they might have to slug their way there, the way Daniel Murphy nearly did for them last postseason. The Mets probably don’t love the fact that they opted not to go the extra year on Murphy in free agency and saw him not only go to a division rival in Washington, but go on to build off last postseason’s success and become potentially the best hitter in the National League. But even though the super-charged Murphy will now play for the Nationals in the postseason, the Mets suddenly have a super-charged middle infielder of their own in Asdrubal Cabrera.
While guys like Curtis Granderson and, somehow, “T.J. Rivera” have been huge at the plate for the Mets lately, nobody’s been bigger than Cabrera. After returning from the 15-day disabled list following a knee injury in August, Cabrera’s slashed .366/.427/.687 over a not totally tiny 150 plate appearances, running a Brian Dozier-like (that’s a compliment now) .321 isolated slugging percentage and a 197 wRC+. Few hitters in baseball have been better over the last month. Few have been better over the entire second half. And Cabrera, himself, is on a run like none other in his career:
Cabrera has reached a new height, and when players reach new heights, it’s reason to wonder if anything’s fundamentally changed. Beyond the platinum-blonde hair, that is.
With Murphy on our minds, and Kevin Long still the Mets’ hitting coach, I was curious if we could find any shades of Murphy in this current Cabrera breakout. As the Murphy story goes, he turned his already-elite contact skills into plus power by focusing on getting the ball in the air to the pull field. And the change happened in two chunks: from 2014 to 2015, Murphy increased his pull rate from 34% to 41%, but the ground-ball rate stayed the same. This year, the loft came, as his ground-ball rate dropped from 43% to 36%. Murphy is now the fully realized version of the hitter he wanted to become.
How about Cabrera? Well, this year, the pull rate’s gone from 48% to 52% — and, during his insane hot stretch since coming off the DL, 54%. And while his overall season ground-ball rate appears unchanged from last year, his pre- and post-DL figures tell a different story.
Asdrubal Cabrera, ground-ball rate, before and after DL stint
- Before DL: 40.1%
- After DL: 31.3%
Since coming off the disabled list, Cabrera’s gotten a significantly higher percentage of his batted balls in the air, while pulling them at a career-high rate. That 69% rate of air balls Cabrera has carried over the last month-plus would rank among the highest in baseball over a full season. The 54% pull rate would, too. In other words, this most recent version we’ve seen of Cabrera, the one with the 197 wRC+, has displayed what would be the most extreme combination of pulled air balls of any batter in baseball. It’s not just that Cabrera is pulling more balls in the air, as so many hitters we’ve written about this year have done. It’s the extent to which he’s doing it.
Those words, represented visually:
How about Murphy’s swing change? The results were pretty, but how did he get there? It’s always more complicated than a screenshot or two, but maybe he most simple way to go about understanding what Murphy changed can be found in this tweet by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello:
Guess it’s time to update the “is Dan Murphy still crouched and standing closer to plate for power, oh, yes” tracker pic.twitter.com/jeQqgCg5qg
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) April 4, 2016
And then Cabrera, you might wonder?
I didn’t include the pre-pitch stance, because Cabrera honestly hasn’t changed much there. There isn’t an exaggerated crouch, from what I could tell. The hands aren’t significantly lower, from what I could tell. But it’s clear that Cabrera has moved considerably closer to home plate — a significant part of the Murphy adjustment — it’s clear that he’s pulling more fly balls than ever, and it’s clear that he’s suddenly hitting a bunch of dingers like these:
One other little nugget linking the Murphy adjustments to the apparent Cabrera adjustments: the Mets last year got Murphy to become more aggressive early in the count, to take better advantage of his newfound power by not letting hittable pitches go by and get him behind in the count. Cabrera, pre-DL, swung at 30% of first pitches, per BaseballSavant. Since the DL, that figure is up to 38%.
It’s probably too early to truly buy into Asdrubal Cabrera as the new Daniel Murphy, because, while Murphy has only gotten better since last season’s second-half surge, for every example of a late season breakout that carries over into the following year, there’s just as many who go back to being themselves. And even the immediate future is a bit murky, because while Cabrera’s hot streak may neatly coincide with a return from the disabled list, he’s still far from healthy, and that bad knee of his might almost feel like a ticking time bomb for an already-injury riddled Mets club the rest of the season.
But for now, the Mets have an 99% chance of making the postseason, and a huge part of the reason they’ve gotten there since being down to 6.7% on August 19 is Asdrubal Cabrera, whose play as of late has made New Yorkers forget that their former second baseman and playoff hero will be on everyone’s MVP ballot in a couple weeks. Like the old saying goes, if you can’t re-sign ’em, clone ’em. Or something like that.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.