Cabrera and Votto: Two Passing Ships?

Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto — they’re both cinch future Hall of Famers, as close approximations as any among current major leaguers to the ideal all-around hitter. They have consistently made hard contact to all fields, hit for average and power, and not conceded many free outs to opposing pitchers. And obviously, they’ve done it without any contribution from their legs; it’s been all bat.

Well, here we are, the two are aged 34 and 33, respectively, and the older player has seemingly gone off the rails while Votto appears to have discovered the fountain of youth. What’s the real story? Let’s dig into some granular batted-ball data to get a better feel for their current true-talent levels.

The two tables below show both players’ plate-appearance-frequency and batted ball-quality-data through Tuesday night’s games:

Plate Appearance Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Cabrera 0.7% 31.0% 27.9% 40.3% 20.6% 11.0%
Votto 0.3% 39.5% 20.9% 39.3% 11.6% 18.7%

Contact Quality/Overall Performance Data
Cabrera 93 79-160 66-115 73-73 152 96 147
Votto 139 157-133 78-88 81-92 134 166 185

The first table lists each player’s K and BB rates, as well as the breakdown of all of their BIP by category type. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations higher than league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The second table includes each player’s Unadjusted Contact Score. This represents, on a scale where 100 equals league average, the actual production level recorded by each player on balls in play. Basically, it’s their actual performance with the Ks and BBs removed. Their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category are then listed. Adjusted Contact Score represents the production level that each player “should have” recorded if every batted ball resulted in league-average production for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket.” Players assessed an extreme grounder-pulling penalty are be in red font.

Finally, overall Adjusted Contact Score, actual wRC+ and Projected Production are listed. Projected Production adds back the Ks and BBs to the Adjusted Contact Score data to give a better measure of each player’s true performance level.

Let’s first look at the frequency data. Both, in slightly different ways, retain some truly elite characteristics. Neither player pops ups with any frequency; that’s pretty rare for power hitters. It’s especially notable in Votto’s case. He once possessed an extreme fly-ball tendency, though his fly-ball rate slipped into the average range in 2016 before this year’s upward spike. Cabrera’s fly-ball rate has historically tended to be well above average; not so this season, as it’s almost one-half standard deviation below league average.

Cabrera’s 2017 liner rate is off-the-charts high, and that’s a surprise only because of his paltry overall numbers. His liner rate hasn’t placed below the 64th percentile among MLB regulars going back to 2008, and it has quite often been in the 90s. Votto’s liner rate is actually surprisingly low; since 2008, his liner rate hasn’t placed below the 78th percentile, though it almost certainly will this year.

A quick, vital reminder about liner rates: they tend to be much more volatile than pop-up, fly-ball, or grounder rates. There are, however, a select few hitters who have a true knack for squaring up the baseball. These two clearly have consistently been among that select group.

There have been some key developments with these two players’ K and BB rates this season. From 2010 to -13 and in 2015, Cabrera’s K rate was over one-half STD lower than the average regular. This year, it’s actually in the upper end of the average range.

Votto’s BB rate has been “red” — over two STD higher than league average — every season since 2011. While his K rate has always been solid for a power hitter, it has actually been in the league-average range every season going back to 2008. Until this year, that is. Seemingly out of nowhere, his K rate has plummeted to a level usually reserved for mere slap hitters. When you put the ball in play as often as Votto does, you have a heck of a lot of margin for error with regard to contact authority. Speaking of authority, let’s turn our attention to the second table above.

Amazingly, Cabrera grades out as a slightly below-average offensive performer thus far in 2017. What do the batted-ball numbers tell us, though? A far different story.

Bad luck is certainly part of the equation. Cabrera has recorded just a .291 AVG and .802 SLG (79 Unadjusted Contact Score) on fly balls this season. Adjusted for exit speed/launch angle, he “should be” hitting .387 AVG-1.195 SLG (160 Adjusted Contact Score). On liners, he’s batting just .553 AVG-.682 SLG (66 Unadjusted Contact Score) but “should be” hitting .683 AVG-.981 SLG (115).

Now, Cabrera is certainly getting something worse than league-average contribution from his legs when it comes to taking extra bases; a small portion of the shortfall can be explained by that. The much larger reasons are random chance and his spacious home park. Comerica Park has the lowest exit-speed-adjusted fly-ball park factor in the game at 64.6 (on a scale where 100 equals average), and the No. 29 overall park factor (86.8) as of the All-Star break.

There’s another issue to address with regard to his performance on ground balls. After many years of spraying his grounders hard to all fields, he has become an excessive puller this season. He can now be overshifted in the infield with some confidence. This caps his projected production at its actual .190 AVG-.210 SLG (73 Unadjusted Contact Score) level.

Put it all together, and the grounders are just a small blip; Cabrera’s Adjusted Contact Score of 152 dwarfs his unadjusted mark. Add the K and BB back, and he “should be” slashing .295/.373/.552, much more in line with his career norms.

Now, it’s clear that Cabrera’s health issues are ongoing, and perhaps intensifying. It’s had an impact on his batted-ball authority trends. Last year, his average fly-ball velocity was 94.9 mph (92.9 mph in 2017) and his Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was 245 (160 in 2017). That, coupled with the decline in the number of fly balls he’s hitting, has sapped his power.

It’s more than just Comerica or decreases in fly-ball frequency and authority that’s hurt Cabrera. He’s also been hurt by an inability or unwillingness to pull the ball in the air. He’s hit exactly three homers on the road thus far this season. Frequent readers might recall my usage of the term “harvesting”. That’s what I call it when hitters, late in their career, begin focusing on pulling and elevating. They often derive short-term benefits from such an approach. (I often use late-career Raul Ibanez as an example.) Then pitchers find the new holes in the player’s swing and hasten his ultimate decline.

Cabrera’s been the perfect hitter for so long, but some harvesting is overdue. He’s got it backwards right now; he’s pulling too much on the ground and not enough in the air. Reversing the first trend will help his average; the second will help his average and power production. He’s good enough to spray his grounders around again, but he’ll need to be good and healthy to pull the flies.

Right now, unfortunately, Cabrera is a prisoner of his contract and his home park. He’s untradeable, so will need to come up with an approach that works in canyon-esque Comerica. As an aside, it’s truly amazing that the Tigers never got around either to building a club to their park or adjusting the park to conform to the team’s strengths. Power hitters with a middle-of-the-field approach, outfielders with below-average defensive ability: those are just two of the reasons the club’s current iteration never got to hoist the trophy during its competitive run.

Back to Votto. He toils in Great American Park, the No. 2 fly-ball (145.7 park factor) and overall (115.4) offense-inflating stadium according to my exit-speed-adjusted method. His actual fly-ball production (157 Unadjusted Contact Score) far exceeds Cabrera’s. Adjusted for context, though, his 133 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score is lower.

Votto makes up for the fly-ball authority shortfall (and then some) with pure volume. When you piece together a fly-ball rate over one full STD above league average with above-average fly-ball authority plus some serious park effects, you get Votto’s huge power campaign. Plus, Votto isn’t shy to turn and fire and pull the ball for distance when appropriate. His homer spray chart is generous to all fields, but pitchers really don’t want to mess with a typical lefty’s nitro zone down and in to Votto.

You want to talk “harvesting,” this is your guy. He has totally sold out his liner and grounder authority, focusing on more of an uppercut swing to hit the baseball for distance. Very few hitters hit the ball harder as the launch angle increases; however, Votto’s average fly-ball velocity (92.3 mph) exceeds his average liner velocity (90.1 mph), which exceeds his average grounder velocity (79.4 mph). The vast majority of hitters hit their liners hardest of all. Most of the players with such a profile are nearing the end of their productive phase.

Votto’s average overall velocity of 87.3 mph isn’t eye-catching at all; from 2008 to -13, his overall average was over a full STD above league average, but by last season it had settled into the average range. His liner rate has plunged this year. He has simply been no longer content to be the perfect hitter and instead focus on dropping more homers over the short pull-side porch. Hank Aaron, 1971, all over again.

So, Cabrera’s Adjusted Contact Score of 152 actually exceeds Votto’s 134. The latter’s average fly-ball velocity is lower and is down from 93.3 mph in 2016 to 92.3 mph this year. Ditto his liner authority, down from 92.7 mph in 2016 to 90.1 mph in 2017. One guy is hitting the ball to the big part of the field too often, while the other is successfully selectively pulling in the air and keeping them honest on the ground. Cabrera hits his grounders much harder, but his Adjusted Grounder Contact Score is lower (92 to 73) because of excessive pulling.

Lots of hitters achieve short-term benefits by doing something akin to Votto. Those hitters don’t have the ability to record a 0.3% pop-up rate alongside a 39.5% fly-ball rate or suddenly shear 40% off of their strikeout rate. Kudos to Votto, who understood the career phase he was entering and made adjustments to maximize his production. He’ll make this last longer than the typical hitter as a result. And don’t count out Cabrera, who has some real issues to address but retains the advanced hitting ability to still put up some stellar numbers should he be successful in doing so.

See you all in a couple weeks. Getting away for a brief vacation with la famiglia.

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6 years ago

I’m having trouble trusting Comerica Park’s exit velocities this year. Seems like they are all high, inflating how good Cabrera should be.

6 years ago
Reply to  Meir-w

There have been many rumors that the exit velocity gun there is juiced.

J.D. Martinmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Meir-w

Seems like Tony has adjusted for those tendencies based on these lines?

“Comerica Park has the lowest exit-speed-adjusted fly-ball park factor in the game at 64.6 (on a scale where 100 equals average), and the No. 29 overall park factor (86.8) as of the All-Star break.”

” He toils in Great American Park, the No. 2 fly-ball (145.7 park factor) and overall (115.4) offense-inflating stadium according to my exit-speed-adjusted method.”

6 years ago
Reply to  Meir-w

Tigers at home: 13.1% soft 41.3% med 45.1% (!!!) hard
road: 17.4% soft 48.1% med 34.5% hard

Like, there are home/road splits, but I find it hard to believe the tigers get that much worse on the road in a way nobody else in baseball does.

As a collective, the Tigers hit the ball like Bellinger at home and Max Kepler on the road… there’s gotta be something wrong there

Also, using the splits leaderboard, 7 of the top 15 in hard hit% at home were Tigers to start the year. Unless you want to tell me that Mikie Mahtook is a better home batter than Charlie Blackmon, I think something’s up there

Captain Tenneal
6 years ago
Reply to  Hugh

Hard hit% is from BIS, and is not based on exit velocity.

A N0n
6 years ago
Reply to  Meir-w

Great American Ball Park’s exit velocity readings also seem to be on the opposite of the spectrum. Reds hitters have been among the lowest in terms of exit velocity since statcast was introduced.

6 years ago
Reply to  A N0n

It seems kind of silly that they can’t somehow tune all their guns the same. How hard is it to calibrate one of these things correctly?