Cabrera’s Power Stroke Driving Indians Offense

The Cleveland Indians have scored the third-most runs per game in the American League. That’s one line I never expected to type, no matter how early in the season. What’s more, they’ve already swept the Boston Red Sox, and have won their last eight games after dropping their first two. While the pitching staff has certainly done its job, the offense has stepped up big time. A number of guys are contributing in big ways, but perhaps none has advanced his team more than Asdrubal Cabrera.

When he debuted in 2007, Cabrera was barely even a blip on the Indians’ prospect radar. He came over from the Mariners a season earlier, in the trade that netted Cleveland Shin-Soo Choo. Before the 2007 season Baseball America ranked him the Indians’ No. 15 prospect, noting that he “won’t be an offensive force.” In his first four big-league seasons he pretty much proved his critics right, though he did produce a .354 wOBA in 2009. But no one expected this.

Last night, Cabrera homered for the fourth time this season. He has now eclipsed his entire 2010 total, in just about 10 percent of the plate appearances. The power streak has led to 6.2 Runs Above Replacement, or about 10 percent of his career total to date. His torrid production early on is a big reason why the Indians have gotten off to this hot start. He has hit 31% of the team’s homers, has driven in 19% of their runs, has accounted for 18.2% of their total bases, and has scored 14.3% of their runs. Unsurprisingly, he leads the team in all of those categories.

While this most certainly isn’t a sustainable output level — for anyone, really, never mind Cabrera himself — there does appear to be something different about his game. Peaks in fly-ball percentage and strikeout rate go along with his power surge. We’re still a while from seeing those number stabilize, but nevertheless they do give us a snapshot of Cabrera at this point in time. The increased strikeout rate (and increased swinging-strike rate), plus fly-ball rate, might suggest that he’s tweaked something with his swing. Maybe it’s coincidental and it won’t take; after all, we’ve seen a number of players unexpectedly go on tears, only to fall flat on their faces later in the season. But there still could be something here.

Before the 2006 season, Ben Zobrist missed the Top 10 for Baseball America’s Astros prospects list. They rated him as having the best strike-zone discipline, but he didn’t profile to have nearly enough power. As with Cabrera, Zobrist showed in his first few seasons that the scouting reports might not have been that far off. Of course, he then exploded in 2009. He didn’t open as emphatically as Cabrera, but he did have 11 extra-base hits in April. It was easy to write it off as a hot start that would even out soon enough. But throughout the season Zobrist continued to prove his worth. He’s cooled down since then, but it still appears as though he’s much better than he was given credit for early in his career.

Could we be seeing the same thing with Cabrera this year? Chances are that’s not the case, but chances were that wasn’t the case with Zobrist, either. That is, we can’t simply write off early season results just because they came early in the season. Most of the time we’ll see the overperforming player cool down and become his old self in due time. But every once in a while we get an unexpected breakout player. If Cabrera really has made chances to his swing, perhaps he’ll fall into the latter category.

At FanGraphs we deal with numbers and statistical profiles, so our scope only extends so far. At this point the more likely answer is that Cabrera is experiencing an impossibly hot start and will revert to his normal, light-hitting self before long. But there are indications that something has clicked, and that he’s approaching his at-bats differently in the past. It will take more of a scouting eye to determine whether he has made any changes, and whether these changes can lead to sustained success. For right now, we can credit Cabrera as the driving force on an overachieving 8-2 team. But keep an eye out for him as the season progresses. While he won’t slug anywhere near .659 on the season, I think there’s a chance we see improved numbers from him this year. Or, at least, I’m not willing to write off the possibility at this point.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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The Indians netted Choo and Cabrera in separate trades. If memory serves, Cleveland traded Eduardo Perez for Cabrera. It was Ben Broussard who was dealt for Choo.