The Fireballer Without The Fire
Washington Nationals right-hander Daniel Cabrera has an arm unlike almost anybody else's in baseball. There is just one complication: Cabrera is reluctant to use it.
In a misdirected attempt to solve career-long control problems, Cabrera has revamped his windup and wound up in the worst place possible. He has lost much of his velocity and retained all of his wildness. Cabrera, now four starts into the season, bears little resemblance to the fireballer who once struck out roughly a batter every inning. In 2005, Cabrera threw his fastball, on average, at 96.2 mph -- best in baseball. The decline began last year, when his average velocity fell to 92.6. This year, his average fastball is 90.4, a career-low. Used to be, Cabrera threw breaking balls that fast.
The Nationals are convinced Cabrera's problems are not injury-related. That's because, in flashes, they see Cabrera use his old wind-up -- he relied more on his lower body when starting his career with the Orioles -- and, like that, the velocity returns. In Saturday's start against Mets, Cabrera flashed that velocity during exactly one at bat.
Cabrera's 18-1/3 innings this year draw a mixed picture. He has a decent 4.42 ERA. But he's struck out just seven hitters, a rate of 3.44 per nine innings. (In 2006, that rate was 9.55, third-best among all big league pitchers with at least 140 innings.) Just as problematic, Cabrera is walking batters at the same rate as he did then.
"In my mind, I know that velocity is still there," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "But he will have to make up his mind to get back to where he was."
Since the season began, St. Claire has spoken to Cabrera. Manager Manny Acta has spoken to Cabrera. Acting general manager Mike Rizzo has spoken to Cabrera. All have expressed the same desire. They want to see his greatest virtue, even if it causes some games where he walks eight or nine guys.
"He communicated to us he's trying to throw more strikes, but the fact is he's still a little bit on the wild side and then the velocity is not the same," Acta said. "So Randy is trying to work with him and convince him to go back to his old self and let the ball fly. Because he'll be more effective throwing in the mid-90s like he used to. And it's there. We've seen it. We saw it [Saturday] in one or two at bats when he was a little bit angry and let the ball fly."
Acta said that, for now, Cabrera's spot in the rotation remains secure. "He's not here on a tryout basis. We'll keep working with him and be patient, and if something is to be done, we'll do it later. But I don't think two, three starts will determine what we'll do with him right away. We're going to try to convince him, and Randy will keep working with him, but we're not day-to-day with him."
Here's an excerpt from my discussion this morning with St. Claire about the matter:
Q: Daniel Cabrera's velocity seems to be way down from earlier in his career. Yesterday he was throwing fastballs at, like, 89 or 90 mph mostly. What seems to be the problem?
He's really guiding the ball and aiming the ball.
Q: Do you think that's a result of a fear of being wild and walking guys?
It could be. You know, I don't know whether it's that or -- well, he hasn't said too much about it. I've talked to him a lot about it, but it's almost like he's really trying to guide the ball, throw strikes, instead of just trusting and just going after it. So I guess it's a question more you've got to ask him. Because I've asked him and haven't gotten a whole lot as to why.
Q: But you think if he let loose, the velocity is still there?
In my mind, the velocity, no doubt it's still there. But his delivery is totally different from when he first came up his first few years in the big leagues.
Q: It's a matter of lower-half mechanics?
It's a lower-half thing. Because we've worked the hands in spring training; his hands, his break. That's about identical to what he needs it to be. That's all great. It's almost exactly the same as where he was when he first came up [to the big leagues]. And what I'd like him to do is get back to where he was when he first came up, because I think once he gets there, he can make some tweaks that will help him be more consistent in the zone.
Q: Right, because even right now with the lower velocity it's not like he's throwing strikes.
No, not at all. I'd rather have 96 and wild than 89 and wild.
Q: In terms of how good a pitcher he can be, what's the difference between a guy throwing 96 and a guy throwing 89?
There's no fear in any batter facing somebody at 88, 89, 90. There's no fear in hitters. He threw four pitches to David Wright yesterday -- that was close to his old delivery. That was close. It wasn't quite there, but it was close. But it was the only at bat where he was even remotely close to his old delivery.
Q: I was looking at the scoreboard readings for velocity, but what were you charting him at?
Well, 89, 91, that's what I saw. But I'm looking at the mechanics of it. But in my mind, I know that velocity is still there. But he will have to make up his mind to get back to where he was. I don't know whether he's just been wild for so long that he feels this is a way back. But I'm just guessing. Because I've talked and talked to him and he doesn't tell you a whole lot.
Q: Right, that's why I'm asking you what to make of all this.
Yeah, well he doesn't say much. He doesn't say much to me either. It's something that he will have to decide on what he wants to do, and right now I think the decision is, I'm gonna try to throw strikes. It's obvious, because you see it. And we've been going over video, so he knows exactly what the delivery looks like when he's going real strong and what it looks like when he's not. And there's a huge difference. A huge difference. That one at bat to David Wright, he was close.
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