When Asdrubal Cabrera launched an RBI double off the wall Sunday in Philadelphia, another long hit in another big moment, there was no loud show of emotion, no fist pump, no hearty claps. Instead, he fixed his pant leg, looked to the Mets’ dugout and offered the obligatory pepper-grinder celebration with the twist of his hands.
In an image, that has been Cabrera’s 2018, offering steady excellence to what has been a mediocre team. Along with career-highs in average (.329, tied for fourth in the NL), OBP (.376) and slugging percentage (.552), Cabrera is second on the team behind Yoenis Cespedes in home runs (six) and RBIs (23). His team-high 1.8 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs, is double the next-best hitter (Todd Frazier, 0.9).
Cabrera has staked strong claim as the Mets’ early MVP — a debate simplified by Jacob deGrom’s five innings this month — as they hit the one-quarter mark of their season this week.
Why is Cabrera having the best year of his career? In a testament to the unpredictable, shades-of-gray nature of baseball, it depends on who you ask. From the front office to the manager’s office to the batting cages to the clubhouse, everybody has their own idea.
Less than 11 months ago, Cabrera returned from the disabled list, was moved to second base and told reporters: “If [the Mets] don’t have any plans for me, I think it’s time to make a move [a trade]. I think that’s the right move for Cabrera and my family.”
Cabrera, previously a shortstop, isn’t angry about being a second baseman anymore. “Whatever happened last year, I forget about it,” he said. “I come every day with a new mind and try to help the team no matter what.”
John Ricco, the Mets’ assistant general manager, suggested comfort defensively has contributed to Cabrera’s success offensively.
“A lot of times when a guy is [comfortable] on the defensive side of the ball, it translates,” Ricco said. “He’s remained steady. It’s hugely valuable to have guys who keep doing what they’re doing even when some of the other players aren’t at that level.”
Modern defensive metrics rate Cabrera as a poor defender, but manager Mickey Callaway has noticed a difference: adjusting after realizing that grounders he used to be able to field with an extra step or two elude him now.
“He’s diving for those balls and still making the plays, where if he went just to try to field them, he’d miss,” Callaway said.
Cabrera’s checkered health history is one reason the Mets moved him from shortstop to begin with. Since joining the Mets ahead of the 2016 season, he’s had left knee and left thumb issues. In the years prior, hamstring and quadriceps injuries sidelined him.
At 32, firmly into baseball’s middle-aged demographic, Cabrera’s past health issues are, for now, in the past. He says that’s another reason for his big couple of months.
“I’m healthy,” Cabrera said.
Part of that is learning his body and knowing what he needs to do to get ready for a game, Cabrera said. That’s a common phenomenon for older players. Whereas younger ones can work all day and still have plenty of energy for that night’s game, experience teaches the Cabreras of the world to work smarter, not harder.
“When you get older, you don’t have to worry,” said Cabrera, who made it to the majors at 21. “I’m not 20 anymore. I come here and I know what I have to do to be ready for the game.”
Said Callaway: “He’s done a really good job of knowing who he is as a player and being the best he can be.”
The plan at the plate
Cabrera’s improved traditional statistics match his improved advanced ones. He is hitting the ball harder and in the air more often, which has led to fewer ground balls (43.5 percent last season to 37.1 percent this season) and more line drives (20.4 percent to 25.9 percent) — and more hits.
Hitting coach Pat Roessler said Cabrera is doing a better job of maintaining his swing mechanics and sticking to an approach.
“He’s really got a definitive plan when he goes to the plate, he knows what he wants to do,” Roessler said. “What location, what he wants to do with pitches. He’s looking in certain areas, and he does a great job of it.”
Cabrera, a switch-hitter, has particularly improved when batting as a lefty, upping his slash line from .240/.323/.407 in 2017 to .324/.376/.574 this year.
Callaway is a Cabrera fan. Has been since 2013, when he became Cleveland’s pitching coach and Cabrera was fresh off consecutive All-Star seasons for the Indians.
“This is what I remember him being in Cleveland,” Callaway said. “He was younger when I saw him play, and he was playing shortstop. But he knows what he’s doing at the plate. I’m sure he’s definitely motivated this year to come in and have a good year, which he should be.”
Motivated? Cabrera will be a free agent after this season. Bigger numbers this summer mean a bigger number this winter.
“Everybody puts a little stock into that [idea],” Callaway said. “I think everybody in a contract year is definitely motivated.”