Oswaldo Cabrera is slight and lanky, with a shy smile that makes him look like he just got off the train from Fordham University, and a uniform number – 95 – that makes it seem like he just got off the bus from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The Yankees rookie has all of 45 major-league games under his belt, he’s 23, and up until this season, he had played exactly zero professional games in the outfield. But there’s some steel that belies his youth, and some swagger that has made the Yankees certain he can handle a task that would otherwise seem monumental: start a playoff game at a new position, hit fifth, and handle the din and the lights and the general pandemonium of playoff baseball in the world’s toughest market.
When the Guardians' Will Brennan flied out to foul territory in the fourth inning of the Yankees' Game 1 ALDS win Tuesday, it was Cabrera running toward the wall like a player with little regard for his personal safety, and then leaping at that wall like an athlete born playing leftfield. His hat popped off his head and into the stands, and was returned by a fan, whom he high-fived. He did lose the defensive placement card that he keeps in there, he said (it has yet to be recovered).
“I think I was just excited for the game and excited for the postseason,” Cabrera said of careening toward the stands – not the first time he’s done that this year. “That just happened in that moment. I wasn't thinking.”
Oswaldo Cabrera makes a great play and that's obvious pic.twitter.com/ztQ5l57jFm— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) October 12, 2022
And though it makes for a pretty cool video clip, it also showcases a few things: Cabrera’s athleticism, his ability to track balls coming off the bat at various angles, his speed and his spacial awareness. They’re tools that have helped in his outfield transition: After over 500 games exclusively playing the infield in the minor leagues, the Yankees believed that not only could he learn this new position, but that he could more or less learn it on the fly.
“In spring training, we felt like if we ever had a need in that kind of utility-type guy at any point in the season, even though he had not experienced even a ton of Triple-A yet at that point, just his makeup suggests that, well, this guy is going to be able to handle this,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He's very mature. He's a very confident baseball player. He works really hard. He processes information really well. You've seen that, I think offensively, too. I feel like he's made really good adjustments as these couple months have unfolded . . . [There’s] a little bit of a swagger to him.”
In 60 chances over 35 games played in the outfield thus far, Cabrera has yet to commit in error. He has 53 putouts and seven assists.
"He’s not afraid," Boone said.
In fact, the same fearlessness that allows Cabrera to throw his body in the stands is also the one that allows him to take on this role. He consults his brother, Leobaldo Cabrera, an outfielder in the Twins farm system, he said, and chats up Yankees veterans like Aaron Hicks while trying to navigate this brand-new world.
But fearlessness in the field doesn’t always translate to fearlessness everywhere else, and though Cabrera embodies the concept of acting like you’ve been there before, he has not, in fact, been here before.
“I think everybody feels nerves or he's not human,” Cabrera said. “That's all that's in my mind all the time - breathe, that's it. It's the same game. Nothing's changed. Just more people in the stands but it's the same game.”
Nothing’s changed at all. Just, you know, everything.