Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/23/12

Cleveland’s 5-3 win over preseason divisional favorite Detroit may have finally garnered their current divisional lead some attention. What is at least somewhat surprising about Cleveland’s lead is that some of their seemingly more significant pieces have performed poorly — one thinks particularly of the supposed top of their starting rotation (Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson). However, the offense has been playing well, relatively speaking. They currently have the best wRC+ out of all the teams in the division.

Cleveland’s good hitting so far this season can be credited to Carlos Santana, the resurgence (at least in walk rate) of Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis starting the year in the majors, and yet another early-season hot streak by Jack Hannahan, Cleveland’s most valuable hitter to this point in the season has been shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera had a excellent 2011 that led to a nice extension, but most observers (as well as projection systems) expected regression. So far, that has not happened. Cabrera has been even better in the young 2012 season (153 wRC+ compared to 118 in 2011). How is he doing it, and to what extent is it sustainable?

While the offensive expectations for shortstops are not great, given that Cabrera is not exactly a wizard with the glove, hitting is pretty important to his game. While there were some sparks of promise during his first few seasons, Cabrera’s continually disappointing glove, low walk rates, and lack of power seemed to limit his upside. His injury-marred 2010 was a low point in every respect, and it was fair to wonder what place he might have in Cleveland’s future.

While he did not exactly make anyone forget Ozzie Smith in the field during 2011, he had a career year with the bat: .273/.332/.460, 118 wRC+. As one can see from his slash-line, this was not a BABIP-fueled career year. Indeed, although Cabrera’s walk rate (6.6%) was poor, and while he strikeout rate (17,8%) was better than average, it was not as if he was a master of making contact. The main source of Cabrera’s improvement was in his power — home runs in particular. Cabrera’s rate of home runs on plate appearances plate appearances ending in contact jumped to five percent, his previous high had only been a bit over two percent in his 2007 and 2008. (I will leave it to the reader to decide whether or not Orlando Cabrera‘s mentorship was a significant factor.)

However, while home run rate stabilizes more quickly (and thus is less likely to regres) than, say, BABIP, one still expects it (like all rates) to regress at least somewhat for most hitters. Given Cabrera’s previous performances and his seemingly unimpressive plate discipline, he was not expected to be nearly as good in 2012. Obviously, he has been even better so far. While some regression is still to be expected (which is not to say that it will “definitely happen”), Cabrera seems to be on a very similar path to last season — except that the markers in this year’s small sample (.308/.404/.503, 153 wRC+ over 166 plate appearances) are in some ways even more positive that 2011′s.

Once again, Cabrera’s offense is not being sustained by a hot streak on balls in play. His power is still a big factor, with a .196 ISO that is the highest of his career. As expected, His homers on contact have regressed a bit (from just over five to just under four percent), but he still seems to have retained most of last season’s improvement. While his overall average on balls in play is roughly the same, Cabrera’s isolated power has also been boosted by in increased of extra-base hits on those balls in play — all doubles so far.

What is most promising this season in terms of the development of Cabrera’s bat, however, has been his plate discipline. While he had a good walk rate (11%) in his first full season in 2008, his walk rate has been below-averaGE since then, at least until 2012. So far this year, he has a 11.4% walk rate, and the improvement over past seasons is even more noticeable once one removes intentional walks and hit by pitches from the calculations.

It may be the case that pitchers are pitching Cabrera this year given last year’s power surge. However, that explanation has limits, as the increase in walks began in 2012, and according to the Pitchf/x data, Cabrera is seeing pitches in the strike zone only slightly less often than in 2011. Thus, it seems likely that improved selectivity (career lows in overall swing percentage as well as swings at pitches outside the zone) is at work here, not simply how he being pitched.

While walks and extra-base hits are sabermetric favorites (understandably so), Cabrera’s offensive improvement this year can also be linked with his improved contact skills. While it seems unlikely (given his past performance and, yes, regression) that he will be able to maintain a strikeout rate under eight percent all season, that is stunningly different than his past numbers. A lower strikeout rate means more balls in play, meaning one needs to rely less on random variation to maintain a good batting average (and thus on-base percentage). Again, this may be linked to Cabrera being more selective on when he swings, which may in turn be linked to so-far career-high contact rate. Strikeout rate, like walk rate, stabilizes more quickly than many other statistics, so this is obviously a good sign.

As alluded to earlier, one might pose a chicken-and-egg question about whether the increased power leads to more walks (as superficially might seem to be the case with Cabrera) or whether (as in the cases of Ben Zobrist and Jose Bautista) better plate discipline set the stage for more power. In Cabrera’s case, we might conjecture as follows: on a factual level, his increased power preceded his improved plate discipline. However, it also seems that he has improved his plate approach in 2012, which may also enable him to sustain a higher frequency of all kinds of extra-base hits due to greater selectivity (reflected in his improved walk rate) and more hits of all kinds (reflected in his better strikeout rate). Finally, adding more walks and hits in general diversifies his offense so that he can keep contributing even when the power is not there.

Of course, Cabrera now might go on a massive slump that “evens out” his good start. Regression works in funny (or not so funny, depending your perspective) ways. But the early signs in 2012 are that Cabrera may have improved his overall offensive game, which is a good sign for Cleveland’s chances at a divisional crown going forward.

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