Cabrera's Changes Cost Him Significant Velocity

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

NEW YORK, April 26 -- Washington Nationals right-hander Daniel Cabrera has an arm unlike almost anybody else 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 mph. This year, his average fastball is 90.4 mph, a career low. Cabrera used to throw 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 windup -- he relied more on his lower body when starting his career with the Baltimore Orioles -- and, using that technique, 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 him use his arm strength, even if it causes him to walk eight or nine guys in some games.

"He communicated to us [that] 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."

Acta said that, for now, Cabrera's spot in the rotation remains secure.

"He's not here on a tryout basis," he said. "We'll keep working with him and be patient."

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