If I wrote a memoir about how I’ve spent winters as a baseball fan, I’d call it Doldrums, Dregs and Data. Ah, data. The one thing the offseason has to offer besides rewatching YouTube videos of Francisco Lindor grand slams.
Sometimes in those deep dives through dumpsters of baseball data, a shiny object catches your eye, something familiar yet alluring. With all the greed of a horny bowerbird, you snatch up the trinket and stash it in your lair, hissing my preciousss and hoping that your hoard will somehow, some way, seduce a new baseball season to your nest/bower/couch.
Today’s dive led me me to Statcast’s leaderboard for Expected wOBA — xwOBA for short — which is Statcast’s attempt to gauge what you would expect a pitcher’s wOBA (weighted on-base average) would be, based on the quality of contact allowed along with the pitcher’s ability to strike batters out and limit walks. You can read more about the statistic and how it’s calculated here.
Season leaders in xwOBA (with a default minimum of 250 batters faced) pretty much always are stud relievers, with prior years’ top-two finishers including Zach Britton, Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller and Mike Minor (and Clayton Kershaw). 2018 was no exception, with the top-three spots going to the year’s best relievers: Edwin Diaz, Josh Hader and Blake Treinen, respectively. It’s important to remember that much of this ranking has to do with the fact that Diaz and Hader strike out basically everyone.
Cimber certainly wasn’t buoyed by his strikeout rate (20.6%), which ranked 120th out of 151 qualified relievers. He did rank 18th in walk rate among relievers at a very respectable 6%, but the main reason for his low xwOBA was no doubt due to his pitches having the sixth lowest exit velocity among pitchers with at least 150 batted ball events (Statcast’s default qualifier), with only 1.4% (also top 6) of the batters facing him able to "barrel" the ball, according to Statcast’s definition.
Interestingly, Cimber also was the pitcher with the highest difference between his xwOBA (.250) and actual wOBA (.310) among qualified pitchers in 2018. His actual wOBA was just a tick under league average, whereas a wOBA of .250 would have put him in the vicinity of Walker Buehler, Aaron Nola and Jared Hughes. This unlucky designation does not appear to mean much: e.g., in 2016, the league leader in "diff" between expected and actual wOBA was our ol' pal Cody Anderson.
Still, it does seem to indicate that Cimber’s contact suppression is real. The question is how high he can tally up strikeouts, which has never been his strength. This almost certainly is due to the fact that Cimber has one of the slowest fastballs and sinkers in the majors, limiting his ceiling. Even Zach Britton in his crazy 2015-16 run of groundball pandemonium was striking out about 30% of the batters he faced, as he can hurl a fastball and sinker in in the mid-90s compared to Cimber topping out around 87 mph.
That doesn’t mean Cimber can’t be a valuable reliever. He could be a very good reliever, in fact, if he could bump his strikeout rate closer to 25-26% (and get a little luckier with batted balls). That’s not impossible, as Sergio Romo has demonstrated with an arsenal as slow as Cimber’s but which includes a changeup. Merritt Rohlfing noted in an earlier post about Cimber that a changeup could help him improve versus lefties, making him much more valuable than a glorified ROOGY.
I have no idea how likely it is that Cimber adds another pitch or increases his strikeout rate or continues under-handing softballs that batters have trouble squaring up, but he’s young and still could prove to be the outlier of a groundball wizard (he's got such a supple wrist) we all hoped he’d be when he was brought to Cleveland.Dumpster Divin': The one Statcast area where Adam Cimber excelled