We are almost a month into the 2013 season, and Yankee universe has not been sucked into an injury-infested black hole of playoff-missing nothingness. The team has been competitive, is still hitting home runs, and could actually use better pitching believe it or not.
The names have changed, and the ages have surged even further upward, but the Bronx Bombers are maintaining their power hitting identity. I want to highlight one of the main reasons the Yankees have been able to rely on their offense this April. This is a man who no one thought was capable of such an awesome month. This is a guy who was a complete non-factor in 2012. This man batted fifth….FIFTH…last night. His name is Francisco Cervelli, and he’s been one of the best catchers in baseball this season.
Cervelli’s presence caused Yankees fans all over the place to bemoan the indignity of being outbid for Russell Martin. We ignored wholeheartedly the fact Martin batted .211 last season, posted a .713 OPS, and was worth -2.1 runs defensively, despite his reputation.
Not that Cervelli was any better mind you. Martin belted 21 home runs last year, while Cervelli has hit nine home runs in his entire minor league career. Before this year Cervelli had hit just one major league dinger. He never really hit for average either once he left A-ball. He wasn’t terrible, but averages in the .270s aren’t too appealing when there’s almost zero power potential behind it.
2013 has been different though. Cervelli is smoking pitches all over the place, to the tune of a .283 average and .403 slugging percentage. He’s got three home runs, eight RBI and 12 runs scored, and he’s doing it with his lowest BABIP in any season in which he’s gotten more than five plate appearances.
So what gives? Why has a guy considered by most to be a scrub played a major role in this surprising start?
Well we ruled out the BABIP, so he isn’t getting “lucky.” What he is doing, quite simply, is hitting the ball much harder than ever. His line drive percentage has jumped from a previous career high of 20.5 percent in 2009 to 30.8 percent this year, while his ground ball percentage is down almost 20 percent from 2011. This is great news because Cervelli is quite slow (albeit not Jorge Posada slow), so hitting grounders is not an ideal way for him to reach base.
Secondly, Cervelli has gotten more aggressive at the dish, swinging at 67.6 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, up from 58.7 percent in 2011. This goes hand in hand with his increased line drive percentage—if you swing at better pitches…well then you’re more likely to hit them harder!
Finally, Cervelli is showing an improvement in his ability to handle fastballs, a must for any regular starter in the big leagues. So far he’s posted a 3.4 wFB according to Fangraphs.com, which basically means he’s contributed about three runs to the team this year when facing fastballs. His wFA/C, which predicts that total over 100 fastballs faced, is 1.47, the first time in his career that hasn’t been a negative number.
So basically, Cervelli’s swinging at more hittable pitches, handling fastballs, and stinging liners instead of grounders or lazy fly balls. Due to these factors, he’s predictably posting a better batting average and displaying increased power. Will he keep up the high batting average? I suspect not because he is not an overly talented player. But this isn’t a true fluke. The BABIP shows that.
Cervelli is an improved ballplayer, plain and simple. When regulars like Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter (get well soon!) come back, Cervelli can move back down in the lineup. A lot of the pressure that is on him right now will be relieved and he will be seeing even more fastballs.
Cervelli’s here to stay and while he may not be better than Buster Posey, he damn sure has a shot to be an upgrade over Russell Martin.