Here’s an idea I’m instantly regretting: instead of empty open thread posts for playoff games, as we’ve done around here in years past, each day I’m going to attempt to have a hopefully-quick look around at some splits and stats and whatever else stands out on a Jays player’s 2013 season, because… what the hell else is there to do for the next month? Or the next week. Or just today– or however long I actually continue to follow through on this exercise.
8:00 PM ET – Pittsburgh (2) vs. St. Louis (2) – Gerrit Cole (1.3 rWAR) vs. Adam Wainwright (6.2 rWAR)
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Melky Cabrera’s season ended on August 1st, in the inning following the incident above– his comical attempt at returning an Erick Aybar single to the infield, which allowed Mark Trumbo (or Trumble, if you’re Buck Martinez) to score the Angels’ sixth run off the day off Josh Johnson, who to that point had recorded just six outs.
Ten days later he turned 29-years-old.
Yes, for the entirety that Jays fans saw Melky Cabrera this year– as he, at times, looked creakier in the field than Vladimir Guerrero at the end of his long career, much of it spent patrolling the concrete-and-felt of the knee-destroying outfield of le Stade Olympique– he was just 28-years old.
It’s a little bit hard to believe, isn’t it? His body seemed to be breaking down before our eyes. Of course, we now know that there was a very serious problem– a non-cancerous tumour in his spinal cord of his L1 vertebrae.
Fans, I think understandably, are somewhat skeptical that Melky is going to simply bounce back to good health now that those critical lower-half nerves are not being pressed on by the growth. It seems maybe just a little too optimistic for a player who looked so bad this season, providing negative value by WAR, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, never getting his slugging percentage above .400, and having a high water mark at the plate on May 29th, when he was hitting .292/.339/.392.
That’s especially understandable, I think, because of the shit luck this club has seemed to have in terms of health of late, not to mention that fans are being asked to hope for a similar kind of magic in terms of the recovery of Brandon Morrow– which, like Cabrera’s issue, is not common enough for anybody to be really confident about going away– and very possibly Josh Johnson, whose issue is more common, but no less concerning given the pitcher’s history.
But you know what? If you’re willing to not be negative suckhole crybaby, it’s not really that hard to talk yourself into believing it.
The ailments Cabrera suffered in 2013 all fit perfectly into the explanation. There was the back pain, present all along, even though he reportedly didn’t tell the club about it until the end of the year– which ended up being the reason the tumour was diagnosed. The ones we heard about, though, began with “tightness in his hamstrings” in mid-May. The results of the MRI he had due to that initial tightness showed that while his left hamstring had irritation, on his right side, it was actually his quad that was inflamed. By six weeks later it was no longer his hamstrings or quads that were bothering him, but knee tendonitis.
I’m obviously not a doctor, but the mysterious weakness in his legs, the loss of what limited power he had previously exhibited, the shifting nature of his injuries, and– y’know– the fact that he had a fucking tumour in his spine, exactly where the nerves that control the lower-half muscles he had such trouble with… it all sort of adds up.
Sure, the fucking Rhodes Scholars who are so sure that performance enhancing drugs work for baseball players like spinach works for Popeye will roll their eyes at the idea Cabrera’s season can be based on anything but his getting caught last season, but does that make anything resembling sense? I have a hard time believing that it does.
In fact, picking the notion apart isn’t terribly difficult.
The narrative has no choice but to tell us Cabrera started using P.E.D.s after 2010, and had easily the best two seasons of his career in the years that followed. The reason there is no choice but to believe that is because in 2010, in Atlanta, he reported came in out of shape, and had the worst season of his career– worse, even, than the one we witnessed this year, as he posted a FanGraphs WAR of -1.4.
In his final season of the Yankees he posted a not-inspiring 1.4 WAR, and if you add up the value he provided from his first full season in the Bronx, 2006, through his abysmal season in Atlanta, you get 2.1 wins across five seasons. In other words, less than half a win per season.
So, if the drugs had the ability to magically make Melky a whole new, excellent player, it’s pretty hard to swallow that he was using them in the years preceding 2011. We obviously don’t know, but the only thing we know is that there’s a correlation, with not nearly enough data to say that they were the causation. Yes, he had the highest two ISO marks of his career (.164 and .170), but the .142 he posted in 2009 was relatively close. Add to that the fact that those two successive career highs were, perhaps as you’d expect, in his age-26 and age-27 seasons. And in the seasons prior, combined, his .113 ISO was well above the paltry .081 mark he posted with the Jays– another indication that his drop-off wasn’t necessarily back to “normal” from his drug induced highs.
Nobody is going to mistake that puzzle of logic as some kind of smoking gun– especially when you consider that, if you separate out each year, Melky has had seasons as bad, or worse, than 2013 during his pre-P.E.D. period, so it’s maybe not as much of an aberration as people like me want to believe. Still, I think it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that fans can’t have it both ways– you can’t think Melky used drugs before 2011 if your contention is that he magically got good at that point because of it, and you therefore can’t say that his drop-off in 2013 took him right back to where he should have been and will always be. In general, during that time, he was better than we saw this season.
Though… shit. He wasn’t that much better, actually. Over the four years prior to 2011 his line was .267/.329/.380. In 2013 it was .279/.322/.360.
I mean, that’s actually pretty similar. But there are still caveats: over the span of the pre-2011 sample his BABIP was .293, while this year it was .313. Part of the reason, then, that his 2013 line looks cloer to the old “normal” was probably that– and it’s at least not entirely implausible to believe, considering his three best seasons by BABIP have come in his last three, that his ability to get hits on balls in play has changed due to something in his approach or his swing. That certainly always seemed to me to be the more reasonable explanation for his breakout seasons in 2011 and 2012, rather than the reductive P.E.D. assumptions. And had he been posting the kind of BABIP produced by the pre-P.E.D. Melky in 2013, the numbers would look that much worse. Right? So that would certainly suggest that there’s more to the drop-off than just his being caught and suspended.
Also, if you take the out-of-shape season in Atlanta out of the mix, his old “normal” becomes an even-closer-to-respectable .270/.332/.387.
It takes some twisted logic to get there, maybe, but that does to me suggest that the results of 2013 were clearly impacted by more than just the P.E.D. use (uh… obviously?), and following that, I think we can expect that, with full health and an off-season in which to get into better shape, we can expect quite a bit more from the Jays’ left fielder in 2014. Especially if he continues to outperform he former standard when it comes to BABIP– which, OK, might be a bit of a stretch to believe. I do believe it, though. And I believe that his new normal will probably end up somewhere between the crazily P.E.D.- and BABIP-driven numbers of his years in Kansas City and San Francisco, and the less impressive numbers of his prior career.
It’s kinda hard to feel confident in that belief, but at this point it’s not like the Jays, or by extension their fans, have much of a choice. They’re stuck with Cabrera for as long as they can stomach before cutting bait on the $8-million left on his deal. But why should it come to that? At full health why the hell shouldn’t he be able to be at least what he was before, and probably then some? And wouldn’t even that be a rather tasty upgrade on what the club got from the position this year, where according to FanGraphs they were exactly at replacement level?
Or, y’know, am I just completely delusional?