TPA Dispatches: A New Melky?

In the offseason, an unstoppable force collided with an immovable object as sabermetric whipping boy Dayton Moore of the Royals and sabermetric whipping boy Brian Sabean of the Giants completed a trade, sending Melky Cabrera to the Giants and Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals. The general feeling at the time seemed to be that Moore had done well for himself, for once, by getting something out of what appeared to be a fluky-good year by Cabrera, while Sabean had been duped yet again.

Flash forward to May 15, and Sanchez has a 6.75 ERA, while walking nearly a batter per inning and averaging just over four innings pitched per start. Cabrera, meanwhile, has thus far bested his own surprisingly strong 2011 performance, and currently sits at .338/.386/.490 (150 OPS+) and is on pace to wind up with about 6.5 rWAR. Melky’s been so impressive, in fact, that yesterday, Sabean discussed the possibility of signing him to an extension during the season.

It’s easy to see where Sabean is coming from. Melky’s still just 27 (an infant, by Sabean’s standards), and is set to become a free agent for the first time after this season. With Pablo Sandoval out of the lineup, Cabrera has been far and away the Giants’ best hitter. Also, Sabean let Carlos Beltran walk at the end of last year, and has seen him ink a better-than-team-friendly deal with the Cardinals and spend the first 35 games of 2012 as probably the NL’s best hitter (non-Matt Kemp division). Locking up Beltran’s good, younger replacement might be a popular move with the fans right now.

But: prior to 2011, Cabrera spent five full seasons as a below-average hitter, and he was young and all, but he’d shown the opposite of improvement, posting the following rWARs from age 21 through 25: 2.7, 1.3, 0.2, 0.9, (-0.5). By the end of 2010, Cabrera looked like a guy who, come 2013, would probably sign one or two one-year, quite possibly minor-league deals and then fade away. How comfortable can we be that he’s really significantly improved, and isn’t just having a fluky year-plus-a-month-or-so?

Well, it’s impossible to say for sure at this point, but we can try to compare his recent performance to the levels he’d established pre-2011. There are two general categories of information I think we can really consider: (1) his plate discipline, and (2) where and how hard he’s hitting the ball when he does swing at it.

On (1), it’s a bit surprising to note that Melky has been swinging at more pitches, and more bad pitches, since the start of 2011 than he had previously. His 2011 walk rate of 5.0% was easily the lowest of his career, and it’s at 7.6% in 2012 to date, below the 8%-plus he had established in 2009 and his terrible 2010, and his strikeout rate is right around the same level. Per Fangraphs’ discipline stats, Cabrera swung at more pitches overall (50.1%) and swung at more pitches out of the strike zone (36.7%) in 2011 than he had in any other full season, and he’s been just a tick behind those rates (46.9% and 32.9%) so far in 2012. The percentages should be taken with a pretty hefty helping of salt, but it’s pretty clear that he’s not doing what he’s doing because he’s finding better pitches at which to swing.

On (2), Cabrera’s batted-ball profile is similarly non-instructive. Year by year, Melky’s line drive percentage has gone 17.2%, 19.7, 18.6, 20.9, 19.0, 20.3, 17.3. His ground ball and fly ball percentages stayed more or less constant from 2006 through 2011, but have changed dramatically so far in 2012, his GB% jumping from 47.1% to 57.5% (sixth-highest in the NL), with a corresponding drop in FB% from 32.6% to 25.2% (tied for tenth-lowest in the NL). That would tend to lead to more singles (to the extent his extra grounders were replacing fly balls rather than liners) and fewer doubles and homers, and would explain a lot of the differences between his 2011 and 2012 (.305 batting average to .338 and .332 BABIP to .376, but a .164 ISO to .152 and 18 HR to a pace under 10), but doesn’t really do much to explain the change in his production from pre-2011 to post-2011.

So that’s all terribly inconclusive. It’s certainly possible that he’s hitting the ball harder now, whether on the ground, on a line or in the air, than he ever had before. Maybe being more aggressive, even to the point of swinging at pitches out of the zone, has allowed him to square the ball up better. The 190 games he’s played since 2011 isn’t enough to get out of the “it could all just be luck” zone, but it’s certainly not nothing, either, and it could be that Melky’s just a better player now than he was then, in ways that don’t show up in the (rather incomplete and still evolving) ways we have of measuring what he might be doing differently. Sabean and his staff would certainly be in a better position to judge that than any of us are.

I’d be wary, though. For one thing, even if he’s a totally different hitter now, he’s not so different that he can maintain a BABIP of over .370 (your all-time career leader in that stat is Ty Cobb, at .378, and that’s when they used gloves that I swear were somehow smaller than the hand that went into them). The .334 he posted last year is probably a bit on the higher-than-you-should-expect side itself, and he’s not showing any ability to maintain that HR power he showed in 2011. So assume he’s a lot better than the guy he was from 2006 through 2010; he’s probably still not quite as good as the guy he looked like in 2011, either.

While this is all a jumble of conflicting things you can’t draw any conclusions from, I think that suggests a conclusion in itself: now is probably not the time to be negotiating extensions, unless Melky’s willing to give you a crazily good deal. It’s just not possible to know enough about what you’re actually buying. It’s much more likely than not that his final 2012 numbers add up to much less than his current 150 OPS+/144 wRC+, and even if they don’t, there’s enough uncertainty regarding his ability to maintain that performance that you’re probably not going to be paying too much more for his services in October than you would be if you signed the contract right now. And if there is somebody willing to pay him like a superstar at that point? Well, best to let that somebody do that and spend your own money a bit more wisely.

Sabean probably should have shelled out some cash to keep Beltran if he could have gotten him at anything like the $13 million a year for two years that the Cardinals have agreed to pay (and I thought that long before he came out on fire to start 2012). But that’s water under the bridge. Extending Melky right now as though he’s the star he’s looked like since the beginning of 2011 would be an extremely risky move, and one that appears more likely to compound his Beltran mistake than alleviate it.