Melky Cabrera Revisited

After the 50-game suspension which removed him from the San Francisco Giants’ playoff run and, by his own choice, the batting title, Melky Cabrera will always be tied to PEDs.

His breakout in San Francisco — .346/.390/.516 before being suspended — included the 2012 All-Star Game MVP award during the good times and a fake website in the bad times. But Cabrera didn’t have a long, steady career that was suddenly enhanced by drugs, rather his eight more-or-less full seasons in the big leagues have been a mix of failure and success.

If we forget for a moment that Melky was ever busted for a positive drug test, does his big year in 2012 and decline in 2013 seem like the product of drugs, or just random fluctuation in the career of a young, journeyman outfielder?

Aside from a brief six-game stint with the Yankees, filling in for an injured Bernie Williams, in 2005, Melky Cabrera’s major league career didn’t begin until the following season.

Entering 2006, Cabrera was the 15th rated prospect in the Yankees system by Baseball America, behind such notables as Eric Duncan (#2), Marcos Vechionacci (#7), and J. Brent Cox (#11). Although to be fair, in terms of major leaguers from that prospect ranking, Cabrera trailed Phil Hughes (#1), Jose Tabata (#3), Austin Jackson (#5), Tyler Clippard (#10), and Brett Gardner (#13). The Yankees did produce a fair amount of talent from those top 15, even if it didn’t all end up in pinstripes.

The knock on Cabrera at the time was that he “profiles defensively as a corner outfielder, but doesn’t have the power to play there regularly in the majors at this point.”

In his four full minor leagues seasons, 2003-2005, Melky reached double digits in home runs twice, notching 13 in 2004 and 10 in 2005. His doubles totals were not as wanting: 36 in 2004 and 25 in 2005.

But once Cabrera was in Double A and Triple A, his numbers became less exciting: in 132 games across both levels in 2005 he hit just .269/.319/.402. Not exactly the kind of performance that teams expect from an outfielder who in more at home in the corners than in center field.

In the majors, once he was up for good, Cabrera was a mixed bag. In his five seasons with the Yankees the outfielder combined for a .269/.331/.385 line, but this was bookended by a .280/.360/.391 performance in his 2006 rookie year and a similar .274/.336/.416 line in his finale in 2009.

The two years in between: just .263/.316/.369. It’s not hard to see why the Yankees sold, relatively, high on Cabrera after the 2009 season, shipping their headache to the Atlanta Braves for Boone Logan and a second tour of duty for Javier Vazquez.

Needless to say, things did not go well in Atlanta. Cabrera showed up somewhat out of shape and put up, essentially, his 2008 season with a .671 OPS and a miniscule 4 home runs.

To this point in his major league career Cabrera’s batting average, home run, and OPS numbers looked like this:

The Braves released the then-25-year-old outfielder, who would sign with the Kansas City Royals.

With his second straight change of scenery, Cabrera flourished: .305/.339/.470 with 18 home runs, 44 doubles, 102 runs, 20 stolen bases, 201 hits — all career highs, aside from his OBP, which was trumped by his rookie mark of .360.

Cabrera had shown signs in the past of having power and speed that could make him an impact player in the major leagues. He made his debut at 20, something few players do, and his first full year at 21 was solid before falling into a two-year slump. Still, the Royals were observant of his tendencies and flipped their outfielder for a starting pitcher: Jonathan Sanchez of the San Francisco Giants.

In his 113 games as a Giant Cabrera was excellent: he had 11 home runs, put himself in position to contend for the batting title while hitting .346, and once again looked like he would be setting career highs in many categories. Of course, he only played 113 games because a suspension ended his season.

At 27, could this type of breakout have been entirely unexpected? Chris Davis is 27 this year, Jose Bautista was 29 during his breakout year in 2010, and Adam Jones was 26 last year during his run at the MVP during the Orioles magic season. Even Jacoby Ellsbury, who hasn’t even sniffed PED accusations was 27 when, out of nowhere, he hit 32 home runs.

Let’s look at our chart again, with one more category added:

According to FanGraphs, BABIP or Batting Average on Balls in Play, “measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits” with three main variables impacting the number: defense, luck, and changes in talent level. Players who hit more ground balls will have higher BABIPs than players who hit fly balls because defense will come into play more and when the defense needs to make plays, sometimes they just don’t, hence the luck factor.

For his career, Cabrera owns a .310 BABIP and when Cabrera’s ground ball rate spike, his BABIP tended to also. In 2012 he hit 52.2% of his balls on the ground. He managed to turn 71.4% of his bunts into hits as well.

Nothing here really lends itself to the typical “he’s a cheater” storylines. Cabrera has been a player with some power and some speed, which can help each other out if he both hits home runs and beats out ground balls. His career began to take off at 26 and 27, the exact ages we associate with a player entering his peak years.

On a lesser note, Atlanta doesn’t necessarily suit everyone. Nate McClouth suffered a sudden decline when he became a Brave as well. In six seasons as a Pirate, McClouth hit .256/.334/.451, followed by three in Atlanta where he fell to .229/.335/.364 and parts of two seasons in Baltimore where he picked up almost where he left off hitting .275/.344/.418. B.J Upton and Dan Uggla have had their struggles since joining Atlanta as well.

With a career that was already up and down, then peaked right when it would be expected to, the biggest question for Melky Cabrera and PEDs is why risk it?

It’s possible that he would have rebounded anyway reaching his mid-20s and, although we can’t know for sure, it’s possible that his PED use didn’t even help him during the season in which he was suspended. Maybe he was able to train harder and recover faster.

But if Melky Cabrera hadn’t been caught and put up his down 2013, it would be just as likely that he was Gary Matthews Jr. peaking at the right time to sign a free agent deal or Adrian Beltre, who spent five down years exiled in Seattle before resuming what could be a Hall of Fame career.

And that’s the worst part about the drug battles, for fans and player: we just don’t know what is luck, what is skill, and what is enhancement.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

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