Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Melkman Cometh ... Perhaps to Stay?

I had wanted to post something on Melky Cabrera during the off-season, pulled a bunch of research, came up with a snazzy title :^), but never got around to posting one.  Just ran into my notes and he's been doing well, so I thought I would run with what I had before and give some further thoughts on maybe him sticking around longer.

Giants Thoughts

A lot of the pre-season angst on Melky was that he is not the hitter he was in 2011.  My main point that I was going to dig into previously was that we didn't need Melky to be his 2011 self in order to be successful.  Using the lineup calculator, if Melky just did what he had averaged from 2009-2011 (.282/.332/.420/.752, 130 ISO), the Giants offense would be just fine.  In fact, his three year batting line basically was the same as his 2009 batting line of .274/.336/.416/.752.  His 2011 almost perfectly balanced his poor 2010 and together was near his 2009 results.  And his ZiPS projection was .284/.330/.435/.765.

Now, a lot of the commentary I saw was quoting his career line.  That is just so wrong, but particularly so for any prospect who makes the majors in his early 20's.  If any player has lasted as long as Melky has in the majors, he has to have either had improvement or (like Pablo) was good from the get-go.  He's never been one to take walks but if he gets a high enough batting average, he is at least average in OBP.  He makes good contact, not striking out much, so his batting average should be on the higher side, in general, in any particular season.

Where he has shown improvement  is slugging or extra-base hits.  In his first three seasons, his ISO power (or SLG minus BA) was roughly 105-110, or just slightly above average.  However, in his fourth season, he had a big jump up to 142.  He dropped back to his normal career range in his next season, 99 ISO, but it has been acknowledged that he was not in a good frame of mind, nor in good shape.   Then last season, back in proper shape, his ISO was 165.  Given the circumstances, I think one can say that Melky has improved his power greatly in the past three seasons.

Defensively, the Fielding Bible notes that for a centerfielder (which he was for KC last season) he makes a pretty good corner outfielder.  He has a great arm but consistently takes bad routes to fly balls.  He does not have the great speed to make a good centerfielder, so I would guess that he's probably about average in LF, which is acceptable if his offense is average as well.  And it appears to be.

2011 So Far

Obviously, small samples, but we can at least see what he is doing relative to what he did before, and to see if other factors say anything.

First off, his BABIP is .333, which is high for his career, but similar to his BABIP in 2011, which was .332.  Previously, his career BABIP was .290, which was right about average for the majors.  So the question is still can he continue it, but at least so far this season, he has continued as if 2011 is his true talent level now, with a similar BABIP.

He's always made good contact as a hitter all through his career - above the 85% mark of a good hitter - but just never took too many walks.  But so far this season, he is much improved, at 9.9% this season vs. only 5.0% last season, which was a career low.  That plus continued good contact in 2011 gives him a great BB/K ratio of 0.83 (good are above 0.5 and best are over 1.0), which only his first full season beats with a 0.95.

But it was a career worse of 0.37 last season, which ironically was his best hitting season.  Excluding last season, his BB/K was 0.69 for his career, which is good, suggesting that last year should have been an aberration, and so far this year, not only is it suggesting it was, but he appears to be incorporating his learning from last season (higher BABIP) with his prior skill (as shown in his first full season) of talking walks.

As I noted above, his ISO power appears to have taken a leap up in recent seasons, to the roughly 150 range.  He is at only 122 for the season, which is more in line with his early career than his recent seasons.  So there has been a regression there so far.   But the results are more mixed when viewed by home vs. road, as at home his ISO is 135, closer to his recent performances, but his road ISO is only 113, which is more like his early performances.

Thinking further along those lines, he is actually more like the hitter he was early on:  higher walks, good contact, but now making better contact, resulting in a higher batting average and thus also a better BABIP.  Looking in Baseball Forecaster's table of contact rate vs. walk rate, there is a huge leap in ability to get hits when you are able to take more walks.  For those batters who make good contact (86%+), the ones with 6-10% walk rate averaged .279 but those with 11-15% walk rate averaged .301.  He's actually not at the 11% mark, but these stats are not absolutes, he is right along the line right now, right on the cusp, between the two, so perhaps his talent has finally made the leap last season, in being able to hit for better batting average and thus better  BABIP.

However, there are negatives to suggest that this is only temporary.  His line drive percentage is down a lot this season, only 16.5%, whereas he has a career 19.3% and over the past three seasons, roughly averaged 20%.  Line drives normally are hits.  Meanwhile, ground balls are up significantly, from 49.0% career to 59.5% for 2011.  In addition, his fly ball rate is down to 24.1% vs. 31.7% career.  Resulting in a GB/FB ratio of career 1.55 but a very high 2.47 this season.

But ground balls leads to hits much more often than flyballs, so that is probably why his batting average gains is being sustained this season, and also why his SLG is down as well, because he's hitting a lot less flyballs and thus also less homers.  On top of that, his HR/FB ratio is down to 5.3% for the season vs. 6.9% for his career and roughly 10% in his peak years of 2009 and 2011.  But with only 19 flyballs so far, just one more homer would put him back at 10%, roughly, so his true HR/FB ratio might still be the 10% of recent seasons.  Changing one of his doubles into a HR would have pushed his SLG up 22 for an ISO of 144, which is more in line with his last three seasons' results, so perhaps he's just suffering some bad luck with regards to small samples right now.

Still, while his righty-lefty splits favor his hitting against RHP (plus he's a natural lefty), his high batting line vs. RHP last season is probably not repeatable and so far it hasn't been.  He's been very high versus LHP this season, super white hot, and was very good last season, both helping with his good results the past two season.  Still, that most likely will go away as we progress through the season.  He's going to need to improve his RHP batting line for his 2012 season to continue to look like his 2011 line, so that's a potentially  big negative on his putting up a good season in 2012.

Another plus is that he's been very good on the basepaths as a stealer with 5 of 7, or roughly 30 SB rate for the season.  Given that he had his career high of 20 SB last season, that would be a huge increase over his previous performances.  In fact, prior to 2011, Melky was roughly a 10 SB per season performer, at an OK 77% success rate.  He stole more last season, with 20, roughly double, but he also was caught more often, resulting in a poor 67% success rate last season.  Hard to say how bad he's been this season - 1 CS either way - and he's at 83% success or 63% success rate, so this is something to monitor this season.

Melky Might be a Keeper

Overall, Melky looks like a good addition to the team.  He's not very good but with our pitching, we don't need very good from everyone, as long as we have Posey and Sandoval in the middle of our lineup.  He's been a very steady performer for us up top the lineup, batting second for us.  I recall that studies in the past showed that teams would want to bat their best hitter 2nd in the lineup.  He's not the best, but he's good enough, I think.

Him being a free agent after the season, I am currently interested in seeing if the Giants can sign him on long-term.  Average player like him probably can be signed for roughly $20-30M over a three year contract, but I'm only interested in signing him for the bottom of that range, unless he really breaks out this season (so far, it is more like his career norms trending higher in the past two seasons).  Of course, it is way too soon to say for certain, but I'm certainly leaning this way and it is not too early to speculate.

Scarcity Makes Melky Desirable

A reason I'm interested is that we have a lack of starting OF types in our system.  Even if he does not duplicate his 2011 season, if he can be a mid-700 OPS hitter, that's doable for our lineup the way it is now.

Our other established vets are not that established.  As much as I love Nate and hope he succeeds, he's disappointed often by 1) playing injured, which results in a poor performance, and 2) getting injured too much, which leads to the first point.  The Giants have given him chance after chance, and probably will give him another shot next season, but to say that he'll be the starting RF for sure for all of 2013 would take a leap of faith.  Angel Pagan is also a free agent and him being on the wrong side of 30 and him having a poor season in 2011 while injured, plus has been injured in 4 of the past 5 seasons, I would be worried about signing him to any long term contract, though I would be interested in a one year deal with him at the right price (Cody would probably have been back if he weren't looking for a multi-year deal).

Among the prospects, nobody looks like a sure thing for 2013.  Francisco Peguero is not doing so well in AAA right now, and had a poor season in 2011 relative to 2010.  With his low walk rate and relatively OK but not good contact rate, he's the type of prospect who has to prove himself at every level.  So he might not be ready for 2014, let alone 2013.  Gary Brown is our top prospect, but is in AA now and had a slow start, though he's been heating up lately.  I think he's one who will need an adjustment period in his new higher league before it clicks for him.  He built himself up season by season in college, to where he was the top hitter in his college conference, so I think he'll eventually get to the majors and be good, but 2013 seems too close for him to make that leap right now.  Roger Kieschnick has put his name back into the conversation for 2013, with his great start to this season.  But injuries took his name out the past couple of seasons.   And he still strikes out a lot, too much to hit regularly for a good batting average in the majors.  He's looking like a Two True Outcomes type of hitter (very few walks), which makes it hard to rely on him being ready to be a starter for us in 2013.  Gregor Blanco could Torres his way into the starting lineup in 2012 or 2013, but that's being lucky, not planning strategically for 2013; the same reasoning goes for Justin Christian.  If Blanco fails, you are up the creek if you were planning on him starting for you in CF.  Pill could make things interesting but that only solves LF, we then still have CF to fill.  Now, Belt could probably play LF or RF well enough and potentially very well (his defensive stats in LF last season was good if small samples).  But that still leaves the matter of starting CF.

That's where Cabrera could fit in, even though defensively he's lacking a lot in CF, he's also good offensively there as well, while only average in LF (kind of like Randy Winn).  And if he can lift his power this season to recent standards, he's a .800+ OPS hitter, which is superior in CF (average CF in 2011 hit .742 OPS).  Even if not, he's about an average offensive CF with below average defense there, but when we do not have many viable alternatives and question marks (meaning older vets) awaiting us in free agency, Melky being young and already here and perhaps liking it here, he appears the superior answer, at this early part of the season.

The key question is how much he wants for staying.  He's getting $6M this season, which under the saber rules on arbitration, puts his full season salary at $7.5M per season.  That works out to 3 years for $22.5M, so I would be OK with that, I think that should be doable for our player payroll budget, given all the young players on our roster being paid minimal salaries, plus vets like Huff, Franchez, Pagan, Affeldt are probably not on the payroll next season, at least at their current salaries.


  1. Nice analysis. The early years in NY playing for the biggest team in the game were marked by sub-par play. Being tagged to replace Bernie Williams as a 21 year old is no easy task. He wasn't mature enough for it, and it showed. I see a whole lot of career stat quotations for people dismissing Melky, and not many "what has he done in the last 3 years" examination.

    He seems like a worker. He had a great spring, and came out strong. He's slumping a bit now, I want to see what the next month brings.

    I agree with the money you're quoting. If he puts up similar numbers to last year I think his market will be more solid that that, and we know that Sabean doesn't worry too much about a few dollars here or there, so I could see an offer more in the 3/30MM range. Melky seems like a test of where Sabean is as a GM now: does he stay with the short term offer, or does he go a bit longer, say a 4th year option. While he is a nice player, he is not an impact player I don't think. The other option is a 1 year at the required 12MM and change to get the draft pick, or to keep him on a one year basis. That has its advantages as well, I'm a big fan of the overspend in dollars over years. The draft pick option would be nice.

    I like the plate discipline, the fielding has looked good, he brings versatility to play all OF positions and bat in different parts of the lineup, and he's a switch hitter. I'd like to see another month or two to get a sense of his floor/ceiling per making any commitment though.

    1. Yes, it is only a month, so I agree that we need much more time to assess whether we should make a commitment or not.

      That said, I wanted to point out that he's not that bad a hitter (just not great; but that's OK) and could be good, that we have a probable need for an OF going forward, and thus wanted to kick around some numbers as to what it might cost us, should the Giants make such a decision.

      Yeah, I agree that if he's more like 2011 than 2009, then he's probably on the higher end of the $20-30M range that I posited. Given the negatives I noted above, I'm not sold that 2011 is his new talent level, but neither do I think that he's not either. There are good points to both stance, and there are a lot of positives as well.

      It seems that his power is the missing piece so far this season, but that is because his power is right on the cusp for a month's data that +/- 1 HR would still be within his career norms. It should become clearer in 1-2 months, as you noted.



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