Does Melky deserve another shot in center?
THEY MIGHT BE TRADING
The ice keeping the outfielder/designated hitter free agent market is beginning to break up, and that can only be good news for the Yankees as they look to ease their outfielder logjam. There really isn’t much reason for a team to trade anything of value for an Xavier Nady when better players can be had for mere dollars. However, as those players fall out of the market, the losing bidders will be looking for consolation prizes, and that’s where Nady comes in.
Parenthetically, FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal reports today that it’s not just Nady on the market, but that the Yankees are also floating Nick Swisher. This is so depressing a possibility that I refuse to acknowledge it. Should Swisher rebound, the Yankees will have a right fielder with a .260 average, 25 home runs and 90 walks. Should Nady return, the Yankees will have a right fielder with a .270 average, 20 home runs, and 35 walks. The difference, when you add in Swisher’s superior defensive capabilities, is between four and five wins, which is a huge number. Now, if trading Swisher nets the Yankees Tris Speaker to play center field and trading Nady does not, you could make the argument that Nady + Speaker is greater than Swisher + Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera. Fortunately, it’s doubtful that a Tris Speaker is available, let alone that one will be made available for either player, so Nady should almost certainly be the man with the one-way airline ticket out of town.
I realize I often drop Tris Speaker’s name when talking about possible center fielders. For those that didn’t take the prerequisite course, Pinstriped Bible Background 101, Speaker, also known as the Grey Eagle, played from 1907 to 1928 and for decades was known as the quality standard for center field defense. He also banged out 3,500 hits, about 800 doubles, and averaged .345/.428/.500. Thus, if the professor says that the Yankees have a chance to get a Tris Speaker, he is referring to the idea of an impact-level, two-way center fielder. He is not referring to Mike Cameron. He is definitely not referring to Melky Cabrera. Sadly, he’s not referring to Brett Gardner either, though Gardner is almost certainly the best of the preceding three names.
Speaking of Gardner, I got a good bit of mail on the subject of he and Melky from reader Jeremy:
In your recent Pinstriped Bible column, you mention that Melky Cabrera doesn’t
deserve to keep his roster spot because: “His Major League batting averages are, in order,.280, .273, and .249. Wake me when the movie’s over.”
With all due respect, I think this deserves more analysis than you give it. Batting
averages aren’t considered to be the defining statistic in baseball anymore. I’m not
pretending to be Bill James or anything, but in 2006 and 2007 Melky posted OPS+s of
95 and 89 respectively. In 2008 he did post an OPS+ of 68, but he had the least ABs
and GP’d since his 20-game stint in 2005. His -4.0 VORP is inexcusable, but for
goodness sake his BABIP was .271! He’s a 24 year old who plays good defense and if
last April showed us anything (.291/.359/.505,6 HR,17 RBI) might have some
All I’m really saying here is that Melky deserves a much more in-depth look than
batting average can give us. I realize that April is an EXTREMELY small sample size;
but combined with his other statistics, I think that it is worth giving Melky some
growth time. After all, compare the first few seasons of Sammy Sosa with the first few seasons of Melky. I’m not saying that they will even end up being comparable, BUT early career batting averages aren’t the best way to gauge a player’s potential (just ask the Rangers if they would have traded Sosa if they had known he would put up a 201 OPS+ in 2001).
In summation, Melky hasn’t been as great as the Yankees expected him to be so far,
but his early stats show that he has some potential. He’s still only 24 and his
flash of brilliance last year shows that, from time to time, he can mash with the
best of them. Thanks for reading, Jeremy P.
Thank you, Jeremy. Good one. I wasn’t simply evaluating Melky on batting average, though he might prefer it if we stick to that because so far it’s the only offensive skill he’s shown in the Major Leagues. I’ve been through the Melky arguments enough times that I figured it was safe to give you the shorthand version. Let’s run through your points. He had the fewest at-bats of his career for a reason, namely that he was abusing the ones he was given. His batting average on balls in play was indeed low, but so was his line drive rate, and line drives are where batting averages come from. Melky spent much of the season hitting weak fly balls and grounders. It wasn’t bad luck, as we might normally infer from a low BABIP, or defenders making a fluke chain of great plays against him, he just didn’t swing with much authority. That said, even if we grant that his low BABIP could have been caused by bad luck, nothing much changes. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and tip him 30 points of batting average, to get him back up to the league average in the BABIP category. At best, you’d have his 2006 production … except you wouldn’t have that either, because his walk rate has also dramatically declined since then, dropping from nearly 11 percent of PAs in 2006 to just 6.5 percent this year.
There’s another problem here, which is that Cabrera is also a fraud as a switch-hitter. He is completely shut down by left-handed pitchers, with career rates of .251/.319/.329. Basically, we’re looking at a batting-average oriented platoon player who has yet to hit for an impressive average over a sustained period of playing time anywhere in his career, who doesn’t and probably will not hit for power and is not particularly selective.
That brings us to your Sosa comparison, which, respectfully, is wildly off base. First, you should recognize that Sosa is an outlier. Most players do not explode the way he did, which is just one reason why observers sometimes look at that explosion with skepticism. I’m not saying they’re correct about that, by the way, merely that the rareness of the development is one reason why. Second, the statistical similarities aren’t really there. Sosa was in the Majors at 21, still clearly learning on the job and swinging at every off-speed pitch he was offered, but still knocking extra-base hits all over the place. This correlated with what scouts were saying at the time: this guy has immense physical tools. When he hits the ball, it travels for whole galaxies. The only problem is that he doesn’t hit it often enough, but if he ever learns how to make better contact, look out. This was something you could see at the time — I have a dim recollection of him simply crushing a ball off of Dave LaPoint into the center field bleachers at Yankee Stadium in 1990.
No one has ever seen those kinds of physical tools in Cabrera. No one is predicting that kind of explosion for him, and I would argue that his approach at the plate largely precludes that kind of development. Now, I’m not prescient, and it’s certainly possible that Cabrera could change that approach, or put on 50 pounds of muscle (in a wholesome way, I mean) and start crushing the ball, or all the bad luck that you think he had in 2008 reverses, he hits .350 on balls in play this year, bats .300 on the season, thereby elevating all of his weak peripherals. Maybe, but I doubt it. I’m not much of a gambling man, but if we’re going to roll the dice that way I’d rather bet on Gardner adding a few singles and a few walks than on Cabrera changing his entire being. One is entirely within the realm of possibility. The oth
er is an almost impossible long shot.
BUNKER BOY RIDES AGAIN
I’ll be back in the Bunker on the YES Hot Stove show again this Thursday evening, so get your comments in and I’ll bug Bob and the newsprint boys about ’em. No doubt we’ll be talking about Mark Teixeira, the center field issue, and the ongoing Andy Pettitte saga. Me, I hope it keeps on going — the Yankees can and should reserve a spot in the rotation for youth.