Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Appreciating Melky Cabrera

The Yankees' 2009 season has been filled with storylines, from the arrivals of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Nick Swisher, to A-Rod's return from hip surgery, to Derek Jeter's MVP-caliber season. One storyline that has seemingly been lost in this whirlwind is Melky Cabrera. Melky has had a breakout season of sorts, after most of us, myself included, wrote him off after last year's dismal season, in which he took a big step backward in his development. After losing out to Brett Gardner in the spring training centerfield battle, it seemed as though Melky would never be anything more than a fourth outfielder, and many Yankee fans wanted him traded. Since then, however, Melky has played very well, winning back the centerfield job and essentially splitting time with Brett Gardner in center, as well as seeing some time at the corners. Since Gardner hit the DL with a broken finger, Melky has continued to produce.

Melky's slash line stands at .292/.355/.463, good for an .819 OPS (114 OPS+). This is worlds better than last year, when he posted a .249/.301/.341 line, which comes out to a .641 OPS (68 OPS+). His career line is .272/.334/.389/.723/89. So Melky has gone from a below-average offensive player to an above-average one, at a position where league average play is considered to be very valuable. Let's dig a little deeper to see how Melky has improved. His walk rate stands at 9.4%, which is not great, but is a major step forward from last year's 6.5% and his career mark of 8.4%. We've also seen an increase in his line drive rate, which stands at 20.8% (18.6 last year, 18.9 career). This, as well as his improved plate discipline are reasons why his batting average is twenty points higher than his career mark. Perhaps most surprising about Melky's season is his improved power. Melky is slugging .463 after never having a season of better than .391 (2006 and 2007) and has an Iso of .171 after never doing better than .117 (2007). Now, one might argue that this is a product of the New Yankee Stadium, but his slugging percentage on the road is identical to his home mark.

Now, on to something Melky has always been able to do; play defense. Fangraphs has Melky as a +3.3 defender in centerfield, so he's been an asset on both offense and defense. He's been worth 1.6 Wins Above Replacement, which makes him worth $7.3 million, and considering he's getting paid $1.4 million this year, he's a tremendous bargain.

So what does the future hold for Melky? One thing we tend to forget is that Melky is just 24 years old, so he has plenty of development left, and if he can continue his current trend, he should be a valuable guy for years to come. With his step forward this year, along with Brett Gardner's solid rookie season, what seemed like the team's biggest hole last offseason has been shored up with low-cost players. This will give Austin Jackson more time to develop in the minors, or allow the Yankees to move him for a big return.