On Saturday, All-Star MVP Melky Cabrera hit his 10th home run of the season, a solo shot to left off Cole Hamels that tied the game 5-5 in the top of the 8th. The bomb was the switch-hitter’s seventh home run from the right side against left-handed pitching, while his season total remains at three from the left side. That disparity is especially striking when you consider that, like most switch-hitters, the balance of pitchers the Melkman faces is decidedly righty-heavy, with more than twice as many at-bats against righties than southpaws this season.
Currently, Cabrera’s 135 hits lead MLB, with Andrew McCutchen trailing just behind at 129. Cabrera’s had success getting on base from both sides of the plate. In the majority of his at-bats, which come batting lefty against right-handed pitchers, Cabrera has simply singled his way to success, relying on the more powerful bats of Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval to plate him later in the inning. Overall, Cabrera has hit singles in over a quarter of his at-bats, the only player in baseball to do so up to this point. His singles rate is fairly similar from either side of the plate. However, as a lefty, Melky’s batting average is fairly empty, without much power or on-base ability. From the right side, however, Cabrera has added a completely new dimension to his game.
In 2012, Melky has found his stroke from the right side and so far has hit for enormous power. The Melkman proved he was capable of a high average last year when he put together a 201-hit season, and his 18 home runs were also a career high. With 10 home runs in 408 plate appearances overall, he falls slightly short of the middle of the pack of qualified hitters at a rate of one home run per 40.8 PA. However, Cabrera is tearing up lefties, taking them deep once every 17.3 PA. Overall, this rate would be the fifth best in the NL, behind prolific sluggers Ryan Braun, Pedro Alvarez, and Giancarlo Stanton, and the criminally underrated Jason Kubel. As a side note, I thought the Kubel signing was a head-scratcher because it firmly seated the defensive value of Gerardo Parra on the bench, but it’s time to give credit where credit is due. Kubel’s having an resurgent offensive season, and I offer a proverbial tip of the cap to both the left fielder and his excellent GM, Kevin Towers.
To delve further into Melky’s differing approaches from either side of the plate, I’ve consulted his Pitch F/X Hitter Profile, a new tool created by Dan Brooks of brooksbaseball.net in conjunction with Baseball Prospectus. Melky’s Pitch F/X profile allows us to determine where he’s being pitched by pitchers with either hand, which of those pitches he’s been making contact with, and, of those, which he’s been able to consistently drive. Here is the Melkman’s home run chart as a right-handed hitter (all images are from the perspective of the catcher). As you can see, six of his seven home runs against southpaws have been against pitches on the inner third or further inside. This includes three on pitches that Pitch F/X saw as balls inside that Melky saw fit to bombard the bleachers with anyway. In a broader sense, take a look at his ISO as a righty, normalized against the average right handed hitter. This chart shows league average for a righty as 100%, so the 238% on pitches middle-in shows that Melky’s hitting for 138% more power on pitches in that part of the zone than an average righty this season. If that’s a little too technical for you, the important takeaway is this… that’s a heck of a lot of red paint on the inside corner.
Last year was a breakout year for Melky, as his hitting took a big step forward, especially from the right side. In 2012, Melky’s taken the next step, decisively turning on balls on the inner half while retaining the patience and coordination to take pitches low and outside the opposite way for line-drive singles into rightfield. As we’ve all heard since our first day in Little League, one of the many keys to hitting, among the most difficult feats in professional sports, is not trying to do too much. As Melky’s right-handed average chart shows, he’s still hitting consistently on the tough-to-hit balls on the outer half of the plate, rather than stubbornly trying to pull those pitches for extra-base hits. Switching over to his chart as a lefthanded hitter (ie against righthanded pitchers) shows that his success from that side of the plate, which relies on a high batting average because of the lack of power thus far, is similarly based on an ability to make consistent contact with balls on the outer half and pick up a base knock, trusting the core of the team’s lineup to drive him in rather than selling out for power.
Melky knows he can crush balls on the inner half from the right side, and has set himself up for a fringe MVP candidacy with a strong second half if he can continue to hit for solid contact on the outer half and against right-handed pitchers and booming power inside. Whatever happens from here on out, Melky’s already ensured that the offseason swap of himself for Ryan Verdugo and Jonathan Sanchez was one of the best deals of the year, as Sanchez has since been DFA’d by the Royals and then swapped for the equally awful Jeremy Guthrie. While he’s unlikely to sustain his torrid pace throughout the year, Melky’s excellent approach has turned his right-handed hitting, traditionally his weaker side, into a cornerstone of his offensive ability.
Thanks for reading! I’d suggest, if you thought the charts I used were interesting and informative, that you go poke around the BP Pitch F/X profiles yourself. I can basically guarantee you’ll learn something.
Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.