Melky Cabrera‘s 2012 has truly represented his best case scenario. After enjoying a stellar 2011, a lot of us felt like Cabrera was nothing more than a lucky flash in the pan. While a useful player, it was awfully hard to swallow that Cabrera was the kind of outfielder who could put up a 4.2 WAR season as he did a year ago. Cabrera’s name wasn’t the only reason to be skeptical either; the center fielder, then a Royal, benefited from a .332 BABIP and walked in only five percent of his plate appearances. These numbers suggested heavily that his approach at the plate had not improved any and that he was getting lucky on balls in play.
Well, Cabrera hasn’t slowed down at all following what was supposed to be his career year. In fact, he’s actually been better this season. Cabrera is hitting .356/.398/.529 and got all of the random glory that comes with being the All-Star game MVP. The other night I heard a Baseball Tonight analyst (I’m not sure which one because they all sound the same and have the same archaic opinions) suggest that not only should we remember that Cabrera was the MVP of baseball for three hours in July, we should start thinking about him as a serious contender for MVP in the National League. Um, should we?
There is really no way to dispute that Cabrera has been extremely lucky again in 2012. The San Francisco Giant center fielder has already been worth 4.1 WAR this season per FanGraphs, but he owes a lot of that to a completely ridiculous and unsustainable .389 BABIP. If Melky Cabrera hits a baseball, he’s going to get on base, or at least that’s what the past 16 months might suggest. It might be tempting to think that Cabrera’s BABIP is a little more skill-oriented since he’s been defying logic for a respectable amount of time now, but a figure as high as .389 isn’t something that can truly happen on purpose. Cabrera’s career .309 rate is pretty normal, and he certainly hasn’t become faster as he nears 30. Cabrera is also still failing to establish patience at the plate, as his walk rate is still a low seven percent in 2012.
So why is Melky faring so well? Other than the inflated BABIP, it’s worth noting that Cabrera is hitting for more power than he ever has before. His .164 and .173 isolated power marks from this season and last are easily the best he’s managed in his career, and he’s seen a career-best 12% of his fly balls exit the yard. So yeah, Melky’s made some improvements. He’s learned to drive the ball, and his low walk rates (actually lower than they’ve ever been in his career) may actually be a function of his learning to drive pitches early in the count rather than being forced to make weak contact later. Cabrera has also posted line drive rates of 20.3% and 22.4% in each of the last two seasons, numbers which are the best he’s ever managed.
There is little doubt that Cabrera has developed into a nice center fielder to have, one above league average, but his insane BABIP is the only thing responsible for even putting him in a position to be mentioned as a MVP candidate. Speaking of which, should we think of Cabrera as a serious MVP contender? Luck aside he’s having a great season, but is he seriously the best player in the National League this season?
No, not at all. Per FanGraphs WAR, Cabrera has been the seventh most valuable player in the NL. That’s a huge accomplishment, but he’s been leaps and bounds behind guys like David Wright, Andrew McCutchen, and Ryan Braun. Backing Cabrera as the NL MVP isn’t something that makes a lot of sense, even if his team has been short on offense as he’s surged. After all, just because a player is on a team that needs a bat more doesn’t mean that his lesser bat is worth more. Or at least I don’t think so, but maybe that’s an argument for another day. So applaud the Melkman for continuing to spit in the wind and proving us all wrong, but you may be a bit disappointed if you start thinking of him as one of the game’s best.