Melky Cabrera: Ninja of Ineptitude

Melky Cabrera sits contemplating the human condition. - USA TODAY Sports

Melky Cabrera has been sneakily having himself an absolutely terrible year. Can he turn it around before anyone notices?

There have been a great deal of compelling stories surrounding the Blue Jays this year both of the uplifting and depressing variety. There have been more depressing stories than uplifting ones in the overall scheme of things but the team has settled in nicely of late and it's hard to complain.There is no denying that from shocking under-performance, to horrifying injuries, to surprising contributors, it has been an interesting season for the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays. Interesting seasons are a good things for fans, but the more big narratives there are the more the little ones fall through the cracks. That brings me to today's topic. Melky Cabrera. Melky Cabrera has cruised through his first season with the Blue Jays so far without attracting a great deal of attention. He has played through some leg problems, but he has generally hit near the top of the lineup and has avoided either the ire or praise of most Blue Jays fans. This is quite interesting because so far Melky Cabrera has been positively awful.

In 2013 Cabrera has gone about being a poor player in the stealthiest way possible, by hitting for a solid batting average and not doing anything else well. Even in the current day and age, batting average is often the first stat that fans are exposed to and with a .275 average going into last night's game Cabrera looks like a respectable top of the order presence. The problem is everything else he does. Here is the rest of his line in 2013:

OBP

SLG

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

WAR

.320

.370

.094

.304

89

-0.1

Cabrera is putting on a clinic in the concept of "empty average". He really isn't walking enough and he isn't hitting for much in the way of power either. To be fair to Melky, his WAR number is depressed by poor fielding and base running scores that are probably affected by the fact he is playing through leg injuries. Base running in particular has always been a strength of his so it's likely to rebound as the season continues and he gets healthier. Even so, by the Fangraphs version of WAR Cabrera has been as valuable to the Blue Jays this year as Henry Blanco.

What sort of confuses me is how this isn't really news. The Blue Jays have a lead weight sitting in their leadoff hole and it seems to be slipping through the cracks. Cabrera was expected to regress from his career year in 2012 where he had an unsustainable .379 BABIP but I think most saw him as at least an average offensive player going forward. Unfortunately, he hasn't been particularly close to average.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that this is not about PED's. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I don't think we have any idea how to quantify the effect of PEDs or neat stopping and starting points for guys who have used them. It seems like a lazy way to explain things and I don't think things are that simple with Melky.

Now that we've established the extent of Cabrera's struggles, the more interesting question is what the cause of his struggles is. When analyzing changes in how a hitter is performing the first place I like to look is his strikeout and walk rates. A radical change in either of these rates can signify a change in approach or ability to make contact that could explain changes in performance. Here are Melky's walk and strikeout rates over the last three years as well as his career rates:

Year

BB%

K%

2011

5.0%

13.3%

2012

7.2%

12.6%

2013

6.4%

12.4%

Career Stats

7.3%

12.1%

Melky is walking a bit less than he has in the past, but not a significant amount. He is striking out approximately the same amount as well. If we acknowledge that Cabrera hasn't changed his approach very much the next logical place to look is the batted ball data. Here are what Cabrera's batted balls look like over the same time period:

Year

BABIP

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB

IFH%

2011

.332

20.3%

47.1%

32.6%

10.9%

9.8%

9.8%

2012

.375

21.8%

52.2%

26.1%

11.7%

10.7%

7.3%

2013

.307

22.4%

46.5%

31.1%

10.7%

4.0%

3.6%

Career Stats

.309

19.9%

48.9%

31.2%

11.2%

7.1%

7.4%

We see that Cabrera is putting the ball in play approximately the same way he always has, which makes sense given his BABIP is about at his career average. However, there are a couple of numbers that stand out here. The first is his HR/FB rate, which after rising in recent years has completely bottomed out to a level far below his career average. Does that mean that Cabrera has lost all his pop? So far it seems so, but that may not be entirely true. One interesting indicator of power that has come out recently is average fly ball distance. This measure is used most often as a tool to predict which hitters are on the verge of a power breakouts or declines, but here I think it can be used as something of a barometer for Melky's power. Comparing his 2012 season, where he set a career high in HR/FB, and his awful 2013 perhaps we can see if Cabrera's power has deserted him:

2012 Average Fly Ball Distance: 269.23 feet

2013 Average Fly Ball Distance: 269.65 feet

It seems like Cabrera's fly balls are going the same distance, it's just that fewer of them are going over the wall. There is probably an element of bad luck here and quite a few near misses. I would expect his HR/FB rate to climb at least back to his career rate as the season goes on. Nothing bolsters a slash line like a few dingers.

The second number that sticks out for me is Cabrera's incredibly low infield hit rate of 3.6%. This probably has a great deal to do with his leg problems and is bound to get better as he heals. Right now Cabrera is hitting .179 on groundballs compared to a career rate of .256 which is likely a combination of inability to beat out infield hits and a little bit of bad luck getting ground balls through the infield.

If these rates come back towards Cabrera's norms he could see his average creep towards .300 with enough jump in his OBP and SLG to result in respectable offensive production. Combining that with the better defense and base running that will come along with any improvement in Cabrera's legs, Melky has a chance to look a lot more like the player Blue Jays fans had in mind when he signed at what looked like a bargain before the season. Although that still doesn't make him a good candidate for the leadoff spot given his weak walk rate, Jose Reyes is on the verge of making that a moot point anyway.

While I am very critical of what Melky Cabrera's start to 2013, I am optimistic of his potential to do better down the stretch. Cabrera's struggles seem to have flown under the radar so far and for good reason. With a seven game win streak on there are more powerful narratives out there at the moment. From Esmil Rogers, to Chien-Ming Wang to Adam Lind there is a quite a lot to be excited about. A disappointing left fielder just doesn't seem that important right now. It's definitely not as fun to for fans to think about. That being said, it might be kind of fun to see what Melky Cabrera is really capable of in the back half this season.

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