– He’s only 23
– He’s already an above-average outfielder
– His stats compare well with Bernie’s
– We don’t need a 40-homer hitting center fielder
All of these points are valid, though they each have holes in them. Let’s go point-by-point.
He’s only 23
Since this is objective, there’s no denying it. The implication, though, is that he’ll improve over the next few years as he grows into his frame and continues to learn the game of baseball. It’s nice to assume that, but not every young player improves.
Take Melky’s most similar players through age 22. Yeah, it’d be superb to have him turn out like Chet Lemon, Harry Heilmann, or Roberto Clemente. Hell, I’d even sign up for Sixto Lezcano (a few well above-average years, average or above most others) or Max Carey (almost perfectly average).
But then you get guys like Rick Manning, who was good in his age 20 and 21 seasons, but completely sucked after that. Surely there were Indians fans back then saying “oh, he’s only 22, he’s going to improve.” And they saw him turn into a liability. Same with Cliff Heathcote. Solid first three seasons, and then off to the realm of mediocrity.
Just because a player is average when he’s young does not necessary mean that he’ll improve. As evidenced above, for every Chet Lemon there’s a Rick Manning. Melk could reasonably turn out to be either one, or he could split the difference. But in any event, his growth as a player is not guaranteed.
He’s already an above-average outfielder
If you’re talking strength and accuracy, I have no defense. We saw it constantly from Melky over the past two seasons. He’s got a cannon, and he can put the ball on button. Problem is, that’s not all there is to being a good center fielder.
Now, he’s young and decently speedy, so he can use that to make up for poor initial judgments on flyballs. However, there are plenty of pitfalls that come with this. Some day, his legs aren’t going to be what they once were. This could be because of injury or the natural tolls of age. But whatever it is, unless he learns to take better routes to flyballs, he’s not going to be a complete outfielder.
Melky ranked in the lower half of the league as a center fielder in Dave Pinto’s PMR. Now, this isn’t exact, nor is it all-telling. But it’s one measure that shows him getting to fewer balls, on average, than his peers. Even Zone Rating has him barely in the top-half of the AL, though he does look better when compared to the entire league.
In regards to defense, we often find ourselves trusting our eyes more than anything else. What I see with my eyes is a guy with decent range, but who rarely gets a good first step. He suffices in center for now, but unless he improves his skills at tracking flyballs, he’s going to become a liability out there one day. Thankfully, odds are that day doesn’t come for a while.
His stats compare well with Bernie’s
As you saw earlier this week, we we don’t buy into that logic very much. The game does extend beyond stats (hence the successes and failures of Melky’s most comparable list).
We’ve often mentioned the size difference between Bernie and Melky. Most places have this as three inches, though it’s probably closer to four. But in any regard, that’s not the issue. You can look to their swings as evidence of their dissimilarity.
This would be a whole ton easier if we had side-by-side animations of their swings, but suffice it to say that they’re not a whole ton a like. Bernie always had a short, compact swing. He had a sharp pivot on his back leg, and kind of threw the bat through the zone, a la Johnny Damon (though their swings aren’t comparable in many other ways). This is actually why Bernie declined so rapidly in his later years. He relied on his killer bat speed, for which he utilized his legs, abs, lower back, and arms. Once one of those cogs started to weaken, as they are wont to do when you’re over 30, his swing started to come apart.
Melky is frequently referred to as a “slap hitter,” mainly for his lack of power. To me, though, this moniker is well-deserved because of the way he swings his bat, not the result. To me, he looks all arms. He tosses the bat through the zone like Bernie and Damon, but he doesn’t utilize his core muscles as much as Bernie. Or at least that’s how it appears.
We don’t need a 40-homer hitting center fielder
Traditionally, center field is a defensive-minded position. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t need heavy hitters in that position. For an example, we need to look no further than the Yankees dynasty. You know why the Yankees were able to succeed on offense during that time? They had heavy hitters in traditionally defensive-minded slots. Bernie in center, Derek at short, and Mariano Duncan (simply amazing in ’96) and Chuck Knoblauch at second.
So when we had to skimp in other places, like when we had Chad Curtis in left field, we could handle the offensive drop-off. When you have well above average players at certain positions, it lessens the need for superstars at others. How did the Yanks win the World Series in ’99 and ’00 with such a below-average offensive third baseman? Because we had Jorge catching, Bernie in center, Derek at short, and Knobby at second. Then all you need are average players at the other positions, because you’re generating so much more offense compared to the rest of the league from the premium positions.
No, it’s not critical to have a slugging center fielder on a championship team. But it sure does help. Yeah, we have a well above average third baseman, which helps offset the lack of production from some other positions. But it’s then tougher to field a league-average first baseman and corner outfielders (relative to their positions).
By no means do I want Melky to fail. He’s a New York Yankee, and goddammit, I hope he turns into Bernie Williams times a hundred. But there’s a point where what I’m seeing doesn’t match up to the hype.
So I’m not writing him off. I’m just remaining very skeptical until my eyes see otherwise.