What Went Wrong: Starts with an M, ends with -elkyBy
It’s no secret that we’re not fans of Melky Cabrera around here. We didn’t think the Yanks were making the right move in awarding him the center field job this year, and we thought the Yanks should have traded Cabrera last year when his stock was high.
After a hot April, we thought we were wrong, and we were happy to allow for the possibility. In fact, through the first week of May, it seemed as though Melky had arrived. After 31 games, Melky was hitting .291/.359/.505 with 6 HR and 17 RBI. It was all downhill from there.
Over his final 311 ABs, spanning 335 plate appearances, Melky was abysmal. He hit .235/.280/.286 with just 2 HR and 20 RBI. After walking 12 times in his first 118 plate appearances, he managed to draw just 17 free passes over that final 335 PAs. Melky Cabrera became an out machine.
As the season wore on and Melky’s numbers grew more and more grim, the Yankees did nothing. A mid-July Brett Gardner call-up didn’t net anything in the way of a replacement, and the Yanks were quick to send Brett packing. In August, the team had finally had enough, and after acquiring Xavier Nady, they moved Johnny Damon into center and Nady into left. Melky landed in AAA. While the Yankee defense would subsequently struggle — odd considering that Melky is largely overrated in center — the team had rid itself of blackhole in the lineup.
But the damage had been done. On the season, Melky was below average in every regard. For the third straight season, his rate stats (BA/OBP/SLG) declined, and his OPS+ hit 70, well below the league average. Melky managed to make Jason Varitek look like an offensive force at the plate this year. Sabermetrically, Melky pulled down a VORP of -4.0. Of players who had as many plate appearances, Melky was far and away the least productive. Replacement level would have been better, and once Brett Gardner found his groove in September, that replacement level player was better.
The question now though is twofold. First, what went wrong? A quick glance as Melky’s batting stats reveal that he was slightly unlucky this year. His BABIP, a mark which should hover around .290, was .271. His line drive percentage was steady, and his groundball rates decreased. By his fly ball numbers spiked. After a six-home run start to the season, Melky was trying to elevate his pitches, and he couldn’t get out of that rut. He didn’t hit all with runners in scoring position and struck out more often this year than last.
The next of course concers Melky’s future. Where does he go from here? It’s pretty clear that the Yanks have thankfully written him off. They will actively search for a center fielder this year and will probably be inclined to make Melky really earn his way onto the team next year if Melky isn’t traded. But trading Melky will be a problem too. If I were a GM, I wouldn’t be too keen to pick up a kid with a good arm who can’t hit particularly well and doesn’t take the best approach to fielding his position.
By himself, Melky wasn’t responsible for the Yankees’ lost season. But he was a part of it. An average outfielder — far above replacement level — such as Marlon Byrd or Vernon Wells would have netted a VORP in the mid-20s, and that three-win swing would have brought the Yanks that much closer to the playoffs.
In the end, I don’t like to gloat or revel in it. I would have rather seen Melky turn into a star or, at the very least, a serviceable center fielder. But for now, it looks like we were right, and the Yanks are stuck looking to fill a center field hole in a year in which the pickings are slim to say the least.