Is Melky’s hot start for real?

AL East Roundup: 5/4/09 through 5/10/09
Mo back to pumping his regular old fastball

Melky walk-off homerIn a season in which it seems that everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the Yanks, one of the few bright spots has been Melky Cabrera. RAB’s favorite whipping boy has shown off some newfound plate discipline en route to taking the everyday center field job from the obviously overmatched Brett Gardner. But Melky’s teased us before. Just last year he hit .299-.370-.494 in April before sliding to .235-.281-.300 the rest of the season. Why should we think that this season will be any different?

Well, for starters there’s that new plate discipline. Melky has seen just over four pitches per plate appearance (4.09 to be exact) in 2009 after seeing between 3.65 and 3.67 P/PA over the last three years (props for the consistency). He’s seeing more pitches because he’s swinging at less pitches, and in fact he’s swinging less than he ever has at any point in his career. Here, check it out:

Swing Rate

First of all, remember to click on the graph for a larger view, just like every other graph in the history of RAB. Secondly, all this data comes from Melky’s player page at FanGraphs. Thirdly, you can see that Melk is on a three year trend of swinging at fewer and fewer pitches. The most important thing is that he isn’t hacking at as many pitches out of the zone, and as anyone who’s watched him swing at a ball at his eyes for strike three knows, those are the most frustrating swings. Unsurprisingly, Melky’s walk rate this year is a career best 11.0%, an increase of nearly 33% from his career walk rate.

But taking more pitches out of the zone isn’t just about drawing more walks however, it also means that Melky has been putting himself in more good counts to hit in. He’s worked a 2-0 count in 17.6% of his plate appearances this year, and a 3-1 count 12.1% of the time. Last year those numbers were just 16.1% and 7.7%, respectively. There’s more to this than just taking pitches, though. Making contact when the Melkster has swung also has something to do with it. Let’s have a look:

Contact Rate

Melky’s always had a knack for getting the bat on the ball, the reason why he’s always posted well below average strikeout rates (career K% = 13.1%, lg avg over the last four years is around 19.0%). This year though, Melky’s making less contact on pitches that are out of the zone. That means fewer weak grounders on pitches down and fewer pop ups to the infield on pitches up. The combination of taking more pitches out of the zone and not making as much contact on those you do swing at appears to have worked out well for the Melkman so far. Now, is this a significant, and more importantly a sustainable skill? I have absolutely no friggin’ idea, so it’s something we’ll have to monitor throughout the year.

Looking around at the rest of his numbers, Melky’s BABIP is a little high at .354 (.298 career), but it’s not absurdly high like Kevin Youkilis’ AL leading .446 BABIP. That’ll regress some, but it shouldn’t drop to the point that he becomes totally useless with the stick again. His line drive percentage is through the roof at 24.6%, far above his career mark of 18.9%. That will certainly come down as the season goes on, sapping a little production. I don’t think anyone was expecting Melk to remain a .937 OPS player the rest of the year, but we’re all hoping that he doesn’t turn back into the .641 OPS player he was last year.

Obviously this post gets all sorts of small sample size warnings. The season is just thirty-one games old and Melky has started just twenty of those games, so we’re really going out on a limb here. The good news is tha Melky’s improved plate discipline isn’t isolated to just 2009; he had a 12.3% walk rate in winter ball this past offseason, which is apparently part of the reason why the Yanks didn’t acquire Mike Cameron. I’m cautiously optimistic that Melky’s taken a step in the right direction, and is on his way to becoming a league average, or even (gasp!) above-average Major League center fielder. He is only 24, after all.

Photo Credit: Frank Franklin, AP

AL East Roundup: 5/4/09 through 5/10/09
Mo back to pumping his regular old fastball
  • Mattingly’s Love Child

    Melky has been a very pleasant surprise. There is a growing group of players that have improved their discipline at the big league level, hopefully Melky will be another one of these success stories! Though I’m still not going to be surprised if everything goes to hell in a hand basket this month with him.

  • A.D.

    Nice to see Melk improving the plate discipline, even if the OBP & power drop, just making himself a harder out is nice to see.

    In addition to swinging at less pitches out of the zone, it seems (though may not be able to quantify this) that he is swinging at less particularly bad pitches out of the zone, none of the balls that are above the chest that he has no chance at, and a lot less at garbage in the dirt.

    If he can return the batter he was in ’06 that would be a nice step up from the past few years.

  • andrew

    I don’t think Melky’s decreased contact rate with pitches out of the zone is a sustainable skill, considering the goal of the swing is to make contact with every swing, regardless of whether the ball is in or out of the zone. The sustainable skill, however, is plate discipline. If Melky continues to swing at less balls and more strikes, he may be in for a slight readjustment due to BABIP, but not the drastic “falling back to earth” that some people have been anticipating. I, like everyone else, am certainly hoping that Melky can keep up good the plate discipline.

    • whozat

      “I don’t think Melky’s decreased contact rate with pitches out of the zone is a sustainable skill, considering the goal of the swing is to make contact with every swing, regardless of whether the ball is in or out of the zone.”

      Well…the goal of swinging is to put a good swing on the ball, except with two strikes when you just need to make contact if the pitch is close. It could be a result of him being ahead in the count, picking a zone and taking a good swing if the pitch is in that zone — and missing sometimes instead of compromising the swing just to make contact. He’d be ahead in the count, so he could afford to do that. Just speculation, but I think it’s feasible.

    • Mattingly’s Love Child

      His line drive percentage is way up from past years (24.6% vs 18.1% for his career). Granted that may be the result of swinging at better pitches to hit, but it seems like a huge jump. Even with that improved discipline, will it be possible to sustain such a BA and BABIP if he doesn’t hit as many line drives as he’s hitting now?

      • whozat

        “will it be possible to sustain such a BA and BABIP if he doesn’t hit as many line drives as he’s hitting now?”

        No. BABiP is pretty much a function of LD% and luck. The improved plate discipline can only help, though, by getting him better pitches to swing at and putting him on base even when he’s struggling with the bat a little bit.

  • UWS

    Awww, pfui! You done jinxed him, Axisa.

    • http://www.new.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/profile.php?id=594331910&ref=name Jamal G.

      Seriously, I was hoping they would avoid a post of this sort until June or some crap.

  • The Lodge

    And let’s not forget that he still is only 24. Maturation occurs at different ages for different hitters. Is he too old to say that he still has Untapped Potential (Upside)? I think not.

    • jsbrendog

      could be like pitchers. a guy who comes up at 21-22 and moves around but puts it all together around 26-27. happens. just need to learn “how to hit” (cliche alert!!)

      • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Aunt Becca-Optimist Prime

        There’s a reason BP refers to the magical Age 27 season

    • whozat

      He could have upside, sure. I think the people who looked at his early numbers and thought “Bernie Williams Redux” were overshooting by quite a bit (Bernie’s peak years were really quite excellent), but if this plate discipline is for real, he could certainly get himself to be a 95 – 105 OPS+ player which, with average CF range and a plus arm, is a solid player.

      • jsbrendog

        “Bernie was the most feared hitter of his generation”©®™

        • Mattingly’s Love Child

          AMEN TO THAT! If we keep saying it, people will start to believe it….

          • Joey

            You forgot to end that

            Love,

            The MSM

      • Chris

        I think ‘really quite excellent’ is selling Bernie short. Bernie posted a .339/.422/.575/.997 line in 1998 as an everyday CF. The only center fielder to top that in any seasons since 2000 was Jim Edmonds.

        • whozat

          effing great from 1996 – 2002?

          • Chris

            That’s better.

          • Mattingly’s Love Child

            effing great MOST FEARED from 1996 – 2002?

            Fixed.

            • Mattingly’s Love Child

              WTF?! HTML Fail!

              • Mister Delaware

                And Edmonds is spectaculary underrated in his own right.

        • DocBooch

          Bernie was at the over the hill age of 30 in 1998. His first full season in 93 (age 25) he posted .266/.333/.400/.733

          Hardly stellar and not too far from Melky’s .249/.301/.391/.692 last year at the age of 24

          The only concern is that Bernie had a lot less plate appearances even at that age.

          I think we still need to give the Melk Man a chance

          • whozat

            “I think we still need to give the Melk Man a chance”

            No one’s saying not to.

            HOWEVER

            Using a naive by-the-numbers comparison for young players is not particularly useful. The swings of the two individuals in questions are wildly different, and Bernie’s was much better. Does this mean I think Melky is a useless bust? NO IT DOES NOT. Does it mean I think he won’t have Bernie’s career? Yes, I do think that.

  • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Aunt Becca-Optimist Prime

    Agreeing with UWS here =P

    Still, how wonderful it is to see the Yankees wait on a prospect! Wouldn’t be awesome if Melky came out and surprised us all?

    • thurdonpaul

      i like melky, usually, lol, except when he swings at that pitch above his head
      it reminds me of the movie a league of there own,with the one sister always saying, but i like the high ones

  • Will (the other one)

    Without having any idea whatsoever whether he’ll keep up these types of improvements over the course of the season, I have to say that what Melky’s been able to do so far is awesome for two reasons.

    1) It seems evident that both Melky and the coaching staff have done a commendable job both of addressing obvious flaws and of making sure he’s come into the season focused and with the right attitude. Especially for the coaches, who’ve taken a lot of flak (rightly or wrongly) over the last couple weeks, this is a nice reminder of all the positive work they do behind the scenes.

    2) Can anybody imagine what we’d all be doing right now if we’d had to deal with all the current setbacks AND Melky was currently tearing it up in a White Sox or Brewers uniform? Sure, we might still be dealing with a solid situation in center field, but whoever it was out there wouldn’t be 24 years old and on a tear since he left New York. What a nightmare that would be…

    • jsbrendog

      kevin long +2 [for now]

      (melk and cano)

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

        -1 Teixeira.

        • jsbrendog

          yeah but tex does have the wrist thing, and the whole trying to live up to the huge contract. he will be fine, but i dont think kevin long is as responsible for tex doing poorly as much as he is responsible for cano/melky doing well

        • http://theyankeeuniverse.com Moshe Mandel

          Eh, I dont believe these coaches have much of an impact with established hitters- maybe they can help with minor adjustments or guys coming off injuries, but not going to pull the guy out of a slump. Put it this way- if Melky has a career year, I’ll tip my cap to Long, but not if Damon has a great season.

        • Chris

          Tex’s line so far this year: .198/.338/.434/.772
          Tex’s line last year through 5/14: .254/.350/.423/.772
          Tex’s 2007 line through 5/4: .257/.362/.404/.766
          Tex’s 2006 line through 5/12: .264/.355/.431/.786

          Were all those previous year’s Kevin Long’s fault too, or just this year?

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

            It was a joke.

            • jsbrendog

              well played.

            • Chris

              I sort of thought that, but you never know with some of the crazy stuff people really believe…

              • Klemy

                Come on though, it’s still 50 to 60 points higher in those seasons. That’s still a bad comparison to try and make, even if they’re joke got past you. :)

                • Chris

                  His OPS is basically the same. That’s the stat that matters most.

      • tim randle

        Long=1
        (Cano+Melky-Tex=1)

    • Mister Delaware

      Well, Cameron would be tearing it up for us so we may not even notice.

      Nice article. I’ve found myself still thinking Melky looks fooled too often and chases too many bad pitches (with that weird, flat-footed swing he occasionally features) but hopefully he really has turned a corner and I’m still just hung up on previous biases. I’ll always trust data over my observations.

  • http://thebatshatters.blogspot.com the artist formerly known as (sic)

    Mike, very nice piece. Quick question, where does one go to find stats like the league average K percentage? Fangraphs?

  • Ber

    Are these comparisons to April (or the first 20 games) of last year or to the whole year? If they are to the whole year, they mean nothing.
    I would like to see him do well, but it will take a few months of decent production for me to believe that this is real.

  • Mike HC

    I never doubted that Melky could be a serviceable major league player. And with his further development this year, as Axisa stated, there seems to be a chance his ceiling could be an average to above average centerfielder. Even so, is that really good enough for the Yankee centerfielder? We are not talking about some everyday team, but a team that demands a world series championship year after year. I know Melky’s improvement probably means we should not look too hard for other short term options, since Melky may be able to fill that short term void if he keeps it up, but I don’t think he is the long term answer no matter what. In a perfect world, Melky would be the 4th outfielder in my opinion. I guess Austin Jackson could be the long term answer, but I remember something about him playing left field, possibly setting up the replacement for Damon next year, with both Melky and Jackson in the same outfield. It is a little early to predict all this, but do people believe Melky could be the long term answer?

    • steve (different one)

      no, especially b/c he’s not even going to be all that cheap going forward.

      BUT….if he can hold down the fort until AJAX is ready and then become a legitimate 4th OFer, there is nothing wrong with that.

    • whozat

      I don’t believe Melky can be the short-term answer, even — yet.

      And Jackson was playing LF only because they wanted him to be more flexible, in case he needed to be in the same OF as Gardner (if the latter wound up in AAA this year). If Jackson can play CF — and it looks like he can — he will play in CF. I mean, if he’s in the same OF on the same day as a guy who’s BETTER at defending in CF, they want him to have experience in LF as well, but in general…he’ll be a CFer if he can hack it defensively.

    • JP

      I think you have to take what you can get, and weigh all options, before you can answer your question of whether Melky is good enough to be “The Yankee Centerfielder.”

      In an ideal world, you want someone with power, a great glove, speed, etc. Melky may be nothing more than an average player…but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have the job.

      He’s 24. So he stays healthy, mostly. He’s a switch hitter. He has a strong throwing arm. He’s inexpensive. We can expect plateau or improvement for 5-7 years on him if he stays healthy.

      For me, that’s a very good reason to keep him as the CF. You might find an established player with better offense, but chances are he’ll cost much more than Melky, be older (and thus have a shorter horizon of plateu, or possibly even be a decline phase guy), and it’s likely you won’t find a strong hitting CF who is as good defensively as Melky.

      For me, it’s a no-brainer to keep him in CF. I wonder if the Gardner thing was nothing more than an organizational ploy to see what Melky was made of. Gardner runs well and plays decent OF, but beyond that, he’s a zero. Maybe they can make him a SS. ;-)

  • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

    I’m not holding my breath….but I’m liking what I see from Melky. It’ll be nice to actually watch the games instead of Gamedaying them.

    • http://mantisfists.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/julius-carry-aka-shonuff.jpg The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      Just read your profile at BBD… Go Big Red.

      • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

        The Honorable Congressman is from Greenwich?!

        • http://mantisfists.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/julius-carry-aka-shonuff.jpg The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

          Heh, yeah, my parents moved there when I was in elementary school. I grew up on the mean streets of Greenwich.

          • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

            What year did you graduate from GHS?

            • http://mantisfists.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/julius-carry-aka-shonuff.jpg The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

              ’97, I’m old.

              • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

                Ah, word. My sister graduated in ’98.

                • http://mantisfists.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/julius-carry-aka-shonuff.jpg The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

                  Small world, huh.

        • putt

          Are you a fan of Arcuri’s? I love me some buffalo chix pizza!

          • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

            Glenville Pizza >>>>> everything.

            • putt

              Really? I taught in Greenwich for a little while and I loved Arcuri’s and Chicken Joe’s. Sure it wasn’t the healthiest food around, but it was good. I’ll have to give Glenville a shot next time I’m back in CT.

              • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

                I had Chicken Joe’s for lunch today. Ruggie wrap + fried zuchinni.

  • Bo

    Melky is a perfect 4th Outfielder.

  • http://www.twitter.com/MatthewHarris84 Matt H

    Always been a Melky guy, and I’m glad he’s finally proving me right…I have already collected some friendly wagers from friends about an over/under May 1st on when Melky would take back the starting job.

    Speed is the only thing Gardner has over Melky, and well I guess a better bunter, but most super speed guys are good bunters.

    I am most impressed at his more ‘selectivity’ at the plate. I think that’s something he worked at.

    I guess he needed a little shake up to get his head on right.

  • Nady Nation

    I think the reason for Melky’s increase in P/PA is quite simple: He’s channeled his inner Bobby Abreu by switching over to Come Dulce’s old number.

    • jsbrendog

      ietc

    • http://www.twitter.com/MatthewHarris84 Matt H

      Sweet as Candy!

  • Jake H

    Hopefully Melky can keep it up for the year then have Jackson in the wings for next.

  • dkidd

    do players ever sustain a 6% jump in line drive percentage? wouldn’t a player who spent the winter learning to put himself in hitter’s counts start making contact with more authority? are there other players who “figured it out” and made this kind of jump without it being just a SSS anomaly?

    i’m looking for reasons to stay optimistic

    • JP

      The problem with the idea of “figuring it out” is that most people – not all, but most – even when they figure something out, revert to their lowest common denominator when the pressure is on. I think when you are a young major league player, if you can stack up some successful experiences under pressure, you can “figure out” how not to choke. But this is different from learning a new approach to hitting and seeing it come through in routine situations.

      Not to harp on Red Sox players, but we see them alot…Pedroia was terrible in his first few months in the majors. But once he figured out MLB pitching, he was good in all situations.

      My anecdotal observation is that Cabrera and Cano still tend to rehash their bad habits when they are in the toughest situations. I might be wrong; I may be falling prey to pessimism. But that’s how it appears to me.

  • Mister Delaware

    Fun fact: Teixeira is current last in the AL with a 10.7% LD rate (with a .182 BABIP). Bay is 6th worst in the AL at 13.6% (with a .361 BABIP). Hit luck, even with similar LD%, can be rough I guess …

    • http://theyankeeuniverse.com Moshe Mandel

      Wow. That suggests Bay is headed for a major crash. High BABIP not backed up by high LD rate= collapse.

      • Mister Delaware

        He was the same way in Boston last year (14.0% with a .354 BABIP). You wonder if there’s another factor involved (conscious use of the green monster, odd recording of line drives hit off said monster, etc). Or maybe its just a <400 PA anomaly.

      • http://www.twitter.com/MatthewHarris84 Matt H

        Jason Bay will never be as good as he’s going right now again this year…

        • Accent Shallow

          He is a right-handed hitter playing half his games in a bandbox for RHH. So while he’s gonna cool off, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him post excellent numbers.

          The low LD%/high BABIP is an interesting split, though. Perhaps just a quirk of the PIT and BOS official scorers?

          http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/what-i-hate-about-line-drives/

          Is an article on the variation of LD% between parks.

          • NaOH

            “He is a right-handed hitter playing half his games in a bandbox for RHH. So while he’s gonna cool off, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him post excellent numbers.”

            Interestingly, Bay’s BA/OBP/SLG are all notably better on the road.

            Home: .305/.432/.644
            Road: .347/.508/.694

            So far this seaon, the only noticeable home benefit is the common one for Fenway Park: more doubles. It is early, though.

  • MelkyFan

    Melky’s been great so far, hopefully he can keep it up!

  • Klemy

    I hope he can keep it up, but it’s going to have to go on longer to win me back. If he’s going to fool me again, it’s going to be for the better.

  • JP

    Nice analysis. Cano is a more powerful hitter, and a better hitter, but the two players are similar in that they still seem to suffer from big time inconsistency and that both have yet to show us the really big hits against good pitchers. I’m not pretending to be experts in their careers–maybe someone will tell me about big clutch hits one of them had off Beckett or Papelbon or something. But I think we can agree we don’t relax and expect good things when one of these two is up there with the game on the line.

    I don’t know what a player has to do to “graduate” from being a serviceable major leaguer to a very good player, a star or almost-star. But I still hold hope that both of these players has the ability to become a star.

    One of the reasons I had mixed feelings about the choice of Girardi as manager was that I thought Mattingly might be a good influence on Cano and Cabrera…that if he had a year or two to work with them, he might teach them to be more consistent hitters.

    • Mister Delaware

      I actually love seeing guys like Cano and Melky up in big RISP spots against elite K pitchers like Papelbon. Just knowing they have better odds of putting the ball in play is enough for me in those instances.

  • dkidd

    what is considered a “neutral” (neither lucky or unlucky) BABIP?

    what’s an “average” line drive percentage?

    • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tADvb3yyhwM Slugger27

      babip really just depends on the hitter… derek jeter having a 360 babip may not be “lucky” but jose molina having that might be… it plays off your ld%

      generally a good ld% is anything over 20

      • Mister Delaware

        Right. Average LD% is 18-19% with the average BABIP usually around .300-.305 (hence xBABIP being LD% + .120).

        • dkidd

          thanks for this!

          what could explain jason bay having a low LD% and high BABIP over the course of his career?

          also, who would you say is the “luckier” player?

          player with high LD%, low BABIP
          player with low LD%, high BABIP

  • JL25and3

    Let’s not get too worked up about his improved plate discipline. Last April he averaged 4.12 P/PA, and we know what happened after that.

    So far, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen from Melky before. I hope it turns out to be different, but it isn’t yet.

    • Rob in CT

      I’ll second this. We’ve been burned before. I’d love for this to be “real” but I doubt it. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  • jose molina

    Great analysis. Hopefully Melky is able to progress, after all he is still only 24. I think best case scenario would have AJax in center and Melky in right. Melky does not take above average routes on the majority of balls he has to retreat for, although by no means am I saying he is a below average defensive outfielder, he belongs in right field. I’m not sure if the Yankees will ever consider moving Swisher to left if/when Jax is ready and if Melky happens to pan out.

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