01 April 2008

Yankees Need to Address Melky Problem

The New York Yankees start their season today.


Or at least they’ll try.

After getting rained out in what should have been their last first game of the season in the old Yankee Stadium, they’ll take another stab at it tonight. Fortunately for me, however, the unanticipated delay gives me a chance to discuss an issue that I have come to see as being of paramount importance to the 2008 Yankees’ chances, if not to the very future of the franchise.

Melky Cabrera.

The New York Yankees’ young center fielder is going to kill the Yankees.

OK, not exactly kill them, not yet anyway, but it’s just a matter of time before he does. For all the hype he brings, the “Got Melky?” T-shirts, John Sterling yelling “the Melk-Man delivers!!!” and etc., Cabrera really just isn’t all that good. Worse yet, he’s not likely to become good.

Cabrera, you have been told, “won” the starting center field job from Johnny Damon in 2007, but really, it was Johnny who lost it. He hit only .229 with four extra base hits in April, and though he bounced back a bit in May, his injuries thrust him into an even worse slump in June (.226 with no walks or power in 91 plate appearances that month). By the time he started hitting again, it was too late.

Melky, for his part, was nothing special either. He hit only .200 in sporadic duty in April, and then .254 in May, with a few walks but not much else. But he improved significantly in June, just as Damon was going back in the tank, and then got hot in July and August, just as the Yankees began gaining ground on the Red Sox. He averaged an RBI or a run scored per day that month. Though he tanked in September (hitting .180 with a .220 slugging percentage, thanks to only four doubles and no homers or triples in 100 at-bats), Damon hit well that month, and anyway by then the Yankees’ postseason berth was pretty secure, so nobody noticed.

For the season, Melky hit a respectable .273 with a .327 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage. That gave him a .719 OPS that ranked 53rd among the 57 outfielders who qualified for the batting title in 2007. His Secondary Average and Runs Created per 27 outs both also ranked 53rd, while his Isolated Power was 50th. Near or below him on most of those lists were Corey Patterson, Vernon Wells, Juan Pierre, Coco Crisp, Andruw Jones, Delmon Young and/or David DeJesus. Those guys are all center fielders as well, except for Young, who could be a center fielder if it weren’t for the presence of B.J. Upton and Rocco Baldelli on the Devil Rays’ roster.

Jones and Wells are both very good hitters who had awful years in 2007, but who should bounce back. Crisp has been plagued by injuries since he was traded to Boston two years ago, but he still manages to be a prolific and effective base stealer (60 steals, but caught only 10 times in 2006-07) and an excellent defensive player. Pierre isn’t much for defense, but he has speed to burn, and is an excellent base stealer. (The value of that skill, however, can hardly make up for his poor hitting, and he may be losing his job in LA because of it.) Patterson, too, steals bases often and well, and has shown a little power in the past, though he didn’t much in 2007, and had an off year on defense as well. Young is still, well, very young (21) and hit for some power in the minors (51 homers at three levels in 2004-05) so I suspect that the power will come for him, especially if he learns to lay off a bad pitch once in a while.

But Melky’s different. He’s decent at a lot of things, but not great at anything. He hits for a respectable average. He walks a little. He doesn’t strike out too much. He steals a few bases (13 for 18 in 2007). The jury’s still out on his defense. (Baseball Prospectus rated him as +14 Fielding Runs Above Average last year, but Bill James’ +/- metric says he was 22 plays below average last year, so who knows?) Regardless, it’s clear that he doesn’t stand out in anything, and that may be a problem.

A quick look at the ten most comparable players to Cabrera, (according to Bill James’ Similarity Scores) through their age 22 seasons, reveals some interesting names:

Sixto Lezcano
Max Carey
Chet Lemon
Rick Manning
Harry Heilmann
Roberto Clemente
Cliff Heathcote
Carlos May
Les Mann
Jimmy Sebring

That’s an interesting list. Three of the ten (Carey, Heilmann and Clemente) are Hall of Famers and Chet Lemon and Carlos May were All Stars two or three times each. Not a bad list of comps, all things considered. But remember, these similarity scores are through age 22 only. Part of the reason that Melky’s in such good company is the very fact that he was a regular player at ages 21 and 22, when most players are still in AA or AAA. The fact that he didn’t totally fall flat on his face in the majors at such a young age automatically bodes well for his long term success.
But what about in the short term? Lezcano, Lemon, Heilmann, Heathcote and May all got hurt and missed significant time during their age 23 seasons. That’s probably just a weird coincidence, but you can’t ignore the fact that the more you Play, the more likely you are to get hurt.

Carey, Heilmann, Heathcote and Mann all played in the Dead Ball Era, at least through their age 22 seasons, so any apparent increase in power for them (like Heilmann starting to hit 15-20 home runs every year) likely had more to do with the change in the nature of the game itself than to any real improvement in skills.

Carey was basically a slap hitter and an extremely prolific base stealer (738 of them, 9th place all time) who didn’t hit .300 in a full season between age 22 and age 31, when the Dead Ball Era was ending. Heathcote was decent but unspectacular for about 15 seasons, amassing 500 at-bats in a season only once, at age 28.

Les Mann had his best season at age 22, in the Federal League in 1915, so that hardly counts. He promptly returned to mediocrity in the National League when the Federal League folded. He held on long enough to parlay some success as a part-time player at the end of the Dead Ball Era into a few more years of work, but was never anything to write home about.

As for the others on the list…

Sixto Lezcano: Got a jump in his power at age 23 and hit 15-20 homers a year when he was healthy. At age 25 he hit .329 with 28 homers and 101 RBIs and finished 15th in the NL MVP voting, but never came close to those numbers again and was out of baseball by age 31.
Chet Lemon: Started to hit for some power at age 22, and hit .300 or better three times in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s, though only once in a full season. He was a productive regular or semi-regular through age 33 and retired at age 35, after a couple of down seasons. The Yankees could do a lot worse than to have Melky turn out like this.

Rick Manning: Played for 13 seasons (1975-87) but never hit more than 8 homers in any of them. After hitting .285 and .292 at ages 20 and 21, he never did better than .270 in any other year of his career. He stole some bases, but not always well, and walked once in a while, but not enough to make up for hitting .250 with no power. The Tribe finally got tired of waiting for him to turn into Tris Speaker and traded him to the Brewers in 1983, when he was 28. By the middle of 1984 he was relegated to spot starter/pinch hitter status, and by 1987 he was retired.

Roberto Clemente: A terrific talent, and a deserving Cooperstown enshrine, but he didn’t start hitting for power until he was 25, and then he got some MVP votes every year for a decade. Still he had that great arm and a swing that produced doubles and triples even when he wasn’t hitting homers, so there was a little more reason to believe that Clemente would turn out like that than there is for Cabrera, I think.

Carlos May: May had hit .280+ with power at ages 21 and 22, and though he lost some of the power, he gained in batting average every year from age 21 to age 24, when he hit .308 and made the All-Star team, all the time with lots of walks. At age 25 he hit 20 homers, drove in 96 runs and got a few MVP votes, but after that his career spiraled downward quickly. His power and batting average both disappeared simultaneously, and with them, his playing time. He lost about 100 at bats at ages 27 and 28, then about 150 at age 29, when he hit .236 with a sub-Neifi .623 OPS, and then retired.

Jimmy Sebring: Played in the early 1900’s for the Pirates and Reds, as a regular at ages 21 and 22, but played less than half of a season, badly I might add, at age 23, and then disappeared except for a cup of coffee at age 27. An anomalous data point, at best, given the abbreviated career and the time in which he played.

Bill James’ Similarity Scores, however, are not the only tool for comparing players. Baseball prospectus, for example, has its own methods of comparing players, and they’re a bit more comprehensive than James’ approach, which is based entirely on stats. BP has a list of 20 “comps” to Malky Cabrera for 2007, and these are, in order:

Carlos Beltran
Coco Crisp
Pete Rose
Brian McRae
Rick Manning
Nick Markakis
Reggie Smith
Rondell White
Jim Wohlford
Hosken Powell
Mark Kotsay
Tito Francona
Bernie Williams
Marquis Grissom
Carl Yastrzemski
Shannon Stewart
Ellis Burks
Peter Bergeron
Tom Umphlett
Lee Mazzilli

Most of those guys had long careers, 10 years or more, though some of them were only marginally useful during much of their long careers. Others are in the midst of their career now, so we don’t know how they’ll turn out, though some of the players have been around long enough (Beltran, Stewart, Kotsay) that we have a pretty good idea of what they are.

It should be noted, however, that none of these guys is substantially comparable to Melky. BP indicates that for their scores, which are graded on a 0-100 scale, a score of 50 or higher means a player is substantially comparable to another player. A score of 40, I suppose, is only moderately comparable. Melky’s closest comp, Carlos Beltran, scores a 40, and everyone below that is between 30 and 36. By comparison, Bobby Abreu’s closest comp, Carl Yasztremski, also scores a 40, as does Beltran’s #1 comp, Tom Tresh. It’s like taking the SAT all over again!



When in doubt, you always answer “b”, right?

So I don’t really know what to make of those comparisons, except that we should probably take them with a grain of salt. Still, if you look at the players on that list, and particularly how well they did at age 23, Cabrera’s current age, you can get an idea of how they turned out. The average, age-23 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) among those players was about 3.6. Twelve of the 20 players on the list came close to or exceeded that mark at age 23, or at least demonstrated such ability before that, even if they had a down year at age 23. These were:

Hitter      Yrs. OPS+   Age-23 WARP
Beltran 11 116 1.5
Williams 16 125 3.3
Kotsay 12 100 2.6
Manning 14 84 2.8
Rose 24 118 4.4
Markakis 2 114 6.8
Smith 17 137 7.4
White 17 108 4.6
Yastrzemski 23 129 8.4
Burks 18 126 6.3
Umphlett 3 65 3.9
Mazzilli 14 109 6.6
Average* 15 116 4.7

*I threw Markakis out of the average calculations because this was only his second year, though it was a very good one. In case you’re curious, if you throw Umphlett out, too, the numbers go up to 16.6 years, 117 OPS+ and 4.8 WARP.

The following eight players did not demonstrate the ability to produce at least a 3-3.5 WARP season by age 23:

Hitter      Yrs. OPS+   Age-23 WARP
Crisp 6 94 1.4
McRae 10 92 1.9
Wohlford 15 84 2.9
Powell 6 79 2.5
Francona 15 107 1.3
Grissom 17 92 2.4
Stewart 13 107 1.2
Bergeron      5    56    -1.1
Average 11 93 1.6
Crisp’s career is hardly over, as he’s only 28 this year, but there’s little reason to believe he’ll ever be a star. McRae was a useful player for a while, supplementing his modest hitting skills with his speed, but was washed up at 31.

Francona took a while to get going, thanks to the Korean War, injuries, and managers with the Browns/Orioles and Tigers who never gave him a shot, but when he finally got to play in Cleveland, he did not disappoint. He parlayed the success of hitting .363 at age 25 into four more years of regular work, but by 30, he was basically a spot starter and pinch hitter.

Though he didn’t do much before age 24, Grissom was very good for about 6 years, a 5-tool player, and was useful for another 5 years or so after that. Stewart’s no star, but he’s had four of the 5 tools (no power, really) at one point or another in his career, so teams keep giving him a chance. He’s probably got a year or two left as a fourth outfielder before he can’t hit for enough batting average to keep his job anymore.

For Yankee fans, the really scary names on that list are Jim Wohlford, Hosken Powell and Peter Bergeron, not to mention Umphlett. Wohlford was never really a good hitter, and made a career for himself as a defensive replacement. In other words, these days, he’d never make it. Powell, like Bergeron, never hit, and didn’t last long. Umphlett looked solid as a rookie, getting the only RoY vote that didn’t go to Harvey Kuenn in 1953, but fizzled out quickly after that. Melky has, it seems, already demonstrated superior talents to any of those three, but not vastly superior, and therein lies the problem.

Most of the guys on the list of Cabrera’s comparables who turned out to be any good had done something to establish themselves by this age. Rose and Beltran each won a Rookie of the Year Award at age 22. Francona and Reggie Smith each finished 2nd in the RoY voting at the same age. Yaz was getting MVP votes at age 22, and was an All-Star and serious MVP candidate at 23. Ellis Burks hit 20 homers and stole 27 bases at age 22. And Melky?

Well, he’s got those T-shirts!

In my mind, that’s just not enough. Granted, he’s still young, so he’s cheap, and the Yankees should have plenty of offense, it would seem. But the Yankees do not have the luxury of overlooking a spot in the lineup. Not this year, in which they expect two aging veterans and three sophomore starting pitchers to help carry them into the postseason. Not in a year when Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez are bound to suffer significant declines from their 2007 production levels. Not in a year in which the Red Sox look like they’re well equipped to defend their World Championship.

So here’s the plan: The Yankees still have four outfielders, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Abreu and Cabrera, plus Shelley Duncan on the bench. They don’t have much in AAA, but they could probably get by with Jason Lane or Greg Porter as the 5th outfielder. Damon’s under contract for this and next year and is blocking Cabrera, but his contract and his health (or lack thereof) make him essentially untradeable. Abreu and Matsui are both still productive, so that makes Cabrera the odd man out.

He’s young enough and cheap enough that other teams will want him on his “potential” alone, not to mention the fact that he’s not eligible to be a free agent for three more years. That, and maybe some other mid-level minor league swag, might be just enough to fetch a decent starting pitcher in mid-summer, before the trading deadline.

Some other team, conceding that they need to go into re-building mode, might give up a superfluous pitcher making a little too much money, especially a lefty like Jarrod Washburn or Mark Buehrle, who might do well in Yankee Stadium. Guys like Derek Lowe, Jon Garland or Ben Sheets, in the last years of their contracts and unlikely to be re-signed, could become available if their teams are out of contention in July.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that the Yankees should mortgage their future for a fleeting shot at the 2008 postseason. I am saying that Melky Cabrera is NOT the future, not if he doesn’t start getting really good at something. His pitiful spring (.222 with one extra-base hit – a double - in 63 at-bats) does not bode well for him.

A centerfielder with a good arm but questionable range is destined to be a right fielder, and there are no right fielders who can’t hit 10 homers in a season, or hit .320, or steal 30 bases, or something. If Cabrera wants to be in the future plans for the Yankees – and really, who wouldn’t? – then he’s got to start hitting like a future star.

It’s high time for the Melk-Man to deliver.

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Ardy said...

Well genius, how did you like his HOME RUN and his TWO EYE-POPPING CATCHES TONIGHT, HUH????

--Mr. I-can't-get-YES-without-Extra-Innings-either, whose family lives in nearby Easton...

David Pinto said...

I believe he did tonight.

Travis M. Nelson said...

I love irony. Makes life more interesting.

Heck, this is the best thing that could have happened, for me, anyway: The yankees won, and people are reading my work. Even if they disagree with me (and one game hardly disproves my point, or negates two years and change of lackluster work by the Melkster), well...at least people are reading. Cool stuff.

nick2slick said...

:-). Looks like he killed the BLUE JAYS.