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How Long Should the Giants Keep Melk-ing It?

…because you come here for the super clever post titles. No one has ever played off of the Melk/milk thing before, right?

Melky Cabrera is at it again. After a disastrous 2010 season in Atlanta, the Melk-Man (BOOM! It’s like MILK-Man, get it?) bounced back for a career year with the Royals in 2011. He was a good bet to regress, right? The Royals, who had Lorenzo Cain on deck, traded Cabrera to the Giants for much-needed pitching help in the form of one Jonathan Sanchez. So, how’s that going? It actually seemed like a fair need-for-need trade at the time, but while Sanchez has crashed, burned, and gotten hurt in Kansas City, Cabrera has been on fire in San Francisco. He’s been so good so far this season, that the team is reportedly already considering an in-season extension. Is Cabrera a different player than he used to be? How much would a reasonable extension be?

Having brought in Angel Pagan (also hitting decently so far, by the way), the Giants smartly moved Cabrera to the outfield corners, mostly left. While his advanced defensive metrics saw him as bad in center in 2011 rather than mind-bendingly awful, his past performance and the eye test saw him as much worse than that, so it is a pretty safe bet so see him as something an average-fielding corner outfielder at this point in his career.

The big thing that is sparking all this extension talk around Melky is his bat, of course. His 118 wRC+ (.305/.339/.470) line in 2011 restored some confidence, but even aside from the usual BABIP comments, reasonable people taking past performance and regression to the mean into account thought he would take a step back in 2012. That step back may still be coming (after all, it’s only mid-May), but so far, Melky’s line: .333/.380/.487 (139 wRC+). So how “real” is Melky at the moment? What is his true talent?

The easiest, and, honestly, probably the best thing to do is just to look at something like ZiPS RoS projections, since it does all the necessary weighting, regressing, and adjusting of each component for us. That system currently has Melky hitting .292/.337/.442 (.338 wOBA) for the rest of the season. But let’s briefly take a closer look at some components to see if Melky has made any changes that might indicate a big difference.

The main things that sparked Cabrera’s 2011 “breakout” (a term of which I am suspicious) were an increase in his home run rate and his average on balls in play. When breaking down his rates more carefully, one sees basically the same result. The only other obvious change between pre-2011 Melky and 2011 Melky was a lower walk rate.

In 2012, Cabrera has kept his BABIP high. In fact, it is much higher than in 2011.. His .332 BABIP in 2011 might have seemed a bit high, but that is not (without looking at anything else) utterly unsustainable, especially in parks like Kansas City’s and San Francisco’s, which generally increase hit rates on balls in play relative to league average. Cabrera’s .375 BABIP in 2012 probably is going to come down at some point, however (whether this season or the next), it’s just much higher than almost anyone can sustain these days, particularly a player with past performance in that respect like Melky’s. I do not think one has to get mired in the Melky’s batted ball profile to see that.

As far as his power goes, while Melky’s overall 2012 ISO (.153) is pretty close to 2011’s (.164), in reality his power has probably regressed more than that. Part of that might be the park change, but one should be careful not to over-emphasize the differences. Since park factors are normalized against AL/NL league average, it is tough to compare his 2012 and 2011 home parks, but both parks generally have the profile of increasing htis o nballs in play at the expense of home runs. While Cabrera’s big ISO jump in 2011 was mostly due to a career-high rate of home runs on contact, that rate has dropped dramatically so far this season. His rate of getting extra-base hits ([3B + 2B]/[H-HR]) is almost exactly the same this season as in 2011 and 2010. The main reason Cabrera’s isolated power his still up is that he has already hit 4 triples this season after hitting 5 in all of 2012.

While the Giants’ home park does increase numbers of triples, so did Kauffman, and while they are nice, getting one’s power through extra-base-hits in play stabilizes less quickly than home run numbers. Now, it is, of course, “too early” to pinpoint anything in 2012 as having special significance relative to past performance, even those numbers which have begun to stabilize. In the case of Cabrera’s power, it is simply interesting to note that he is probably regressing a bit after his 2011 surge.

[While we should be careful assigning significant to the following given that even 18 2011 home runs is a small sample, it is interesting to note that according to Hit Tracker, the average speed of Melky’s home runs the last few years has remained remarkably stable over the last few years. In 2012: 105.2; 2011: 105; 2010: 106.3; 2009: 104.7.]

On the positive side of things, Cabrera’s walk rate (a stat that stabilizes relatively quickly) seems to have come back up after a big drop in 2011. This is even more evident if one removes he intentional walks and hit by pitches from the seasonal calculations. It still is not a great walk rate, but it is better than last season’s, and helps a great deal not to have his on-base abilities not completely wrapped up on his unsustainable BABIP. While the best predictors of walk and strikeout rates (also remarkably stable for Melky over the years) for hitters are walk and strikeout rates, if one wants to look elsewhere, there is not much to go on. While Melky’s percentage of swings outside the zone has come down a bit, in my limited research, overall swing percentage correlates better with walk rate than O-Swing. In any case, so far this year Cabrera seems to be one more case supporting the hypothesis that veteran players’ walk rate tend to “rebound” after a down season.

Overall, though, it seems that there is little reason to think that Melky is an all-new hitter. He maybe have changed something in his swing the last couple season to increase his balls in play, but he is extremely unlikely to be anything like a .375 BABIP true-talent hitter. His triples so far this season have masked his power regressing back from his 2011 surge. His walk rate has rebounded so far, but overall, there is little to indicate that we should put aside a projection like ZiPS.

Assuming something like average defense in left field, the ZiPS ROS projection, and leaving a bit of margin for error, Melky’s current true talent projects somewhere between two and three wins above replacement. Assuming the Giants are looking at an extension that would start after the season, one would want to account for aging and attrition, so something closer to two wins sound about right.

That is not the “superstar” level that some have bizarrely assigned to him (and while he was good last year, it is crazy to say that he was a superstar last year, even if one thinks he was okay defensively). However, it is useful, especially to a team trying to contend (as the Giants are) and with no other good options lurking in the outfield (assuming Brandon Belt finally gets his chance at first; Gary Brown will be a center fielder when/if he arrives) in the near future.

Cabrera is a stopgap to be sure, and I cannot speak to the concerns about the way he is rumored to have let his conditioning go in 2010. The Giants certainly should not give Melky “Carlos Beltran money,” but while (most of) their young pitching is around, paying Melky could make sense. They should not go too many years. At the current market level and Melkey’s projected “true talent,” one might reasonably make a case for him getting something like two years and $20 million (or 3/25) from the Giants.

That is probably on the high side. While 2/20 works out on the spreadsheet, other decent stopgap outfielders have been getting much less than that. Cabrera’s Former teammate Jeff Francoeur (who also had a career year in 2011) got two years and $13.5 million from the Royals. A good argument could be made that Francoeur is inferior to Melky, but David DeJesus, probably better than Frenchy or Melky (or, despite his down 2011, at least as good once one includes fielding) got only two years and only $10 million. Melky might take more than that, but it is also the case that the price could come down if the Giants waited to get serious with negotiations until a bit later this summer when Melky is likely to have cooled down.

Suggesting 2/20 for a guy like with a history like Cabrera’s seems a bit scary — even blogging about it makes me leery of people coming back and laughing if Melky reverts to his 2010 form. However, if the Giants cannot sign Melky for less than that, the fact is that free agents (as Cabrera will be) are expensive commodities, especially these days when we are increasingly used to looking at contrafts signed by youngsters while still under team control. In any case, 2/20 for Cabrera it would would be far the craziest thing the Giants have ever done. They did the same for Aubrey Huff, why not try and Melk it one more time (hey-o!)?

On the other hand, Melky Cabrerea does not turn 28 until August — pretty young for a Giants free agent position player signing. Randy Winn is probably available, though.