Melky Cabrera And The Wonder Of Clean Health

As we start the second week of April, it’s that fun time of year where individual stats really and truly don’t mean anything yet — unless you think that Charlie Blackmon is a true-talent .542/.560/.792 player, in which case, seek help immediately — and yet we are baseball writers on a baseball site, so we still need to digest what’s happening and try to put some meaning to it. As Jeff said the other day, the games still matter, even if the slash lines don’t, really.

So in looking at some of the absurd early season hitting lines, it’s less about what is “best” and more about what is interesting. It’s great that Mike Trout and Chase Utley and Freddie Freeman have killer early lines, because they’re great players. It’s fun to see that Emilio Bonifacio and Dee Gordon and Yangervis Solarte have great early lines, because it’s fun to see BABIP above .500 and to see how skewed tiny samples can make all of this. None of this fundamentally changes our understanding of what those players are.

That being the case, Melky Cabrera‘s .323/.323/.613 may not look like much. It’s a wOBA that’s barely in the top 45, and obviously he’s not going to slug .613 all season long. (One would hope he draws a walk at some point, too.) Yet this one stands out to me among the rest of the noise, because one thing you can glean something meaningful from in the early days of the season is health. You can watch a recovering pitcher and see how his velocity is coming along. You can check out an injured hitter and see how he’s moving. We may not know for sure that the shoulders of Matt Kemp and Michael Pineda will hold up, but based on what they showed us this weekend, we can feel a lot more confident about it then we did a week ago.

In Cabrera’s case, he didn’t injure a shoulder or a knee or a foot. He had a tumor in his back, and as unbelievable as it seems to say, somehow that seemed to fly completely under the radar last year. Maybe it’s because he was terrible all season until he was shut down; maybe it’s because the 2013 Blue Jays were such a flaming disaster that it was hard to stand out; maybe it’s because too many people enjoyed seeing a guy suspended in 2012 for PED usage struggle so badly after signing a free agent deal.

Most likely, it’s all of those things. But after hitting .405/.423/.595 in the spring — meaningful less for the numbers than the sense of “hey, maybe this guy is healthy again” — Cabrera has hit in each of Toronto’s seven games. The three homers he hit off of CC Sabathia, David Phelps and Masahiro Tanaka this weekend equal the total he had all of last year. And then you remember that he was a four-win player in 2011 with Kansas City and again in 2012 with San Francisco (despite not playing after Aug. 14), and you wonder if there’s something worth watching here.

Remember, these were the kind of ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING things being written about Cabrera’s spinal tumor:

The source of Cabrera’s constant discomfort had been a mystery to both himself and the Blue Jays organization for several months prior to the frightening discovery. Cabrera was only 29 years old and supposedly in the prime of his career, yet he was moving around like someone who was at least 10 years his senior.

The power in the lower half of his body had completely disappeared. On the rare occasion that Cabrera actually drove the ball with some authority, he often had to stop at first base because he simply wasn’t mobile enough to make it to second.

Or this:

Hobbled by persistent leg injuries every time he took the field, the Blue Jays’ 29-year-old left fielder was a defensive liability and painfully slow on the basepaths. The injuries — ranging from tendinitis in his knees, to inflammation in both quadriceps and hamstrings — seemed mysteriously incurable and relentless, confusing the team’s training staff.

Or this, from just yesterday:

Making a rare start in centre field, Cabrera perfectly gauged the ball’s flight path and galloped forward to make a fine running catch for the second out of the inning.

That was not something that Cabrera would have been able to manage last season in a year where he could have used a walker to navigate the outfield, his gait severely compromised by leg and back issues.

For example! This play from last May, a ball marked by Inside Edge as being a play made 90%-100% of the time. Cabrera takes forever to get over to it, then stumbles as the ball gets behind him, and suddenly Angel Pagan has a double, all while the Toronto commentators chalk it up to Cabrera “not being right.”

cabrera_defense_2013-05-15

Two innings later, Bonifacio would move from second to left field to replace him. Cabrera has never really been an elite defensive outfielder, but in only half a season, his Defense rating here on the site was -11.5. Only a very few left fielders managed to put up worse numbers last year, and they all had considerably more playing time in which to compile it and/or were Raul Ibanez. Suddenly, at 28, Cabrera was an old man.

You can see it on the offensive side of the ball, too. Here he is grounding out weakly on August 1 against Garrett Richards, in what would be his final game of the season. (He would leave the game in the bottom of the fourth with what was termed a “knee injury,” later referred to as an “ankle injury,” but ultimately all believed to be related to the pressure the tumor was causing.) It’s just one plate appearance, but Cabrera looks stiff. He really throws the bat at the ball rather than swinging through it. He looks, to my eye, very much like a 38-year-old Bobby Abreu did when he was hitting .209/.325/.302 over the final four months of the 2012 season with the Dodgers.

cabrera_hits_2013-08-01

Now compare that to Friday, when he took Tanaka out of the park in the first inning. Cabrera looks flexible. He’s able to turn on the ball. He’s able to drive it:

cabrera_tanaka_homer_2014-04-07

Obviously there’s a bit of selection bias here, because had I chosen a clip of Cabrera making an out this year, maybe he wouldn’t have looked so good either. But the point isn’t that Cabrera is suddenly going to be a superstar, because he wasn’t before. It’s that he was a very valuable player in 2011, and an even more valuable one in 2012, and when he fell apart completely in 2013, it was so, so easy to point to the PED suspension and assume that all of his success came from a foreign substance. We’ll never really know how much that did or didn’t help him, but it seems clear that his 2013 troubles were far more related to the tumor on his spine (!) than from the lack of outside helpers.

It’s still only April 7, so it’s not even worth digging into his numbers, or caring about line-drive rate or BABIP or any of it, because again, they don’t matter yet. What does matter is that a player with success in his recent past is playing well, and with a very specific reason that he didn’t play well last year. It doesn’t hurt, also, that each of Cabrera’s 10 hits have come off of pretty quality MLB pitching — David Price, Alex Cobb (2), Matt Moore (2), Chris Archer, Tanaka, Pineda, Phelps and Sabathia.

As for the Blue Jays, so much went wrong last year that it was easy to forget how little Cabrera provided. When you look back on that 2013 mess, you remember Jose Reyes destroying his ankle and missing several months, and Bonifacio & Maicer Izturis combining to be terrible at second base, and Brett Lawrie playing in only 107 games, and J.P. Arencibia hitting .194/.227/.365, and R.A. Dickey not replicating his 2012 Cy Young season, and Josh Johnson & Brandon Morrow & Ricky Romero being various combinations of “hurt” and “awful” to the point that 13 different pitchers started and Esmil Rogers started 20 times.

A healthy Cabrera wouldn’t have changed that. The 2013 Jays were a wreck in so many ways that just one of those things going right wouldn’t have put them into the playoffs, and the same may be true this year. (They never did upgrade their rotation, and Reyes is already injured.) But if the Jays are to have a chance, this is one of those things that has to turn out well. Cabrera going from -0.9 WAR to, say, 3 WAR won’t earn a playoff spot by himself. It’s just one of the many smaller things that add up to a successful season, and based on what we’ve seen in the first few days of the season, a healthy Cabrera can still be a productive one — or, at the very least, a nice trade asset to have in July should the Toronto season collapse again.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


36 Responses to “Melky Cabrera And The Wonder Of Clean Health”

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  1. MIke says:

    Maybe “clean” health wasn’t the best choice of words for the Melk Man

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  2. Ralph Malph says:

    Actually I thought it was an entirely intentional choice of words

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  3. Jason says:

    This is fine work but the phrase “offensive side of the ball” needs to be thrown in the incinerator forever.

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  4. Preston says:

    Anyone who thought Cabrera’s success was completely tied to PEDs didn’t watch the guy play. His success (or lack thereof) has always been tied to his weight. He was slightly overweight with the Yankees, and never lived up to his talent level. He was obese with the Braves and ceased to be an MLB caliber player. He came back trimmer than he’d ever been with the Royals, the PEDs are just part of the larger factor, he was finally putting work into his body. A fit and healthy Melky Cabrera is a very good player.

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    • larry says:

      and his weight was not at all tied too his PED use, right? When he was in shape was also the time he was using PEDs. Whether directly or indirectly by helping him get in shape, his success has and was tied to PED use.

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      • psualum says:

        I think his point is that he could have gotten into non-rotund shape without PED use and became a good hitter with or without it. PED’s probably got him from good to batting-title leading with the Giants though

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  5. maguro says:

    It’s because he’s not preoccupied with setting up fake websites anymore.

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  6. Emcee Peepants says:

    I’m not sold. We had 5 full seasons to tell us he was a 1-2 WAR player prior to the Royals/Giants 4-5 WAR years when he was proven to be on PEDs. I could see him rebounding to 1.5, but 3 is probably pushing it.

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    • RMD says:

      I agree. He’s not cracking 2 this year. His defense sucks and he seems like the type that can’t work out to stay in shape unless he gets a little help…

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      • Eric says:

        ZiPS already sees him amounting 1.9 WAR in 580 PA. If he stays healthy and hits leadoff/2nd every game, he’s going to crack 2, at least.

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      • JD says:

        You realize how steroids work, right? They don’t increase improvements made from slacking, they just allow you to work even harder. People don’t take roids to be lazy, they take them to be able to work out more often and harder.

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  7. Steve says:

    I can think of another ex Yankee with a tumor that held him back for a year, Jason Giambi.

    Maybe the better question is whether or not there is a link between the tumor and whatever he was injecting into his body?

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  8. LHPSU says:

    I wonder, could PEDs have contributed to him developing this tumor? Tumors are abnormal growth of cells, and if anything can cause abnormal cell growth it’s external chemicals that interfere with your normal metabolic activity.

    If so, it would very much be poetic justice, as mean as it might sound, and certainly a warning lesson to anyone who wants to use PEDs to improve their performance.

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    • Billy says:

      I didn’t bring up the PED thing in my initial post below because I didn’t want to start that topic, but since this got brought up while I was typing that…

      I mean, the people who get totally hung up on steroids and think anyone who uses them is the devil will be 100% sure they caused his tumor and that he deserved it. The steroid apologists who have decided “because morality can be relative, we should just use sophist thinking to justify whatever we want” will say it had nothing to do with it because there isn’t conclusive proof.

      Personally, all I feel I can do is to stow it away in the back of my brain as a possibility and hope that future research (which I lack the medical qualifications to conduct myself) will uncover the connection or lack thereof between these things.

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      • TKDC says:

        It is possible to think steroid use is wrong but also not think that someone “deserves” a tumor for using them. Cabrera “deserved” what he got for using steroids, a 50-game suspension. Thinking someone deserves a tumor for using steroids is disgusting.

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        • Preston says:

          Likewise it’s possible for a person to not get worked up about steroids but to think that there is a possibility that a link exists between steroids and this tumor.

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        • Billy says:

          Oh, I wasn’t saying those things with the original commenter in mind. The way he said “as mean as it might sound” implies he didn’t really wish such a thing on Melky but was just making a statement.

          I guess I just acknowledged the two extreme opinions so I could cut them off at the pass, since this topic can bring out some very simplistic thinking from people on both sides. But yeah, count me among those who had the thought pop into his head that the PEDs and the tumor may not be completely unrelated.

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  9. Ahnold says:

    It’s naught a toomah!

    Naught a toomah…

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  10. Billy says:

    When I read things like “spinal tumor” I’m just happy Melky Cabrera is still able to walk or even still alive. I know it ended up being benign, but I’m sure when you go to the doctor and they tell you “Mr. Cabrera, you have a tumor on your spine,” you probably get a little scared.

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  11. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    I’m glad Melky’s healthy after a scary operation.
    He’s still a young man and just like any other athlete he’s gonna try super hard this season because he wants to land a big contract after this season.
    Now if Toronto could just get someone better than Rasmus batting 2nd in the lineup.

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  12. Radivel says:

    It’s great to see Melky play well, definitely night and day. Now, if Colby Rasmus would stop swinging at breaking balls..

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  13. Tony the Pony says:

    What a minute Colby Rasmus is batting 2nd oh my thats not good. Thats not good at all. Wouldnt a fit and productive Cabrera be a better suited to batting 2nd?

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    • Subversive says:

      Yes, and as soon as we have a fit and productive Jose Reyes in the lineup, that’s exactly where he’ll be.

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  14. Jonathan says:

    The annoying thing for me isn’t that Rasmus swings at all the breaking balls, but that he DOESN’T swing when he’s getting all those juicy first-pitch fastball strikes.

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  15. Tony the Pony says:

    Yeah im no expert on the Blue Jays but I thought there may off been someone else more appropriate to fill in opening the batting. When I had a look at the roster nobody dived out at me.Lawrie maybe?

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  16. Impossibles says:

    Funny, as a Jays fan, Bobby Abreu’s final years is exactly who I thought he looked like in the field. Jays fans were really excited to see him and Reyes at the top of the order, hopefully they both get some time to play there healthy and let Bautista and Edwin rack up some runs.

    To the guy who said Melky doesn’t work out, there was a story somewhere that he finally kind of woke up to the fact he needed to take his fitness more seriously when he ended up in KC. There’s a video of him somewhere chucking a medicine ball into a tire from 30 yards, its insane.

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  17. Kevin says:

    and another dinger tonight. dude is unconscious right now.

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