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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.