Originally written on SF Giants Nirvana  |  Last updated 5/28/12
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As of this writing, Melky Cabrera leads the major leagues in hits; frankly, nobody’s even all that close, as Melky has a seven-hit advantage over the next-best in hits, Derek Jeter (67). Overall, Melky is hitting a red-hot .369/.412/.556 on the season, good for a .417 wOBA and 168 wRC+. It’s nearly June, and here we are, with Melky Cabrera in the top-ten in the majors in wRC+.

Naturally, with all of the buzz Melky has created, the topic of contract extension talks has come up. Cabrera is set to hit free agency after this season, and he’ll only be 28 years old. Do the Giants really want to let a player like that walk away?

Maybe.

In 2010, he was the laughing stock of baseball. He barely slugged .350, wasn’t much of a threat on the basepaths, and his defense was poor at best.

Then 2011 happened. And he collected 200+ hits en route to a .305/.339/.470 season with the Royals. He had a couple things going for him: for one, he was 26 years old, which would qualify as a typical breakout point. And secondly, he had been a productive everyday major-leaguer at age 21, something that should be recognized. At an age when many promising future stars are playing A-ball, Melky was in the majors putting up league-average numbers. Yes, that was quite a while ago, but that tells me that there’s an underlying special element to Melky; it’s something that takes a lot of talent.

Still, I was among the many that felt Melky’s 2011 season was an outlier of sorts — that he was a slightly below average player playing a couple notches above his true talent level. And, clearly, I was wrong. You can only learn so much from a couple month’s worth of play, but Melky’s .400+ wOBA is evidence enough for me to conclude that 2011 was more than just a fluke.

Many have made note of the fact that Melky’s success has been rooted in his batting average on balls in play. Through 2010, Melky’s career BABIP stood at .290. Since then, he’s maintained a .350 BABIP. There’s a tendency in the baseball community to dismiss all BABIP fluctuations as products of luck and randomness, but that’s a gross misapplication and oversimplification; in Melky’s case, I think it’s just flat-out false. While Melky is obviously not going to continue seeing 40% of his balls in play fall for hits (his 2012 BABIP sits at an astounding mark of .406), his dramatic improvement in this area shouldn’t be dismissed. BABIP is dependent upon factors of luck, but also upon skill-related factors like speed and type/strength of contact. Melky’s improvement, while probably boosted a bit by luck, signals that he’s hitting the ball harder and probably running harder, too. In fact, this is right in line with all of the news about his improved fitness level following his dreadful 2010.

ZiPS projection system has Melky posting a .331 BABIP over the rest of 2012, which seems pretty reasonable. That’s not ridiculously high, but at the same time, it’s a significant step up from league-average BABIP. I think Melky has done enough over his last 900 plate appearances to warrant an adjustment of expectations.

That said, I don’t think that Melky Cabrera is a superstar. I think he’s an above-average player. And it makes sense that the Giants are considering handing him a contract extension. If we’re talking 2/$20M or 3/$25M, the figures that Matt Klaasen suggested, I see no reason why the Giants shouldn’t hammer out a deal. In light of Melky’s phenomenal start to 2012, I don’t think those figures are all that realistic, though.

If we’re talking Aaron Rowand money, um…no.

It sounds like Brian Sabean is taking the perfect approach with Melky. According to Andrew Baggarly, Sabean has said that the “stars would have to align” for the Giants to extend Melky during the season, but that it hasn’t been ruled out. Sounds good to me.

 

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