Not that it really matters a great deal, but Melky Cabrera's failed drug test and 50-game suspension has led to the inevitable questions ... If Cabrera hadn't been using a banned substance, would he be hitting .346? Would he be leading the National League in hits? Would he have been named Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game.
The consensus, among the Knights of the Keyboard anyway, seems to be that answer to all of those questions is a flat no way in hell, mister.
Well, maybe. The funny thing, though, is that if you drill into the numbers past that ridiculous batting average, it's hard to find anything to substantiate the notion that Cabrera has become a significantly stronger, better hitter than he was a few years ago.
Over at Deadspin, Jack Dickey does some serious drilling and concludes:
The only big spike for Cabrera came with his BABIP (batting average on balls in play). His career BABIP is .309, but he hit .332 on balls in play last year and .379 on balls in play this year. Good luck explains some of this, and we can explain even more by looking at Cabrera's underlying numbers.
Players who hit more ground balls will have higher BABIPs than players who hit more fly balls. (Derek Jeter, our modern BABIP champion, hits a bonkers 58 percent of his batted balls on the ground.) Cabrera hit more ground balls this year than last year, so his BABIP ticked up. As for the pre-2011 spike, Cabrera got faster after losing 20 pounds during the offseason. In 2011, he set career highs in infield hits—with 26—and bunt hits—with 8. Those balls would have been outs in past years, but because of his new physique they were hits in 2011. His BABIP and batting average increased accordingly.
This year's version of Melky is more or less last year's version of Melky, only with a different approach at the plate: more ground balls....
I'm on board with the central premise here: It's difficult to directly tie the Melkman's performance to his drug use.
But he's not hitting a great many more ground balls than usual. According to FanGraphs, Cabrera did hit more grounders than usual this season, but not a lot more. His ground-ball rate this season is 52 percent; his career rate is 49 percent. Please feel free to correct me, but while a three-percent increase might be significant, it sure doesn't seems significant to make Cabrera one of the better hitters in the National League. And last season, when he played quite well for the Royals, his 47-percent ground-ball rate was one of the lowest of his career.
Essentially, roughly half of Cabrera's batted balls have been grounders, throughout his career. The rate has been a bit below or a bit above, but I suspect those fluctuations are basically random.
And yes, Cabrera did lose some weight and presumably faster now than he was before 2011. But how does the speed explain his batting average this season? Last year he did set career highs with 26 infield hits and eight bunt hits. But his infield hits are down slightly this season; he's got 15, which (absent the suspension) would have projected to 19 or 20.
Again, hardly enough to explain a .346 batting average.
I think Dickey would have been better off sticking with Occam's Razor, and he did start there ... Here's what I would have done, were I Dickey's editor:
The only big spike for Cabrera came with his BABIP (batting average on balls in play). His career BABIP is .309, but he hit .332 on balls in play last year and .379 on balls in play this year. Good luck explains
somenearly all of this and we can explain even more by looking at Cabrera's underlying numbers.
Or maybe it's not luck. Maybe he's actually been hitting the baseball harder these last two seasons. Those are a lot of plate appearances, and it feels overly simplistic to merely assign all of them to good luck. But if he's actually hitting the ball harder, wouldn't we expect to see a significantly higher line-drive rate? Wouldn't we expect to see more home runs per fly ball?
Cabrera's line-drive rate has gone up just slightly in the last two seasons. But his home runs per fly ball has skyrocketed from 6 percent before 2010 to 10 percent in 2011-2012 ... ah, but again we run into a sample-size issue, because we're talking about 29 home runs over two seasons. Take away just 11 home runs over those two seasons and we're right back to 6 percent.
Look, I'm not one of those PEDeniers who don't believe drugs have ever helped a good hitter become a great hitter, etc. As near as I can tell, everyone associated with the game, from the batboys to the general managers, believes steroids (etc.) had a major impact on baseball in the 1990s and beyond. I won't argue that drugs couldn't have helped Melky Cabrera go from also-ran to All-Star in the blink of an eye.
But you know, the guy's got some talent. When he was 21, the New York Yankees gave him more than 500 plate appearances. When he was 24, Cabrera started in left field for a team that won the World Series. It's not like he came out of nowhere. He struggled when he was 25, had his best season when he was 26, and bettered that this year, at 27.
It's been an unusual career, because Cabrera was never an above-average hitter until he was 26, and then jumped to well above average at 27. But it's hardly unprecedented. Lots of guys have muddled along until they were 25 or 26 or 27, enjoyed a few solid seasons, and then became merely useful again.
I'm not saying I would throw a huge pile of Scrooge McDuck-level money at Cabrera for next season. But I sure wouldn't mind giving him a few million bucks to see what he can do, at 28.