Maybe Melky is Actually a Good Ballplayer

Melky Cabrera is one of the more unlikely All Star Game MVPs in recent memory. Cabrera was the starting center fielder, a position he had not played all year, in the All Star Game during his seventh full year in the big leagues. Before 2012, Cabrera had never played in an All Star Game, led the league in a major offensive category, or received a vote for any post-season reward. Cabrera’s career, until the beginning of this year was, in many respects, and certainly at first glance, that of a journeyman. The San Francisco Giants, the team he represented in Tuesday’s All Star Game, was Cabrera’s fourth in four years. He had been placed on waivers by the Atlanta Braves after the 2010 season and was acquired by the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez, a talented but frequently ineffective left-handed pitcher during this past off-season.

Cabrera moreover, was probably better known for the things he could not do: play centerfield well enough to hold down a starting job there, walk enough to bat in the leadoff spot, hit for enough power to bat in the middle of the order, and even, according to some, focus enough on baseball to have a successful big league career, than for the things he could do — like hit.

Cabrera’s career, to be sure has been an odd one. Before 2010, he had established himself as a useful, if not quite good, outfielder: a valuable fourth outfielder on a good team or a passable starter on a bad team. In 2010, however, he was terrible, hitting .255/.317/.354 for the Braves. The Kansas City Royals took a chance on Cabrera; and the outfielder had a career year in 2012, hitting .309/.335/.470, numbers he is on track to easily exceed this year.

Given Cabrera’s career path, it is easy to overlook one important piece of information. Cabrera was able to play at the Major League level effectively, although not as a star, at the age of 21. More specifically, he was able to hit big league pitching reasonably well when he was 21, posting an OPS+ of 95 in 2006. Since 1900, only 115 players have had OPS+ of 90 or better while they were 21. Some of these players, like Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Matthews, Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby had much higher OPS+ than Cabrera, in the range of 169-173, so are not good comparisons. However, even the players whose numbers at 21 looked a lot like Cabrera’s still generally put together relatively strong careers.

Including Cabrera, 24 players had OPS+ between 90-100 when they were 21 years old. Of these, five are now in the Hall of Fame; although two, Joe Tinker and Bill Mazeroski, are there primarily for their defense. Two more, Sammy Sosa and Ivan Rodriguez, are strong Hall of Fame candidates who will only be stopped by steroid-related issues. Seven more had careers which range from solid, Claudell Washington, to borderline Hall of Fame, Buddy Bell. Others in this category are Ed Kranepool, Larry Parrish, Harland Clift, Elmer Valo and Ned Yost.

Good players, even those like Washington or Parrish, who are definitively not great players occasionally have half-seasons of production of the kind Cabrera just had; and players who hit decently at the big league level at age 21 are often good, or even great players. From 2007-2010 the major theme of Cabrera’s career was that of unfulfilled promise, although given how little attention he had received as a prospect, even that theme was not very pronounced. Nonetheless, during those years, the ability he had shown as a 21 year old was largely forgotten.

Cabrera’s 2006 season was often overlooked because it was by no means a great season. He only hit .280/.360/.391, but not too many 21 year olds have had better years. All baseball fans know how important age is, but the details of that are still occasionally not fully comprehended. For example, as Cabrera posted that 90 OPS+ as a 23 year old, he would have been one of 401 players, up from 115 21 year olds, to accomplish that feat. Cabrera remains one of the big surprises of 2012, but his excellent first half, capped off by his All Star Game MVP, are more easily understood when we remember how relatively rare a talent he was at age 21.