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« Bucs Add Powerful, OBP-Challenged Barajas | Main | 2011's True Hackers »

Will Melky Bring His Bat to San Francisco?

Frustrated with Jonathan Sanchez's walks and injury woes and looking to resuscitate the National League's worst offense, the Giants traded the lefty to the Kansas City Royals a couple of days ago for outfielder Melky Cabrera. The switch-hitter, released by the Braves following a 2010 season in which his bat was skimpy and his belt, well, wasn't, rebounded in K.C. this past year. A .267/.328/.379 career hitter prior to 2011, Cabrera batted .305/.339/.470 in 706 plate appearances, establishing new highs in home runs (18) and Isolated Power (.164).

The question now becomes, can he maintain those offensive gains? He probably won't revert to being the slap hitter who aggravated both the Yankees and Braves, but I wouldn't fully drink the Melk-Man's Kool-Aid, either.

Cabrera did do a much better job of putting forceful swings on pitches thrown low in the strike zone. Pitchers like to hammer Melky at the knees from both sides of the plate:

Opponent pitch location to Cabrera in 2011

In the past, Cabrera struggled on low pitches. He slugged .305 on low pitches from 2008-2010, well below the .342 average for non-pitchers. That changed in 2011:

Cabrera's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011Cabrera had a .476 slugging percentage on low pitches with the Royals. Given the sample size involved, we can't just toss aside Melky's power display. Cabrera's 2011 Isolated Power was 52 points above his career average entering the year, and changes in ISO become reliable at about 550 plate appearances. That said, you can't just expect this is the new norm for him -- past performance does matter. The Hardball Times' Oliver projection system expects Cabrera to split the difference in 2012, posting a .139 ISO.

There's another reason to be skeptical that Melky will continue to hit as well as he did in 2011: his .332 batting average on balls in play was 42 points above his career average entering the season. You'll note that BABIP isn't on the list of stats with sample sizes linked to above, and that's because BABIP changes don't stabilize over one season and show much less of a year-to-year correlation. Cabrera's 2011 BABIP was in the 87th percentile among MLB hitters; his BABIP the previous three years was in the 62nd percentile. Odds are, he doesn't benefit from as many bloops and bleeders in 2012.

Overall, THT's Oliver forecasts a .279/.322/.418 line for Cabrera next season. That's close to the cumulative 2011 triple-slash for center fielders of .261/.326/.410, but there's also the issue of whether Cabrera is really someone you want patrolling the middle pasture (he has been a little more than seven runs worse than the average CF per 150 defensive games, per Ultimate Zone Rating). If he's going to be an asset for the Giants, Cabrera will need to prove the projections wrong and keep more of his power and contact gains.

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