Fandom can be a bizarre experience. There are some fans of the Cleveland Indians who are openly rooting against players on the current team. It is what can happen when the long-term expectations and projections are poor for particular players; short-term success might lead to worries about incorrect assessments for postseason roster decisions. Melky Cabrera has been subject to such criticisms throughout his second-half resurgence.
The projection models had Cabrera as an average hitter at the plate expecting in the neighborhood of .285/.330/.430 with a 104 wRC+. Coincidentally or not, he has achieved near those marks on the whole as he has slashed .275/.313/.450 (102 wRC+) for the 2018 season. The route in which he has arrived at those numbers though has been interesting.
How bad was Cabrera on his first stint with the Indians in 2018? How good has he been since he came back? Is his production the rest of the season destined to regress to where he is no longer a useful player?
Let’s take a look.
The 2018 season started off rather unimpressive for the long-time professional bat. Cabrera was not signed in the offseason; leading him to be absent from Spring Training camps. It took until late April for the Indians to sign him to a contract tied explicitly to his ability to garner MLB plate appearances. After a few weeks in the minors, the Indians then allowed Cabrera to utilize their contending team to what became his extended Spring Training over the course of 17 games from May 20 through June 13.
The 33-year-old’s value is tied explicitly to his ability to hit the baseball well. Though he has a strong arm, his abilities in right field and on the basepaths are hindered by his sprint speed that is only faster than Yonder Alonso, Edwin Encarnacion, and Roberto Perez among regular Indians starters. Unlike those other three, Cabrera has the expanse of the outfield to cover from his defensive position.
During this time-frame, Cabrera hit .207/.242/.293, which was good for a 48 sOPS+, 37 wRC+. Those rate numbers indicate he was among the worst hitting players in all of baseball, while also providing poor defense and baserunning. It was not a shock when the Indians elected to designate Cabrera for assignment, he went unclaimed, and he failed to find a way back to MLB on any other team.1
The sample size for the second half is a bit larger (28 games), but it is still small in the overall scope of a baseball season. The results though, are far more encouraging as slashing a .319/.361/.549 (146 wRC+, 144 sOPS+) puts him as one of the Top 30 hitters in all of MLB over that timespan.
The value from his bat has also allowed Cabrera to be the third most valuable position player on the Tribe in the second half behind AL MVP candidates Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor; well ahead of lineup stalwarts Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and the slumping Yonder Alonso despite fewer plate appearances. Greg Allen has been even more valuable from a fWAR per game played (or plate appearance) perspective, but that should not detract from the excellence Cabrera has displayed.
Attempting to level-set a player who has been both an impossibly terrible player for a portion of the season and also an incredibly valuable piece of the lineup is a difficult task. Projecting what he might do in a five-game sample in the ALDS or even 20 game postseason sample is impossible as even Lindor and Ramirez can provide poor results in such an environment (as they did in the 2017 ALDS).
Cabrera will not be finding the fountain of youth over the next couple of months, so the below average base-running and fielding will continue. It is therefore imperative he continues to do well at the plate should he warrant justification of remaining on the roster. Over the previous three seasons, Cabrera has had average to above average results in both wRC+ (98, 116, 94) and OPS+ (100, 118, 97). Expecting his rest of season outputs to match that type of range seems reasonable.
With Leonys Martin rehabilitating from a life-threatening bacterial infection,2 Tyler Naquin out, and the likelihood of Lonnie Chisenhall being ready for the postseason becoming less plausible, there are not any immediate options for the Tribe to supplant Cabrera with better expected outcomes. The team should continue to scan the revocable waivers, but Andrew McCutchen is the lone potential upgrade who has cleared through waivers. Cabrera’s blistering six weeks of baseball should not preclude the Tribe from pursuing him, but it might give them a bit more leverage in discussions.
So, for now, sit back and enjoy the Melk-Man show. He probably isn’t going to continue hitting at an All-Star caliber rate as he has been, but he also is likely to continue providing positive value to the lineup. The Indians are going to need every net positive they can muster to make it through a brutal American League postseason, so he is worth cheering.