STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- When the Pirates signed Melky Cabrera to a minor league deal right before spring training, no one expected much.
And why would they? The market had spoken, proclaiming loudly that a player of Cabrera's ilk was passé. He would turn 35 in August of the upcoming season, after all, likely limiting his market to the American League, where he could serve as the designated hitter more often than not.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the swan song. Cabrera rewarded the Pirates' faith in him with a March/April that saw a 120 wRC+ (100 is considered league average), with solid-enough (read: not entirely laughable) defense. With Corey Dickerson sidelined after just four games, Cabrera took to a starting role with aplomb. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised. Elite patience at the plate can greatly extend a hitter's shelf life. If The Melk Man continues to post strikeout rates among the top 5 percent of the best marks across baseball -- which he's done three out of the four previous seasons -- he will stick around longer than many would think.
Cabrera has cooled down in June after that stellar start and a still-good May. Despite all of this, he has remained a productive player. Yet, what can his June tell us about what to expect from him going forward?
Yes, June has been a challenging and puzzling month for the Melk Man, who has actually seen his exit velocity stay strong with every other contact-related peripheral wither. His overall soft contact rate has risen during June to 32.5 percent, up from a 29.2 percent figure prior. It all adds up to a .267 batting average for the current month.
Expressed a different way, here's the last time Cabrera was above the MLB average for xwOBA:
Plate appearances go up. Melky's contact skills go down. Is this an actual representation of what many felt, namely that Cabrera could not handle an everyday role? Perhaps. But, now with a crowded outfield, Pirates fans and observers might not get to determine if that's true. He has not started consecutive games on consecutive days in June. He seemed to be able to handle an every day role in August of 2018 when he returned from injury and logged massive amounts of starts for the Indians down the stretch. He was no worse for wear then, slashing .289/.356/.447 from August 1st through the end of the season.
In fact, in digging deeper over the past four seasons, one sees that Melky much prefers to log as many plate appearances as possible. I dug into each of the past four seasons, analyzing slash lines in one week chunks. I lumped these weeks into various groups, one in which Melky sees five starts per week, another in which he sees 3-4 starts per week, and still yet a third in which he logged 2 starts or less per week. Here's the overall slash lines for those weeks, combined from the 2016 seasons through the present day:
The phrase "Player X is who he is on the back of the baseball card" is a tried and true trope across all generations of baseball. It's a phrase that even Neal Huntington will break out often. In the case of Melky Cabrera, there should be space carved out on his card to show this data as well. If he starts to slump, he can often work his way out of it.
And, even when he doesn't get the playing time, he never really "falls off a cliff." Could his slightly more precipitous drop in June be a harbinger of Father Time finally catching up to him?
Will he get the chance to do hit his way out of it, with the trade deadline wrecking havoc on the Pirates' outfield plans?
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