May 21, 2012: Milwaukee, WI, USA; San Francisco Giants left fielder Melky Cabrera (53) looks on after diving safely into third base during the eighth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
First things first: All-Star outfielder Melky Cabrera has been suspended for fifty games (effective immediately) following a failed drug test for testosterone.
This is, no lie, absolutely devastating to the San Francisco Giants' season. Melky Cabrera has basically been the team's second-best player behind the superhuman Buster Posey, and has been far-and-away their second-best hitter. Seriously, Pablo Sandoval and Angel Pagan aren't particularly close. The Giants are currently tied atop the NL West with the Dodgers, and the loss of Cabrera re-creates the same gaping hole that the Giants thought they had just filled with the acquisition of Hunter Pence.
I'd like to try and put this blow to the Giants in a (slightly) sabermetric perspective, so here goes. ZiPS projects Cabrera to be worth about 0.8 fWAR from now until the end of the season. To me, that's a rather solid estimate, given how great Melky's BABIP has been this season, but if you want to round it up to a whole win, you'll hear no argument from me. Let's go over that one more time, just so you're clear. The team is tied for a playoff spot. This suspension will cost the team, likely, one win (give or take) worth of performance over the next two months. If the Giants are stuck in the Wild Card playoff, or miss the post-season entirely, people can (and will) come back to this, stick their finger out and point directly at Melky. So get ready.
Now let's talk briefly about Melky Cabrera's season stats. This is, without a doubt, the best offensive season of Melky's career. Upon joining the Giants, Cabrera has proceeded to post a .346/.390/.516 slash line in a rough offensive environment, which is good for a sparkling 146 wRC+. Note that Melky's BABIP is a totally-ridiculous .379 right now, because we may come back to that later. In 2011 with the Royals, in what some might consider a "breakout" season, Melky posted a 118 wRC+, which was, at the time, the highest of his major-league career. Since a disappointing 2010, Cabrera's career has been on an unquestioned upswing, as he had never been an above-league-average hitter prior to 2011. In fact, Cabrera could make a case as one of the worst regulars in baseball during that 2010 season with the Braves, posting a wRC+ of 79. Combined with bad defensive numbers in the outfield, Cabrera was a full win below replacement according to fWAR.
If I can be allowed to present opinion for a moment (hardly objective), I'd like to remind the world at large that correlation, as always, does not always suggest causation. Melky's batted-ball data shows that he's hitting more ground balls (and his BABIP is spiked as a result), but that he's not hitting many more HR on his fly balls than he had in 2011 with the Royals (2011 - 9.8%, 2012 - 10.7%). By pitch values, it looks like Melky is doing much more of his damage to opposing pitchers on changeups, cutters, and sliders in particular, for whatever that is worth, And he's showing slightly more plate discipline than he had in his 2011 season with the Royals as well.
None of these appear to be indicators that point directly to an upsurge in power or strength due to an upsurge in testosterone. Don't get me wrong, I'm hardly a biologist, and can't quantify whether or not a banned substance might give a player an advantage in other ways (or if he'd been using it long-term, not just in 2012). But an uptick in performance for the 2012 season ... to me doesn't look like it would have come solely from using a banned substance. On the same token, there's no question to many that Cabrera's body has changed dramatically since he played for Atlanta. So hey, jump to any conclusion you'd like. But I find it a little tough to imagine that a giant (no pun intended) upswing in BABIP, improved BB% from 2011, and better hitting against changeups would come from increased testosterone.
Amazingly, Melky Cabrera is in the last year of his contract. He will have to find a new deal in the 2012 offseason, as one of the first players ever to come off a PED suspension to do so while in the midst of an All-Star season. Teams are going to have to decide how much a player of Melky's performance level will be worth, given the heightened risk that (1) he will fail another drug test or (2) his performance is linked to the consumption or application of banned substances, and may regress to "natural" levels. Before, people were talking about three-to-four year deals and eight figures per season. Now, it seems very likely that Melky will be lucky to get a big one-year deal and a chance to make good on his 2012.
It's nearly impossible to talk about performance-enhancing drugs in a free, objective manner without finger-pointing and high-road-taking and overstating the obvious. I like to give players the benefit of the doubt, both in terms of their moral (ethical?) choices and presumed innocence versus guilt. I give Ryan Braun the benefit of the doubt. I give Jeff Bagwell the (well-deserved) benefit of the doubt. I gave Mark McGwire the benefit of the doubt until he admitted fault. I'm an optimist, and I understand that not everyone feels the same way. So if you're looking to hear someone excoriate Cabrera for doing something incredibly risky and counter to the rules of Major League Baseball, super, go ahead and look somewhere else.
One thing that I consider troubling, is that two major league players have been suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2012. Guillermo Mota was the first, and Melky Cabrera was the second. Both did so as members of the San Francisco Giants. While it is far too early to assign blame to the team or the team's management, perhaps an accounting needs to take place at the top levels of the franchise. Given that one of baseball's most famous (accused) PED-users also played for the same franchise, it might not be a bad idea for the Giants to take a wildly proactive stance against this sort of thing, as soon as possible.
Oh, and as I understand it, Cabrera failed the test right around the All-Star Game (which he basically won for the National League), and has apologized for taking a substance directly and succinctly. I am glad that he took responsibility for the failed test, for whatever that is worth.
In any case, we will now go from talking about Melky Cabrera as one of 2012's most interesting performance stories ... to talking about Melky Cabrera as 2012's MOST interesting performance story. (Ok, well maybe R.A. Dickey still wins.) I know when Manny Ramirez failed a drug test, it was considered the biggest PED-related suspension of all time. Well, sorry Manny, but this one dwarfs it. This suspension changes the tenor of a tightly-contested playoff hunt, drastically changes a major free-agent contract in the offseason, and casts new light on the possibility that maybe PEDs can dramatically affect a player's performance for the better. Get ready for the Fall of Melky Cabrera, both in a "from grace" sense and a "season leading up to December" sense.