Is Melky Cabrera the new Marlon Byrd?

Tom Szczerbowski

The Toronto outfielder is having a great, redeeming year at the plate — not unlike a certain New York/Pittsburgh outfielder last year. But how much similarity is there between the two players?

He hits for a decent average, but does little else. His plate discipline is nothing to write home about, his power and baserunning are mediocre at best, he can't really defend, and he's got a recent PED suspension. For this aging outfielder coming off a miserable year, the future didn't look bright — until, that is, his breakout.

To whom does this paragraph refer? Could it be 2014 Melky Cabrera, whose 166 wRC+ is 13th in the majors (as well as the best of his career by far)? Or is it 2013 Marlon Byrd, whose 136 wRC+ was 21st in the majors (as well as the best of his career by far)? At first glance, this seems like a valid comparison; let's take a closer look at their stats and see if it's warranted.

First, the basics:

Player Seasons BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Pre-Breakout Cabrera 2005-2013 7.2% 12.1% .125 .310 .284 .337 .409 .326 99
Byrd 2002-2012 6.5% 17.1% .135 .321 .278 .336 .413 .328 96
Breakout Cabrera 2014 3.0% 15.0% .237 .377 .351 .370 .588 .416 166
Byrd 2013 5.4% 24.9% .220 .353 .291 .336 .511 .364 136

Prior to their explosions, they were remarkably similar, with nearly analogous wOBAs and wRC+s. Their breakouts were/are both primarily power-driven — each saw his ISO balloon to a hitherto unattained level. Both achieved this at the expense of their plate discipline, albeit in different areas: For Cabrera, his walk rate is abysmal, whereas for Byrd, the strikeouts were through the roof. BABIP is playing a larger role for Cabrera than it did for Byrd, which also explains why the former's wRC+ is much higher than the latter's.

What has caused this uptick in clout? Let's examine some batted ball data:

Player Seasons LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB%
Pre-Breakout Cabrera 2005-2013 19.9% 48.9% 31.2% 11.2% 7.0%
Byrd 2002-2012 20.2% 48.1% 31.7% 7.8% 8.2%
Breakout Cabrera 2014 26.8% 46.3% 26.8% 4.5% 22.7%
Byrd 2013 23.8% 39.2% 37.0% 10.3% 16.4%

Both hitters pumped up their line-drive rates, which explains their inflated BABIPs. Since we're focusing on ISO, the fly-ball rate is what's really interesting about this. During his exceptional 2013, Byrd put the ball in the air much more, and hit it out of the park more often when he did; by contrast, Cabrera has decreased his fly-ball rate this year, but has still had an exceptional home run-fly ball rate. Cabrera's paucity of popups in 2014 explains some of this; the small sample size (remember, it's still April) explains the rest.

The most intriguing comparison, however, is when it comes to plate discipline:

Player Seasons O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
Pre-Breakout Cabrera 2007-2013 32.30% 61.00% 46.40% 77.40% 94.10% 88.20%
Byrd 2007-2012 33.50% 68.80% 51.20% 62.10% 89.80% 80.80%
Breakout Cabrera 2014 30.40% 54.00% 42.40% 69.60% 95.10% 86.10%
Byrd 2013 38.80% 71.40% 54.80% 54.20% 82.80% 72.40%

PITCHf/x goes back to 2007.

As Dave Cameron noted in November, Byrd's increased power output last year came at a cost: He made much less contact on pitches in the strike zone, which meant he made less contact overall as well. On the other hand, Cabrera has maintained his ability on pitches in the zone, while a decrease in effectiveness outside the zone has caused a slight down tick in his overall contact rate. This might not be all that significant, though — later in November, Jason Collette looked at the relationship between Z-Contact% and ISO, and saw that, well, there really wasn't one (R=-.024).

The biggest difference? That would be with swing rate, which might be the biggest takeaway from this whole exercise. As one might expect, a more aggressive approach accompanied Byrd's breakout; however, despite his higher BABIP and ISO, Cabrera has actually become more patient than last year, on pitches inside and outside the zone. Swing rate is one of the earliest stats to stabilize (unlike most of the other stats cited here), so we can be fairly confident that these gains are legitimate.

So in the final analysis, this might not be as apt of a comparison as I originally thought, but perhaps that's a good thing. After Byrd's 2013 season, he signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies. His gains from last year didn't translate to this one, to say the least — he's currently at a .273 wOBA and a 69 wRC+, good for 164th in the majors. His power has disappeared (.125 ISO), but the strikeouts have continued to pile up (32.1% K%), because he's continued with his swing-happy technique (57.9% Swing%) and the dearth of contact therein (70.2% Contact%). Cabrera hasn't sacrificed these aspects of his game for his early-season success, so while the HR/FB% and BABIP seem pretty fluky, this might just be sustainable.

Last season, Marlon Byrd's breakout took many people by surprise; thus, many might feel that his crash down to Earth this year was inevitable. This season, Melky Cabrera's breakout has taken many people by surprise; however, he might not crash down next year, and since he's a free agent after 2014, that's good news for any prospective teams.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Thursday, April 24th, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He's also written on the FanGraphs Community blog and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Veep, Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO. Boldly running for president. Proudly standing for everything.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Beyond the Box Score

You must be a member of Beyond the Box Score to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Beyond the Box Score. You should read them.

Join Beyond the Box Score

You must be a member of Beyond the Box Score to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Beyond the Box Score. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9351_tracker