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.
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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:
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:
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:
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.