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The Cabrera Conundrum

In Baseball on August 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Major League Baseball suspended San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera for 50 games for violating baseball’s performance enhancing drug policy. How will Cabrera’s actions affect the Giants? More importantly, how will this affect the race for the NL West?

Melky, Melky, Melky.

Last week, a million San Francisco Giants fans sighed deeply, tugged at the collars of their Buster Posey jerseys, and took a deep pull from the 2007 Chardonnay that had been buried behind the kale in their refrigerators. After allowing the dry-yet-smooth vintage to take its desired effect, they peered out from behind burgundy Williams-Sonoma drapes to face a world in which the baseball gods no longer smiled upon them.

As a Giants fan who has taken solace in more than his share of competitively priced Trader Joe’s wine (and cheese. Like, cheese on cheese on cheese), all I can say is that Melky Cabrera’s shameful admission to using a banned substance is par for the course for an organization that has produced its share of opportunists and cheats — in case you weren’t aware.

Cabrera’s season-ending suspension, the result of a positive test for testosterone, was not a total surprise for many Giants fans. Rumors of a positive test had been percolating over the last several weeks, and they persisted even after the Giants and Cabrera claimed to have no knowledge of such a test in late July (in Cabrera’s case, that was almost certainly a lie). Andrew Baggarly, one of baseball’s best beat reporters[1], at one point wrote a public apology to both Cabrera and the Giants organization for reporting on the rumors through his Twitter feed.

As it turns out, Baggarly had been effectively cuckolded by a source whose hard working, Bible-reading image was hollower than a fungo bat [calls time out, pats self on back, smugly returns to writing, realizes that was too on the nose, sighs deeply, returns to writing].

Lying point blank to Baggarly — a team ally whose excellent book about the Giants’ 2010 World Series run is an exercise in unabashed homerism — was bad enough. But The New York Daily News story that emerged later that week was worse.

In order to lead Major League Baseball off the scent, Cabrera and his entourage attempted to create a fake company, website and product, the ingredients of which he could then point to as the cause of his failed drug test, which may have allowed him to duck a suspension.

To paraphrase workhorse pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, 50 games is not enough.

Even before Baggarly’s initial reports, you could have made the case that Melky Cabrera’s emergence as an offensive powerhouse was suspect. His highest batting average up through his breakout 2011 season was his rookie year with the Yankees, when he hit .280 while slugging .391 with a .360 OBP. His BA/OBP/SLG slash line through his first five seasons was .267/.329/.380 — compared to a .322/.360/.489 line in 2011 and 2012.

Cabrera attributed his much-improved performance to improved workouts, shaking a bout of homesickness he’d picked up in Atlanta, and weight-loss; the first and last of these could have been helped by the use of steroids. His story matched up with his public personality: quiet, happy, family oriented and deeply religious. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, formerly Cabrera’s coach on the Yankees, admitted that he believed Cabrera had turned a corner in the second act of his career, developing into a player who would have almost certainly received a top-level contract in free agency this fall.

Since the scandal broke, news of shocked, angry and frustrated front office members and teammates has continued to give the appearance that Cabrera will never wear a Giants uniform again — much less for the $60 million contract he would have demanded in the off-season. Until a final decision is reached, however, the Giants face an uphill battle in replacing a Melky-sized hole in their lineup.

As of August 21, he and Buster Posey lead the team in both wins above replacement (4.8) and runs above replacement (48). He has been the second best Giant in regards to waaWL percentage[i] (.531), offensive wins above replacement (4.5) and wins above average (3.4). For people who aren’t fans of advanced stats (which means you probably know how to talk to girls)[ii], Cabrera leads the team in batting average and was second behind Posey in OPS, slugging, OBP, RBIs, home runs and doubles.

Talk all you want about Gregor Blanco’s hot start (2012 WAR: 1.4) and Justin Christian’s potential (2012 WAR: -0.3), but those two are not filling the offensive gaps left by Cabrera’s suspension.

Here’s another issue: The Giants only have consistently solid three starting pitchers. Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong have been rocks all season, excluding a few expected rough patches. Cain’s perfect game generated the headlines, but Vogelsong was a fringe Cy Young candidate until a week ago (16 straight quality starts and a league leading ERA through August 13), and Bumgarner leads the team’s pitchers in WAR.

But Tim Lincecum has been a well-documented shell of his former self all season. I had a chance to see him pitch against the Padres in San Francisco late last month, and he struggled to maintain his fastball from the first inning onward. He’s still striking out batters at an impressive clip, but his velocity is down, and he’s elevating in the strike zone early. This has given opposing hitters a better view of his change-up — formerly one of the most dangerous pitches in baseball — and on this account, he’s been forced to rely heavily on an effective-but-not-as-good slider and curve.

Even in competent starts, such as his August 22 win against the Dodgers, Lincecum has benefitted from a significant amount of luck (as well as the clutch defense of Angel Pagan) and appears to get flustered when strike calls stop coming his way.

The Giants’s fifth starter, Barry Zito, is still Barry Zito.

If the Giants maintain possession of the NL West lead, Posey’s second-half play will merit serious consideration for the National League MVP. But in the first half, the Giants were kept afloat largely because of the offensive production of Cabrera, whose proficiency helped make up for Lincecum’s and Zito’s messes, as well as the loss of closer Brian Wilson and long-reliever (and fellow cheater) Guillermo Mota, and extended stints on the DL for Pablo Sandoval.

There are 39 games left in the season. Hopefully by the end of it, Giants fans will be drinking something a little more bubbly.

[1] And Jeopardy champion.

[i] Expected winning percentage of a team that has average players in only the games this player played in.

[ii] If you’re a girl and like discussing advanced stats, and living in the greater New York City area, this one’s for you: I’m 5’7”, 155 lbs. and have a skin tone that’s been described as a cross between “uncooked tilapia” and “day-old Bisquick pancake mix”. I enjoy jogging, cooking, watching TV and eating Costco bags of Goldfish in my boxers. Get at me.


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