As recently as 20 months ago, he was the little outfielder that nobody wanted. Today, he's the National League's hottest hitter this side of Joey Votto, the most potent offensive force for the NL Wild Card leaders and a player who has endeared himself to a new fan base to the point that he has inspired a group of fans known as the Melkmen, who don costumes and campaign for him to make the All-Star team. Once the butt of jokes, Melky Cabrera is suddenly a star, and it's time to take his emergence seriously.
Despite playing in one of the game's least hitter-friendly ballparks, the 27-year-old switch-hitter is all over the NL leaderboard. He's leading the league in hits (95) and triples (seven) while running second in batting average (.360) and runs scored (47), fourth in total bases (141), fifth in on on-base percentage (.398), and ninth in slugging percentage (.534). According to Baseball Prospectus' metrics, he's fourth in Wins Above Replacement Player at 2.9, and fifth in True Average at .341. After moving from the second spot in the lineup to the third at the beginning of May, he tied the club record for hits in a month (51), and is now hitting an insane .402/.427/.609 in 178 plate appearances from the three-spot.
In fact, given the headlines garnered around the game this year by Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp, among others, and by San Francisco teamamtes like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Pablo Sandoval, Cabrera may well be the most overlooked player in the game right now.
Once upon a time, however, Cabrera was considered a prodigy. He was the Yankees' youngest player to get regular playing time since Willie Randolph in 1976; after a six-game cup of coffee at age 20 in 2005, he played in 130 games in 2006, making 524 plate appearances and hitting .280/.360/.391. Cabrera spent four years as a Yankee regular, but struggled to live up to that rookie showing. He didn't come within 30 points of matching that OBP from 2007-2009, and only once reached a higher slugging percentage. Just when it seemed as though he had turned the corner and was about to put it all together, he would go into an extended slump punctuated by some lapse in the field. He helped the Yankees win a World Series in 2009, hitting .391/.462/.478 in the ALCS against the Angels, but the emergence of Brett Gardner made him expendable. After the season, the Yankees traded him to the Braves along with two other players in a deal that brought back Javier Vazquez and Boone Logan.
Away from the organization in which he'd spent eight years, Cabrera's season in Atlanta was a disaster. While he played in 147 games, he hit just .255/.317/.354, and finished well in the red according to several defensive metrics. Via FanGraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement, he shared the dishonor of being the game's "Least Valuable Player," and his conditioning and preparation were questioned.
The paunchy punchline signed with the downtrodden Royals, who could at least guarantee him regular playing time. Lo and behold, Cabrera turned his career around in 2011, hitting .305/.339/.470 and setting career highs in hits (201), homers (18), stolen bases (20), plate appearances (706) and several other key categories. Still, when the Giants traded Jonathan Sanchez and a pitching prospect to Kansas City to acquire him last November, it appeared to be a swap of one enigma for another, with the Giants selling low on a fireballing lefty and buying high on a role player coming off a career year. Cabrera apppeared to be a longshot to replicate that season in the tougher hitting environment of AT&T Park, and he'd almost certainly get lost in that Bermuda Triangle of an outfield.
Amid a glut of alternatives that included the loser of the Aubrey Huff/Brandon Belt battle at first base, Giants manager Bruce Bochy wisely decided to play Cabrera in leftfield instead of center, and to hit him second. Cabrera smacked a double and a homer on Opening Day and hasn't looked back since; until Votto's recent surge he was the leader of the NL batting race. Key has been his progress against lefties. After hitting just .251/.323/.349 against them from 2005-2010, he has hit .337/.367/.512 in 307 PA against them since the beginning of the 2011 season — an improvement of 207 points of OPS, nearly twice that of his improvement against righties (.273/.330/.389 through 2010, .314/.351/.477 since, 109 points of OPS).
With free agency looming, the sustainability of Cabrera's hot start is a burning question. If he can finish with numbers similar to last year, he'll be well-positioned for a payday in excess of the three-year, $31.5 million deal that last winter's top free agent outfielder, Michael Cuddyer, netted from the Rockies. At 27, he's at an age when hitters tend to peak, but his .399 batting average on balls in play isn't sustainable; his career high, set last year, was .332, so he's likely to cool off as the season continues. He's only walking in 6.3 percent of his plate appearances, a rate even lower than his career 7.3 percent, though it's worth noting that he dipped to 5.0 percent last year -- see-ball/hit-ball mode is working for him. He should retain a good deal of his punch even if his BABIP recedes, as his .174 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is along the lines of last year's .164. Even if he does cool off somewhat, he's likely to remain in the spotlight, as the Giants have emerged as legitimate contenders not only for the Wild Card but for the division flag given the Dodgers' vulnerability so long as Kemp is sidelined. A trip to Kansas City for the All-Star game would appear to be on the horizon. That should make the Melkmen happy.