You know that gallon of milk you bought last month, fully intending to use for your cereal, but then stuffed in the back of the fridge and forgot about? And then one day you needed milk for that cereal that's about to go stale and you open the fridge – and to your astonishment, there's what appears to be a shiny, white gallon of fresh milk sitting there. You take it out, don't bother to check the date and add it to your bowl. Take a spoonful and disaster ensues.
This is kind of like what Melky Cabrera is doing right now. After the Yankees traded him as an extra piece in the deal for Javier Vazquez, you kind of put him out of your mind. He was a nice complementary piece, but nothing special.
Then the Braves non-tendered him the following season and the Royals traded him the year after that. Almost totally forgotten.
But now he has a .373 batting average with the Giants, and he's helping anchor the middle of their lineup. This winter when Cabrera hits free agency, some team will forget his track record and offer the shiny, gleaming, seemingly-new Cabrera a multi-year deal.
And then they'll wake up one morning in May or June and realize it: The Melk's gone bad.
Only that's not quite fair. Cabrera won't necessarily be bad, he's just never necessarily been all that great to begin with. And he's benefitting from a lot of smoke and mirrors in 2012 (quite an opportune time).
Cabrera's walking about as much as he ever has (7.5 percent rate this year compared to a 7.4 career rate). He's striking out just slightly more than his career norms (12.3 percent this season, 12 percent career).
But then there's that batting average, perhaps the worst stat to judge a baseball player on, but also one of the sexiest. Batting average is influenced by a plethora of factors, many of them out of the batter's control. A batter does not control how good—or bad—an opposing team's defense is. He does not control how good the opposing pitcher is. He's more lucky than good if a bloop single falls in; but it all counts as a hit, and all of those hits show up in your average.
This is why batting average on balls in play is such an important statistic. It helps us see just HOW much luck a player is benefitting from. The average BABIP is around .300. Some players have higher or lower numbers depending on speed and other skills. For instance, Ichiro Suzuki has an incredibly high lifetime BABIP of .349, partly because he's been so good at legging out infield singles. The past two seasons, as he's gotten older and slower, his BABIP has been .295 and .289, respectively. His batting average has dropped from the consistent .300s to the low .270s.
Suzuki's eye-popping .349 BABIP is important for this reason: the not-so-fleet Cabrera is sporting a .413 BABIP this season. That is both an astronomical number and an unsustainable one.
Since 1900, there are only nine players who have a higher lifetime BABIP (minimum 3,500 plate appearances) than Ichiro. The all-time leader is Harry Davis at .417. The next closest is Ty Cobb at .378. The only modern player to top Suzuki is Derek Jeter at .355.
In that same time span there have only been six instances (minimum 500 plate appearances) of players who've posted an equal or higher BABIP than Cabrera has so far this year: Harry Heilmann (1923 Tigers, .414); Ty Cobb (1913 Tigers, .415); Ty Cobb (1922 Tigers, .416); Rogers Hornsby (1924 Cardinals, .422); George Sisler (1922 Browns, .422); Babe Ruth (1923 Yankees, ,423). Yep, another record for Babe Ruth.
The only recent examples to top the .400 mark are Jose Hernandez (2002 Brewers, .404) and Manny Ramirez (2000 Indians, .403).
Entering this season, Cabrera had a .299 lifetime BABIP. If he benefited from that same amount of luck this season, he would have just 58 hits, not 78, and his batting average would be just .277.
If that were the case, no one would be talking much about offering anything more than a one-year deal to a so-so corner outfielder who's an average hitter with average power. Those are basically the numbers Kyle Seager is putting up on the Mariners (.278 average, five home runs).
Did you ever hear of Kyle Seager before reading this?
So enjoy the ride if you like, Cabrera certainly won't mind if he ends this season being more lucky than good.
But remember, this version of Melky has an expiration date.