“It’s not like he can play anywhere, or face some good competition on a rehab. That’s what you have to look at. When you bring somebody that’s been on the DL for an extended period of time, it takes time to be ready. It’s not that easy a game. That’s what we have to look at. What’s gonna be valuable to us? Someone who hasn’t been playing or the guys who have been here?”—Bruce Bochy on Melky Cabrera
With their advancement to the NLCS, the San Francisco Giants find themselves in position to restore the league’s leading hitter and All-Star Game MVP to their lineup during their final push for a pennant. Yet even though Melky Cabrera has served his suspension for PED use, the Giants will pass on adding him to the playoff roster, instead opting to play a left-field tandem of Gregor Blanco and Xavier Nady that posted a TAv of .206—136 points lower than Melky’s mark—following Cabrera’s positive test.
While the decision could be interpreted as an organization taking a stand against PED use, Bochy’s comments (and the presence of reliever and two-time suspendee Guillermo Mota on the roster for the Division Series) suggest that Melky may have been passed over purely for performance reasons. But could Bochy be right about a rusty Melky being less valuable than San Francisco’s other outfield options? And if so, could the biggest factor keeping Cabrera inactive be a case of inconvenient timing?
In order to assess Bochy’s statement, we have to determine the effect of a long layoff on a player’s performance. With the invaluable assistance of Dan Turkenkopf, I took a look at how past players have performed after an extended absence. Because a postseason series is inherently a small sample, we decided to focus on the first 20 plate appearances after a return from a layoff of 50 games or longer.
Since 2000, 206 players have missed 50 or more games and returned the same season. Before their injury or suspension, those players posted an average triple-slash line of .257/.331/.401 with a TAv of .256. Not surprisingly, with a group that large, the numbers are very close to league average.
But in the 20 plate appearances immediately following their layoffs, those same players didn’t come close to a collective league-average line. In fact, in that small sample—which could encompass the first four or five games of a best-of-seven series—that group hit just .241/.308/.373 with a TAv of .239, a significant drop-off. Granted, most of those 206 players were returning not from suspensions, but from at least moderately serious injuries, which theoretically could make a comeback more difficult. On the other hand, unlike Cabrera, most of them had the option of easing the transition by rehabbing in the upper levels of the minor leagues before being pitted against big-league pitching. So maybe the Giants were on to something when they elected not to expose Cabrera to the pressure of a postseason series without any preparation beyond two weeks’ worth of at-bats against Instructional League pitching.
Giants left fielders hit .200/.300/.744 in the Division Series, relatively robust by the standards of an offense that hit just .194/.266/.339 overall in five games against Cincinnati. In light of their struggles during the regular season, though, isn’t it possible that Melky might be a better option even after adjusting his offense downward? There is some recent precedent that suggests that’s the case: in 2009, Manny Ramirez returned to the playoff-bound Dodgers after serving a suspension and played like a shell of his pre-suspension self. But since he was declining from such a high level, even a diminished Manny managed to post a .292 TAv. That level of production would be a big boost to San Francisco’s struggling offense.
However, Melky isn’t the hitter Manny was, despite his success this season. Given his performance in prior seasons, the Giants might have expected him to regress even before he tested positive. And if the testosterone was responsible for any portion of his improvement, it’s even more likely that he wouldn’t continue to post a TAv near .332 now that its use has been curtailed. That, coupled with the evidence showing how hitters struggle after a layoff even with the benefit of a rehab assignment, makes Melky’s absence at least defensible on a pure performance level.
Managers, as a rule, prefer some level of certainty, which explains why they sometimes favor a veteran player over a more talented rookie. Sure, the first-year player could put up better numbers, but at least the manager has a good idea of what he’s getting from the guy with a longer track record at the highest level. Does that make his decision right? Not necessarily. But there is a weighing of risk and reward involved, and the same process applies to the Giants’ decision about Melky.
There is one more angle to consider: Did the Giants avoid a distraction by keeping Cabrera off the roster? It’s possible, but media access before games is far more restricted in the postseason. There is no pre-game clubhouse access. (Generally, during the regular season, media members have access to the clubhouse about an hour before batting practice begins.) One player, usually the next day’s starting pitcher, is brought to a press conference before the game. Afterwards, the stars of the game are brought into a similar setting. And for the most part, the conversation in the open clubhouse revolves around that evening’s action. There are media availabilities on workout days, but, save for an NFL Media Day-style session the day before the League Championship Series, these tend to become more and more optional as the series roll along. The Giants wouldn’t have had much time to be asked about Cabrera once their series began.
Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.