Melky Cabrera's big leap forward

Melky Cabrera has racked up the hits this season and should be headed to his first All-Star Game. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

If All-Star voting ended today, two of the three starting outfielders for the National League would be repeat representatives. The leading vote-getter, Matt Kemp, made the team last season and went on to be runner-up in the NL MVP race. Behind Kemp is Carlos Beltran, who's been to six All-Star Games.

But the player who recently displaced reigning MVP Ryan Braun to take over third place has never been an All-Star. He's never come close to winning any major awards or leading the league in any important statistical category. He's been a punch line and an afterthought, and before this season, he'd never been one of baseball's best players.

That player is Melky Cabrera, who has undoubtedly been one of baseball's best players in 2012. Even after an 0-for-4 performance against Jered Weaver on Wednesday night, Cabrera is batting .363. He leads the NL with 101 hits and, among NL players, trails only Joey Votto and David Wright in wins above replacement player (WARP).

One other stat about Cabrera stands out: Like Kemp, who was having a spectacular season of his own before hurting his hamstring, he's 27 years old. In his 1982 Baseball Abstract, Bill James observed that "both pitchers and non-pitchers attain their greatest aggregate value at the age of 27." Since then, 27 has been widely regarded as an age of special seasons. Each spring, writers release lists of players primed for age-27 "breakouts," and fantasy players pick them up, expecting to receive career years in return. If Cabrera keeps this up, he'll be a perfect example of a 27-year-old player who played at a dramatically different level than at 26.