On Sunday I ran a post that examined baseball’s largest contracts. One of the things that caught me off guard in the post was how valuable Miguel Cabrera has been during his tenure with the Tigers. I was perfectly aware of how much damage he does with the bat, but I had never previously looked explicitly at his value numbers. Needless to say, they were off the charts. That got me thinking, given Albert Pujols‘ advancing age and 2011 decline, is Cabrera poised to become baseball’s best hitter? Is he there already?
Quietly, Cabrera has increased his offensive production each season that he’s been in Detroit. His wOBA in 2008, his first season with the team, was an excellent but not other-worldly .376. Then, he posted a .402 in 2009, a .429 in 2010, and a .436 last season on top of a .448 OBP. To put those three years in context, Pujols’ best three consecutive seasons in terms of wOBA came from 2003-2005, when Albert’s wOBA was .462, .439 and .436. Alex Rodriguez‘s best three wOBA seasons were 2000-2002 when his wOBA was .433, .428 and then .424. Cabrera hasn’t yet produced to the same level Pujols and Rodriguez did, but he’s close, and he’s done it at a time when offensive production has declined around the game.
According to Fangraphs, Cabrera has been the game’s best hitter over the past three seasons. From 2009-2010 he put up a slash line of .332/.421/.583 and a wOBA of .422. He narrowly beat out Joey Votto, who had a wOBA of .419 during that period, and Pujols, whose wOBA was .418. To the extent that you trust wOBA as a measure of offensive production, then Cabrera’s 2011, a season that saw him win the AL batting crown, established him as the game’s best hitter over the past three seasons.
Cabrera may also be in a position to build upon his recent success. It may seem like he’s been around forever because he’s been in the league since 2003, but he was called up at the age of 20. Cabrera will turn just 29 in April this season. He has at least another two or three prime seasons left in him before he will begin to decline, and perhaps more than that. According to Baseball Reference the two players whose careers were most similar to Cabrera’s through their age 28 seasons are Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron, respectively (that, by the way, is the definition of being in good company). Robinson had five solid seasons after his age 28 season before evidence of decline set in, while Aaron had considerably more than that. Given what Cabrera has done so far, it is entirely possible that he’s about to add another three seasons of dominance to his already stellar resume.
All of this raises the question why the media doesn’t make a bigger deal about Cabrera? Maybe it’s just my impression, but it certainly seems like he hasn’t gotten a lot of attention on his way to becoming the game’s best hitter. Until Sunday morning, for example, he wasn’t heavily on my radar.
There are three reasons for this. First, Cabrera is a monster with the bat, but he doesn’t hit a lot of home runs relative to his power. For example, last season he hit 30 home runs, which is a ton, but not a lot for a player with Cabrera’s .586 SLG. Doubles contributed a lot to his power. He led all of baseball with 48. (Could you imagine if this guy played in a different ball park?) Hitting 48 doubles is amazing, but it won’t land you on ESPN the way hitting 48 homers would.
The second reason Cabrera has been somewhat under the radar, relative to other players of his ability, is because he plays in Detroit. This is in no way meant to be a slight against the Motor City. Simply put, Detroit isn’t one of baseball’s largest markets. If Cabrera were doing his damage in the AL East or for the Dodgers he would have his own Wheaties box by now.
Finally, Cabrera’s off-field issues may also have diminished his media hype a bit. I won’t rehash everything that has happened here, but Cabrera has battled domestic issues and alcohol abuse off the field. None of this has anything to do with his career .395 OBP, but it may have diminished his luster to the media a bit.
It’s not clear that Cabrera’s genie is entirely out of the bottle. Detroit made it to the ALCS this post season, but far, far more attention was paid to Justin Verlander and his exceptional season. I for one don’t recall much being made of Cabrera’s batting title, or the fact that his .448 OBP was the best in the majors, but he was arguably as much a reason for the Tigers’ success as Verlander was. His fifth place finish in the MVP voting was down right inexcusable, if not outright criminal. One thing is certain: He’s become must-see TV in my home. There is no player I enjoy watching bat against the Yankees less. I’m just relieved he doesn’t play in the AL East.
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