A season ago Detroit Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to lead his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI, which earned him a historic Triple Crown. This past Sunday Cabrera decided that he wasn’t done making baseball history quite yet. With yet another multi-hit, multi-RBI game, the Tigers’ 3rd baseman joined Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth as the only players in major league history with at least 120 RBIs, 40 home runs and a .350 average in their first 116 games of a season, dating back to 1921. That’s some pretty exclusive company that Cabrera’s rubbing elbows with and barring an absolutely massive upset, his efforts should lead to a 2nd straight MVP award.
But how did we get to this point? Even dating back to his days as a Florida Marlin, it’s fairly obvious that the potential for greatness was always there, so what unlocked it? How was Miguel Cabrera able to go from perennial All-Star to best hitter alive?
Equal Opportunity Hitter
Let’s pretend, just for a second, that you’re on the mound against Miguel Cabrera. How would you attack him? Do you opt for your best pitch, a blazing fastball, in an effort to fight power with power? Well, that’s not going to work because Miggy because he’s hitting .400 with 25 homers against heaters this year.
How about trying to fool Cabrera with a change-up? Unfortunately for you, that’s not a good idea either because the reigning MVP has gone 15-41 against those pitches with 5 homers to boot.
So the curveball has to be your best option then, but that quickly becomes unappetizing once you realize Cabrera’s hit .316 against the deuce in 2013.
Hell, even if you have one of the greatest single pitches in the history of baseball, it may not make a difference. Miguel Cabrera was able to take the greatest closer of all-time and his world-famous cutter deep twice just a couple of weekends ago.
“As a pitcher or a catcher, you’ll see a certain swing from him and think, O.K., maybe I can go there again,” said Matt Wieters, catcher for the Baltimore Orioles. “But then he makes the adjustment. You have to adjust before he does. A pitch that worked once against him probably won’t work again.”
An Aggressively Intelligent Approach
Throughout the course of his career, Miguel Cabrera has gradually improved his plate discipline, which has led to fewer whiffs and more walks. That much is obvious to anyone with a pair of working eyes. The powerful Tigers’ walk rate has nearly doubled over the course of his career and that’s a normal part of the maturation process for a big leaguer.
What comes as more of a surprise is that Cabrera’s aggressive approach early in the count has never really changed. He was a good, aggressive first pitch hitter at the start of his career in Florida and that approach has carried over in a big way since coming to Detroit. For the season, Cabrera is hitting .487 with 12 homers and 34 RBI on the first offering and no other player in baseball, apart from Chris Davis, is even close to matching that production.
Most importantly, this aggressiveness on the first pitch hasn’t hurt Cabrera at the plate because he rarely chases bad pitches out of the zone. His discipline is absolutely amazing.
The wonderful Jeff Sullivan from Fangraphs posted a fascinating piece this past week and this was his conclusion:
“Throw a pitch somewhere in or near the zone, and Miguel Cabrera might hit it out. In every part of the zone, he’s one of the best hitters in baseball. Throw him inside and he’s one of the best hitters in baseball history. Other players have hit inside pitches out, but to be able to do it so consistently, and to still be able to adjust to pitches up or away — there’s a lot that goes into being amazing, even if, for Cabrera, it’s never seemed easier.”
And when you dig into the data it completely backs up the point Sullivan makes in his post. Check out his zone chart, provided by Brooks Baseball:
On pitches that end up too far inside to be considered strikes Cabrera is hitting .394 with 8 home runs. That’s downright absurd and it essentially takes an entire half of the plate away from a pitcher. There isn’t another player in baseball today with the kind of bat speed and power that Cabrera possesses.
There have been just 11 seasons in baseball history in which a player hit at least .350 with 45+ homers and 140+ runs driven in and none of those spectacular seasons occurred after the Allies’ victory in World War II. If Miguel Cabrera can sustain his current pace he should blast by those power numbers by the middle of September, even if he cools off a bit. We haven’t seen anyone hit a baseball like this in 80 years. Cherish it while you can folks, because it may be another 80 years until we see it again.
Big thanks to Brooks Baseball, Fangraphs, and Baseball-Reference for the statistical help!