Miguel Cabrera, When It’s All Said And Done

The week leading up to Opening Day 2014 turned out to be quite historic, with the clear two best players in the game locked into long-term contracts guaranteeing them nearly a cool half-billion. Obviously, the prognosis for the respective long-term efficacy of the two deals varies dramatically, with Cabrera’s extension locking up his age 33-40 seasons, compared to Trout’s doing the same to his age 23-28 campaigns. This week, let’s take a step back and put these two greats into some sort of historical perspective, then use that perspective to research their aging curves in order make some educated judgments regarding the Tigers’ and Angels’ investments. Today, let’s look at Miguel Cabrera.

First, let’s take a look at how Miguel Cabrera gets it done. We’ll focus primarily on the bat, as A) Cabrera’s complementary skills are negligible at best, and B) Let’s face it, even with a five-tool guy like Trout, these teams are paying for the bat first when they give out such deals. Below is a grid of Cabrera’s percentile ranks indicating the respective frequency of the six key batted ball outcomes – K’s, BB’s, popups, fly balls, line drives and ground balls – over the last six seasons. Batted ball authority is not taken into account at all here, but these numbers alone – from 1, indicating lowest in the majors, to 99, indicating the highest – paint a very accurate portrait of a hitter qualitatively. They’re his technical merit scores, if you will.

Mi.Cabrera PCT K PCT BB PCT POP PCT FLY PCT LD PCT GB
2008 71 48 49 65 73 31
2009 44 63 47 46 77 46
2010 34 92 63 73 66 22
2011 25 98 18 37 96 53
2012 26 70 14 87 64 39
2013 26 96 34 65 91 23

This, my friends, is as close to perfection as a hitter can get. A very low K rate in 2013, with a steady ongoing downward trend. A very high BB rate, with a steady upward trend. Very high line drive rates, ranging from a low percentile rank of 64 to a high of 96 – these befit perennial batting title contenders. High fly ball rates, but low popup rates – the mark of the rare power hitter who doesn’t give away free outs in the process. And remember, we’re not even taking authority into account – and Cabrera’s batted ball authority just happens to be the best in the game today. We’ll take a gander at that later.

So he’s the best hitter today, as far as the eye can see. But does being the best hitter in the game at age 30 justify his new eight-year, $248M contract extension that now guarantees him a total of $292M thru 2023 – his age 40 season? Even a hitter this prolific has peers – let’s identify them, see how they aged, and what this might mean for Cabrera and the Tigers.

I maintain a database of MLB regulars going back to 1901 that contains a whole lot of fun info. For all regulars, it tracks – among other gems – the cumulative number of standard deviations above or below league average OBP and SLG. For well above average players, it is a useful way of tracking development of on-base and slugging skills independent of one another. Cabrera has already reached 41st on the all-time list in this statistic, with 17.84 cumulative standard deviations above league average OBP and 20.34 cumulative standard deviations above league average SLG (38.18 combined). This ranks him 4th among active players (#19 Albert Pujols = 23.51 + 27.59 = 51.10, #22 Alex Rodriguez = 20.55 + 28.94 = 49.49, #35 David Ortiz = 17.17 + 24.32 = 41.49).

Cabrera has also just completed a three-year stretch that goes down as his career peak – so far – according to this method. Over the last three seasons (weighted on a 3-2-1 basis), Cabrera has accumulated 17.23 cumulative standard deviations above league average (8.71 OBP + 8.52 SLG). This represents the 9th highest individual player peak ever recorded. Check out his company on the list below:

3 YR PEAK YRS AGE REL OBP REL SLG REL TOT 3-YR OPS+
Bonds 02-04 37-39 16.07 12.79 28.86 255
Ruth 19-21 24-26 9.68 13.41 23.09 237
T.Williams 47-49 28-30 10.41 10.79 21.20 195
Hornsby 23-25 27-29 9.80 10.43 20.23 208
Cobb 09-11 22-24 8.55 9.62 18.17 198
Mantle 56-58 24-26 8.71 8.83 17.54 206
Pujols 08-10 28-30 8.54 8.77 17.31 184
H.Wagner 07-09 33-35 7.02 10.24 17.26 190
Mi.Cabrera 11-13 28-30 8.71 8.52 17.23 176

In particular, take note of the similarity among the peaks of Cabrera, Mantle and Pujols, both overall and with the OBP and SLG components separated. Pujols’ peak three-year run also occurred from ages 28-30, like Cabrera’s. Both of these players will go onto Cabrera’s comp list.

Next, let’s look at a list of players with the most cumulative standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG through age 30 – Cabrera ranks 12th on this list:

THRU 30 QUAL YRS REL OBP REL SLG REL TOT 3-YR OPS+ FINAL RK
Cobb 12 30.64 33.60 64.24 186 4
Hornsby 11 25.22 29.18 54.40 178 6
T.Williams 8 25.56 25.61 51.17 196 2
Mantle 12 24.32 26.81 51.13 177 8
Ruth 8 20.35 29.22 49.57 216 3
Pujols 10 21.93 24.08 46.01 172 19
Foxx 11 19.64 26.29 45.93 170 15
Ott 12 21.58 22.97 44.55 160 10
Musial 9 19.25 23.07 42.32 172 5
Speaker 10 20.84 21.00 41.84 168 7
F.Robinson 11 18.40 20.84 39.24 155 11
Mi.Cabrera 11 17.84 20.34 38.18 154 41
F.Thomas 8 20.05 17.21 37.26 174 18

First, note the eerie similarity between Cabrera and Frank Robinson, across the board. On top of the overall and component OBP and SLG and OPS+ similarities, both won AL Triple Crowns at similar ages, and peaked at almost the same time (28-30 for Cabrera, 29-31 for Robinson). He’s definitely a comp. Frank Thomas also qualifies as a close comp, especially once you take body type into consideration. Mel Ott also peaked at age 28-30, so let’s use him as a comp. One thing we can say with virtual certainty at this point is that Miguel Cabrera is going to wind up as at the very least one of the Top 20-25 hitters in baseball history.

To round out Cabrera’s group of comps we will add two recent peers with similar body types and levels of statistical accomplishment, who both experienced their career peaks at about Miggy’s current age – Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. That gives us a group of seven – Mantle, Pujols, Robinson, Thomas, Ott, Ramirez and Rodriguez. You will notice the absence of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays from these lists. Their athleticism is obviously on a whole different level, but they built from a less power-centric base of skills in their 20’s that continued to build and allowed them to thrive throughout their thirties. For all of these players, let’s look at their performance through age 30 compared to their final cumulative career total standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG.

COMPS PEAK AGE 30 OBP 30 SLG TOT OBP TOT SLG % THRU 30 FINAL RK
Mantle 24-26 24.32 26.81 34.55 33.27 75.4% 8
Pujols 28-30 21.93 24.08 23.51 27.59 90.0% 19
F.Robinson 29-31 18.40 20.84 30.40 33.17 61.7% 11
F.Thomas 24-26 20.05 17.21 27.60 23.78 72.5% 18
Ott 28-30 21.58 22.97 31.91 31.86 69.9% 10
M.Ramirez 28-30 14.90 18.05 28.25 31.77 54.9% 13
A.Rodriguez 29-31 13.30 20.26 20.55 28.94 67.8% 22
Mi.Cabrera 28-30 17.84 20.34 41

Obviously, Pujols’ career is not complete just yet, so let’s keep his numbers out of the overall percentage of career offensive value accrued by age 30 for this group – excluding Pujols, they accumulated 67.0% of their career combined standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG by age 30. If Cabrera hits that number exactly, he’ll finish at 56.99 and rank 15th overall, between Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. Not too shabby. Still, let’s look more closely at the specifics of these seven players’ performances in their thirties to see what may be in store for Cabrera.

Mantle remained an exceptional offensive player on a per at-bat basis after age 30, but never again played over 144 games in a season, playing over 125 only three more times. He had only one Mickey Mantle-esque season ahead of him, at age 32 in 1964. His durability plunged after age 29, at least in part due to some hard living, but a 10-year, big money deal bestowed upon Mickey Mantle after his age 30 season would not have been a good investment.

Pujols is an easy one, as his 10-year, big-dollar deal is fresh in all of our minds. Even his age 31 season, his last in St. Louis, was a big step down from the standard he had previously set. His annual OPS+ has gone 148-138-116 since age 30, and he played only 99 games in 2013 after never playing fewer than 143 in each of his first 12 seasons. He might bounce back to some extent, but the pre-2011 level of production for which the Angels paid a premium isn’t likely coming back.

Robinson is perhaps the most unique overall comparison. He won the AL Triple Crown at age 30 – Cabrera did the same at 29. Robinson never played 150 games in a season after age 30, but had exceptional age 31 and 33 seasons, though his “black ink” days were over. As late as age 38, Robinson was still recording OPS+ of over 140, albeit as a DH requiring regular days off. The Tigers would certainly not complain if Cabrera went on to accumulate 38.3% of his career offensive value after age 30 – that would raise his score to 61.89, 12th on the all-time list, right behind Robinson.

Thomas basically became a full-time DH at age 30, and his best days were already behind him. He had only three 150-game seasons ahead of him, and only two of them – at ages 32 and 35 – could be considered star-quality. After being very durable in his twenties, he began pulling and tearing things in his thirties, missing over half of his age 33, 36, 37 and 40 seasons. A 10-year, big dollar commitment to Thomas at age 31 would have been a very bad idea.

Ott remained an extremely productive full-time player through age 33, but only because of the short right field porch in the Polo Grounds. After age 30, Ott hit an amazing 111 of his final 142 homers at home. He had three solid years from 34 to 36 versus wartime competition, with quite a few more days off, and that was it. 10-year, big money deal at age 31? Again, a very bad idea.

Of this group, Ramirez was the most productive offensive player after age 30, and he has a couple of PED suspensions to show for it. Moving into extremely fly ball-friendly Fenway Park at age 29 also certainly helped to fight off his decline phase. He remained a 150-game, high-performance fixture through age 33, and tossed in one more vintage Ramirez full-time season at age 36 in 2008. Man-Ram’s performance level throughout his thirties is about the apex of what Cabrera can wish for – and it is likely wishful thinking.

Then there’s A-Rod. He was an 150-game per season fixture through age 31, but hasn’t played 140 games in a season since. He capped his peak period with arguably his best season ever at age 31, with a 176 OPS+, but has watched it decline every year since – from 150 to 138 to 123 to 119 to 111, twice. Rodriguez, obviously, was a shortstop through age 27, starting in a much more athletic place than Cabrera, who did play some shortstop in his minor league days. After leading the AL in SLG at age 32, his black ink days were over. As we know, his long-term, big dollar contract has not turned out well.

Which brings us full circle, back to Cabrera. His durability throughout his twenties was exceptional – he played in at least 150 games every year, and in at least 157 every year but one. He was on his way to doing so again at age 30 last season before aggravating his hip injury on August 28. If the aging trends of his comps is to be used as a guide – and they should be – such interruptions in service are likely to increase in frequency over the coming seasons.

Cabrera’s performance dropped off precipitously after August 28, giving a glimpse of what a beaten-up, thirtysomething version of Cabrera might look like. Before: .356-.444-.586; After: .289-.393-.342. Quickly, let’s look more closely at his before and after production by BIP type to see what happened:

PROD
Before AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.521 1.672 435 391
LD 0.670 0.860 102 131
GB 0.292 0.313 150 207
ALL BIP 0.429 0.827 218 241
ALL PA 0.356 0.444 0.686 237 258
After AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.227 0.409 42 206
LD 0.688 0.688 88 108
GB 0.273 0.273 125 182
ALL BIP 0.344 0.406 88 184
ALL PA 0.289 0.393 0.342 116 213

First of all, Cabrera’s plate appearance frequency data (not shown above) didn’t change much at all after the injury. The actual production, however, certainly did. Most specifically and predictably, it changed most in the fly ball department, where he went from an actual .521-1.672 line before the injury to a paltry .227-.409 afterward. Looking at the “ADJ PRD” column, however, which adjusts for ballpark, luck, etc., you’ll notice that while Cabrera’s batted ball authority level did decline after he aggravated the hip injury, it didn’t drop nearly as much once adjusted for context. He simply went from hit-the-ball-harder-than-anyone guy – ADJ PRD of 391, with league average equaling 100 – to hit-the-ball-harder-than-just-about-anyone guy, at 206. With such a small sample, a couple of balls caught at the wall in Comerica that would have been homers almost anywhere else makes a lot of noise in the numbers.

After the injury, he still hit a ton of line drives. He still almost never hit a weak ground ball. He still hit the ball hard in the air, just not as hard. The one thing he could no longer do was pull the ball in the air. Prior to the aggravation of the hip injury, he pulled 46 of his 119 fly balls to LF and LCF – in fact, 18 of the 22 fly balls he hit to LF went over the fence, an otherworldly ratio. After the injury, he hit three, count ’em three, of his 22 fly balls to LF and LCF, and zero went over the fence. Moving forward, over time such nagging, aggravating injuries, and just general wear and tear will not suddenly rob Cabrera of his powers, but they will gradually erode them, as they chipped away at them late last season.

For many of the reasons cited on Fangraphs and elsewhere, this contract really is indefensible. His existing deal wasn’t even expiring for two more seasons, after all. For me, it’s not the annual salary, but the duration that will bite the Tigers. Albert Einstein’s genius was, among other things, in discovering and explaining the relationship between space and time. Look at this as baseball’s take on those same laws of physics – today’s Miguel Cabrera hits a ball at a certain speed and angle that projects the ball over the fence. That same swing from that same player, three or four years from now, with more physical wear on the moving parts involved will yield a somewhat lower exit speed at a slightly higher or lower angle and won’t go over the fence quite as much anymore.

As the parts continue to wear down, they require more down time. Eventually, the exit speed too often declines only slightly to that fly ball tipping point where the result changes from the optimal – the home run – to just another out. It happens to everyone – to most of us, it happens in Little League or maybe high school. It too will happen to Miguel Cabrera, and if history is our guide, it will happen well before this contract runs out.



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