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Miguel Cabrera’s MoTown Hacking

Since bursting onto the scene as a precocious 20 year-old and helping the Florida Marlins capture a World Series title in 2003, Miguel Cabrera has remained an offensive powerhouse. A career .309/.381/.541 hitter, Cabrera has already belted 175 home runs and has compiled over 20 wins above average, per WPA/LI. A look at Cabrera’s most comparable players at Baseball-Reference reveals a who’s-who of Cooperstown legends. His most similar batters through age 25 include Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Vladimir Guerrero and Al Kaline. Five Hall of Fame hitters, another surefire one in Griffey and a possible member in Vlad? That’s impressive.

With all of that praise rightly given, there is one facet of Cabrera’s performance that is trending in the wrong direction. While the 6-4, 240 pounder remained an extremely dangerous hitter upon transitioning to the AL (popping a league-best 37 home runs and typing his career-high ISO of .245), he has gradually become less selective at the plate. After posting a leviathan .430 OBP in 2006 and drawing walks at a healthy 13% clip, Cabrera posted a .401 OBP in 2007 (11.8 BB%) and a mild .349 OBP in his first season with the Tigers in 2008 (8.3%). Generally speaking, most hitters improve their plate discipline with more experience at the major league level. However, in Cabrera’s case, the exact opposite appears to be occurring. He started off with a very refined approach, but has gradually morphed into a free swinger:

Cabrera’s Outside Swing Percentage (O-Swing%), 2006-2008:

2006: 23.1%
2007: 30.2%
2008: 34.2%

Cabrera took as many cuts at bad balls as any hitter this past year, swinging at the 13th-highest percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone. Not coincidentally, this more aggressive approach has coincided with an increase in Cabrera’s First-Pitch Strike Percentage (F-Strike%). Cabrera has found himself behind in the count 0-and-1 or has put the ball in play on the first pitch more and more:

Cabrera’s F-Strike%, 2006-2008:

2006: 54.2%
2007: 60%
2008: 64.9%

Among qualified batters, only noted hackers Corey Hart (whose exploits have been covered), Adam Jones, Carlos Gomez and Jeff Francoeur (also covered here before) put themselves in a hole more often in 2008 than did Cabrera.

Showing less restraint at the dish, Cabrera’s incredibly lofty numbers have dipped to….well, they’re still pretty lofty. But, using one of Fangraphs’ new toys, wOBA, we can see how the lack of walks has put something of a dent in his performance. wOBA is a linear weight formula that assigns specific run values to each hitting event, giving us a very accurate account of just how much a hitter contributed to his team. It basically values these outcomes relative to each other, assigning proper weight to each outcome (for instance, a home run is going to be assigned a little more than twice the run value of a single). wOBA is aligned to look like OBP, so the league average wOBA is always the league average OBP for a given year. For a more complete explanation, see Dave Cameron’s post here.

From 2006 to 2008, Cabrera has posted wOBA’s of .413, .402 and .376, respectively. Using the league average wOBA, we can find how many runs above average Cabrera contributed in each season. To find this, you subtract Cabrera’s wOBA from the league average, divide that number by 1.15 and multiply by the number of plate appearances he got each season.

2006

Cabrera’s wOBA: .413
LG AVG wOBA: .334

.413 (Cabrera’s wOBA)-.334 (NL average wOBA) = .079 (Difference between Cabrera and the LG AVG)
.079/1.15 = .0687 (Runs above average per PA)
.0687 X 676 (Cabrera’s PA in 2006) = 46.4 runs above average

Using that same approach, here are Cabrera’s RAA totals for 2007 and 2008:

2007

Cabrera’s wOBA: .402
LG AVG wOBA: .334

40.2 runs above average

2008

Cabrera’s wOBA: .376
LG AVG wOBA: .335

24.4 runs above average

In the course of a few seasons, Cabrera has gone from four-and-a-half wins above average with his bat to about two-and-half. This drop is also reflected in his WPA/LI, which has fallen from 5.41 in 2006, down to 3.5 in 2007 and 2.45 this past year. Cabrera is still very effective, to be sure, but that’s a pretty steep drop.

None of this is to suggest that Miguel Cabrera is someone that you want to avoid come draft day. But, given his shift down the defensive spectrum to first base (he’ll qualify at third base this year, but that’s probably it) and his declining plate discipline, perhaps Cabrera isn’t quite the value he might seem upon first glance. Cabrera has all the talent in the world, but he’s going to have to show a little more patience if he wants to make good on the Hall of Fame comparisons bestowed upon him.