The Latest Miguel Cabrera Bummer

The rebuilding Tigers weren’t headed anywhere in particular, quickly or slowly, in 2018, but whatever their eventual destination, Miguel Cabrera won’t be going with them. In the third inning of Tuesday night’s game game against the Twins, the 35-year-old slugger ruptured his left biceps tendon while swinging a bat. He had to be replaced mid-plate appearance, underwent an MRI while the game was still in progress, and was discovered to need season-ending surgery. It’s just the latest frustrating turn in a Hall-of-Fame career that, alas, hasn’t lacked for bum notes in recent years.

Cabrera suffered the injury while whiffing at strike two against Jake Odorizzi. He immediately doubled over in pain, grabbed his left arm and headed towards the Tigers’ dugout:

“He took a swing, missed the ball, and the thing popped. It’s pretty sad,” said manager Ron Gardenhire.

This is Cabrera’s second issue involving his left biceps this year and his second trip to the disabled list. He missed three games in late April and early May due to a biceps muscle spasm, then played in just six innings of the Tigers’ May 3 game before leaving with a right hamstring strain that sidelined him for four weeks. Despite the injuries, he had been productive if not his dominant in his 38 games, hitting .299/.395/.448 with a 123 wRC+, 0.8 WAR, and a modest three homers.

Last year, the worst of Cabrera’s 16-year major-league career, he missed nine games in April and May due to a groin strain and was hampered by back woes that lingered all season and were ultimately diagnosed as a pair of herniated discs in his lumbar region, preventing him from generating his typical power with the hips. Shut down for the year after September 23, he finished with a .249/.329/.399 line with 16 homers, a 91 wRC+ (his first time below 100), and -0.2 WAR (his first time below replacement level). That was the second time in three years he had fallen shy of 20 homers; in 2015, a Grade 3 calf strain limited him to 119 games and 18 homers, though he still hit a sizzling .338/.440/.534 for a 164 wRC+ and 4.8 WAR while leading the AL in batting average and on-base percentage, each for the fourth time.

While not as alarming as, say, Albert PujolsAngels-era drop-off, Cabrera has had just one fully healthy season out of his past four (.316/.393/.563, 38 HR, 152 wRC+, 4.7 WAR in 158 games in 2016) that would fit in with his remarkable, durable 11-year run from 2004-14:

Miguel Cabrera’s Mid-Career Downturn
Years G PA HR AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ WAR
2004-14 157 679 34 .323/.400/.568 164 5.4
2015-18 111 469 19 .301/.388/.498 136 2.5

Last year aside, he’s still generally been an excellent hitter. But while he was hitting the ball harder in 2018 than 2017, and pulling it with a higher frequency (41.7 %) than in any year since 2005, he was not elevating the ball with typical frequency:

Miguel Cabrera via Statcast, 2015-2018
Season GB% FB% GB/FB EV LA xwOBA wOBA Hard Hit %
2015 42.1% 32.7% 1.29 93.8 12.4 .440 .413 53.9%
2016 41.7% 35.5% 1.17 93.6 12.3 .458 .398 50.4%
2017 39.8% 32.9% 1.21 91.2 12.0 .384 .313 47.2%
2018 54.6% 20.4% 2.68 94.2 6.7 .385 .361 52.8%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
EV = Exit Velocity, LA = Launch Angle

While we can’t say whether that lack of elevation owed to the maladies that Cabrera has endured this year, his ground-ball/fly-ball ratio was higher in March/April (2.73 in 85 PA), before his first DL stint, than in June (2.29 in 41 PA). While his average launch angle was higher in the latter set, his average exit velocity and xwOBA had both fallen relative to his pre-injury stretch, from 95.4 mph and .408 to 91.2 mph and .344, respectively. Grounders and all, he hit .326/.413/.528 (152 wRC+) in March/April, compared to .244/.367/.293 (85 wRC+). Both sample sizes are small enough that it might be a fool’s errand to read too much into them, but for postmortem purposes, them’s the numbers.

Back to the bigger picture. Cabrera’s frequent absences in recent years have slowed down his progress towards all kinds of milestones, and they could prevent him from reaching career totals that would mark him as an inner-circle Hall of Famer, though his eventual induction seems almost certain barring some Robinson Cano-level late-career shocker. Through 2016, his age-33 season, he had accumulated 2,519 hits and 446 homers, and he figured not just to join the short list of players with 3,000 and 500 (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, and now Pujols), but 3,000 and 600 (Aaron, Mays, Rodriguez, and now Pujols), with spots in the top 10 of both categories. With 2,674 hits thus far, Cabrera appeared on track to reach 3,000 next year, making it the fifth straight with a player reaching that milestone, after Rodriguez in 2015, Ichiro Suzuki in 2016, Adrian Beltre in 2017, and Pujols this year.

Writing for Sports Illustrated in April 2015, on the occasion of Pujols’ 521st career homer (tying him with Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, and Frank Thomas for 19th on the all-time list), I used the rest-of-season and long-term forecasts from Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system to estimate the career home-run totals of several top sluggers, cutting the projections off at the end of each player’s existing contract or his first sub-replacement-level season (in terms’ of BP’s WARP). At that point, Cabrera, with 392 homers at the time, projected to finish with 610 (currently ninth all-time) through the end of 2023, his age-40 season. (Pujols is projected to reach 642.) On May 31, 2017, as Pujols approached 600 thanks in part to the league-wide uptick in longballs that began in mid-2015, I replicated that process and estimated Cabrera, with 451 homers at the time, to reach 651 and Pujols 686, which would place them fifth and seventh all-time. Doing the same thing today, Cabrera, with 465 homers, projects merely to reach 555, tied with Manny Ramirez for 15th all-time. In the space of 12 1/2 months, his estimated future home-run output dropped from 200 to 90.

Alas, I did not do the same thing with Cabrera’s hit total at either time, but we can fudge it well enough for illustrative purposes using his actual hits-to-homers ratios at the intermediate points. As of that April 2015 pice, he would have been estimated to reach 3,422, eighth all-time, just ahead of Honus Wagner (3,420) and Carl Yastrzemski (3,419). By the May 2017 estimate, that number would have risen to 3,689, fourth all-time between Aaron (3,771) and Stan Musial (3,630), which, holy Toledo. Now he’s down to 3,230 using the straight PECOTA forecast, and 3,194 using the hits-to-homers ratio, either of which would place him 15th all time.

Those milestones, the four batting titles, two MVP awards, Triple Crown, and 11 All-Star selections will make Cabrera a lock for Cooperstown even before one turns to my Hall of Fame system, where his 69.3 career WAR (Baseball-Reference version), 44.7 peak WAR, and 57.0 JAWS are already above the standards at first base. He’s currently 11th in JAWS, and he was just weeks away from passing 2018 inductee Jim Thome (57.2) to move into the top 10, with the chance to surpass both Thomas (59.6) and Johnny Mize (59.8) by the end of 2019. That eighth-place ranking may be as high as he goes; if he returns to average 2.0 WAR for 2019-23 — optimistic given the likelihood of a full-time DH gig at some point along the way — he’d finish at 62.0, short of seventh-place Dan Brouthers (63.5) and sixth-place Jeff Bagwell (64.6). Since he’s averaged just 2.4 rWAR over the past four seasons, it’s tough to imagine him boosting that late-career rate, to say nothing of adding to his peak score (his seventh-best season is 5.2 rWAR, reached both in 2005 and 2015).

Owed a minimum of $162 million from 2019-23 ($30 million for the first three of those years, $32 for the last two, plus an $8 million buyout for a $30 million 2024 option), Cabrera’s contract — a generous eight year, $248 million extension signed in March 2014 that could eventually rival Pujols’ in terms of playing-out-the-string money — will do the Tigers no favors going forward. But with Detroit having shed Justin Verlander and soon Victor Martinez, it’s not like that should hamper the team too much so long as owner Chris Illich avoids turning into Calvin Griffith. The bottom line isn’t Detroit’s payroll, it’s Cabrera’s fading chances at those inner-circle milestones and rankings, and our dwindling opportunities to watch an all-time great at a time when he’s still quite productive.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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shortstop
Member
shortstop

Peak Miggy was a thing to behold. I hope his dominance doesn’t get lost in these late career injuries holding back his career totals.

Side note: I’ve been looking at JAWS on bbref. I think it would be helpful to have median WAR/WAR7/JAWS for HOFers at each position in addition to average. It seems like often, the averages for a certain position are weighed down by members who are far behind the rest of the pack (i.e. the Freddie Lindstroms of the world). Any thoughts, Jay?

MikeS
Member
MikeS

There are certainly some differences, but his body type, offensive prowess, and career arc (including his body breaking down on him), are quite similar to Frank Thomas.