It was a bit jarring, really. After watching Miguel Cabrera day in and day out for the past eight years, seeing mighty Miggy struggle to hit home runs in 2015 felt unnatural. We are used to seeing opposing pitchers dance around Cabrera, only for him to turn on a pitch off the plate for a home run anyway. The composite GIF of him hitting six home runs on six very different locations is a microcosm of how difficult it is to get the future Hall of Famer out.
In a sense, 2015 felt unnatural.
Sure, Cabrera missed six weeks on the disabled list with a calf injury, but his home run total (18) was his lowest since 2003, his rookie year. It was only the second time he hasn't hit at least 25 bombs in a season, and the second time he failed to eclipse the 100-RBI plateau.
More telling, though, was Cabrera's .196 isloated power (ISO), the worst figure of his career. Cabrera won the American League batting title with a .338 batting average, and got on base at a league-leading 44 percent clip, but only tallied 28 doubles (and a triple) in addition to his 18 home runs. Collecting 47 extra base hits is a good season for most hitters, but not for Cabrera, who hit 52 doubles alone in 2014. In eight seasons with the Tigers, Cabrera's overall ISO is .246.
Cabrera indirectly offered up a valid excuse for his power drop-off after the season, stating that his surgically repaired right ankle had not felt 100 percent for most of the year. It did not stop him from enjoying one of his best career offensive seasons for five months -- he hit .264 and slugged .330 in September -- but even as he chugged towards a potential 200 wRC+ year, his power numbers were down.
What explains the drop off? Cabrera hit more ground balls than usual in 2015, and had his highest ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of his career. He only homered on 15.8 percent of the fly balls he hit, well below his career average. He walked more often, nearly doubling his rate from 2014, and did not swing as much; his 47.5 percent swing rate was his lowest since 2006. When he did swing, he made contact just 78.8 percent of the time, his lowest contact rate since 2008. His swinging strike rate actually decreased from 2014 (a positive sign), but looking deeper, we see where things may have gone wrong.
This is where Cabrera swung and missed most often in 2015, and the trend seems obvious. Unlike previous years when Cabrera's whiffs largely came at the bottom of the strike zone, he was unable to catch up with high fastballs in 2015. The numbers bear that out as well. Cabrera whiffed on 9.2 percent of the fastballs he saw this season, up from 8.6 percent since joining the Tigers in 2008.
Cabrera's power numbers were down against every type of pitch in 2015, but his struggles against fastballs were most telling. He hit .375 against fastballs this year, but only slugged .581, good enough for a .206 ISO. However, this is well down from the .256 ISO he had on fastballs from 2008 to 2014.
Some may be quick to point at Cabrera's age for a reason why he struggled to punish fastballs in 2015, but his nagging injuries may be the actual culprit. Cabrera was on a 30-homer pace before he was injured in July, and while his ISO had declined from previous seasons, it did not preclude him from hitting .350/.456/.578 through the first three months of the season. We pointed out changes in Cabrera's swing when he was struggling in September, and openly wondered if the slugger was still bothered by his right ankle.
It's difficult to say whether this is just a bad stretch for Cabrera or if he is injured, so we have little choice but to take his comments at face value. With two full days off before Friday's series opener against the Kansas City Royals, we will see if Cabrera has had time to iron out the kinks or heal whatever ails him. With his lead in the AL batting average race dwindling, his hopes for a fourth batting title may depend on it.
With an offseason to recover, hopefully we see Cabrera's power return in full force in 2016.
In some ways, this was not Cabrera's best year. His power wasn't the same and he was on the DL for six weeks. He posted his lowest HR total (18) since his rookie season. He still won a batting title and raked for the first two weeks back from the DL. His offense also dropped like a stone in September and went 29 games without a home run. Defensively, though, he was stellar. He posted a 4 DRS, the best of his career at first base, and second-best overall since having a 6 DRS with the Marlins in 2004 -- tied with Orioles Chris Davis for second-best in the AL. His 76 assists were the fourth-most in the AL and he started 10 double plays -- most in the AL.
Expectations for 2016
One positive sign for Cabrera's prospects in 2016 didn't come from him, but rather from Victor Martinez. While the Tigers' DH hobbled through most of the season, Martinez was able to play a handful of games at first base down the stretch in 2015, indicating that he could be in for a bigger workload in the field next season. This may not have a major impact on Cabrera's health -- nearly all of his injuries have come while running the bases, not playing the field -- but giving him a few more days as the team's DH could help keep him fresh for a larger chunk of the season.