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Tigers' Miguel Cabrera is still hitting the ball as hard as anyone

Is Miguel Cabrera's two season decline in home runs a result of injuries, or a natural decline?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Not long ago, Detroit Tigers fans had hopes that they would soon see the team's first 50 home run season since Cecil Fielder raged to 51 dingers back in 1990. After crushing 44 bombs in 2012, Miguel Cabrera really cranked up the power in 2013, hitting 43 home runs before the calendar turned to September. He looked well on his way to winning a second consecutive Triple Crown.

But just as he rode a two-year tear at the peak of his abilities, punctuated by a memorable pair of home runs days apart off of Mariano Rivera in mid-August, Cabrera suffered a core muscle injury that sapped his home run power down the stretch. Thus began a two-year decline in power, repeated injuries to his lower half, and consecutive offseasons with surgery as the centerpiece. Despite all this, he has remained one of the most productive hitters in the game.

Yet, there persists among Tigers' fans a nagging fear that Cabrera's days as one of the elite home run hitters in the game are over. That even a healthy Cabrera is no longer the home run threat he once was. In some cases, the projection systems share those concerns. ZiPS projects that Cabrera will hit .306/.389/.517 with 24 homers, while Steamer predicts a .314/.398/.534 season with 26 home runs.

Those are very robust totals for mortals, but pale in comparison to Cabrera's previous standard -- he's a career .321/.399/.562 hitter -- particularly the home run totals. Projection systems are innately conservative, with good reason. In essence, the declining forecasts come from estimates of reduced playing time and continued modest home run totals. Certainly, he appears to be arriving in camp in better health and may avoid some of the nagging injuries that have bothered him the past two seasons.

Regardless, there are good reasons to believe that Cabrera's power at the plate is largely undiminished, and far higher home run totals still well within his reach. Among qualified batters in 2015, Cabrera had the highest average exit velocity in the game. His hardest hit ball of the year left the bat at 116 miles per hour, which was seventh in the game, with Nelson Cruz leading the way at 119 miles per hour. Cabrera is still hitting the ball as hard as anyone in baseball.

Rank Name ABs w/ Data Max Exit Velocity (mph) Avg Exit Velocity (mph) Avg FB/LD Velocity (mph) Max Distance (ft.) Average Distance (ft.)
1 Miguel Cabrera 268 116 93.83 96.86 454.0 301.25
2 Jose Bautista 309 115 93.83 95.79 461.0 322.92
3 Paul Goldschmidt 305 112 93.46 97.31 471.0 311.77
4 David Ortiz 323 114 93.19 95.49 468.0 314.45
5 Yoenis Cespedes 372 113 93.18 96.53 442.0 316.27
6 Mike Trout 330 118 93.17 96.67 477.0 316.70
7 Lucas Duda 244 113 93.14 94.29 456.0 311.51
8 Ryan Braun 274 115 92.82 95.10 440.0 312.54
9 Danny Valencia 205 113 92.90 95.57 441.0 312.47
10 Ryan Zimmerman 212 111 92.90 95.31 443.0 311.76

Cabrera only hit 18 home runs in 511 plate appearances last season. For the first time in his career, his isolated power was below .200, at .196. We have two sets of facts telling very different stories. Which one is real?

Part of the issue was simply that there weren't as many balls in the air off Cabrera's bat. His fly ball rate dropped 2.5 percent from 2014, and is down almost 5 percent since 2013. Those declining fly ball rates have turned into ground balls, a poor development for his power numbers.

Season LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB%
2013 24.0 38.7 37.4 5.8 25.4
2014 24.8 40.0 35.2 5.6 14.0
2015 25.2 42.1 32.7 3.5 15.8

Additionally, where Cabrera once hit a quarter of his fly balls into the outfield seats, that number was down substantially the past two seasons. The decline in his HR/FB rate is at the crux of any concerns. However, considering the velocity at which the ball is leaving Cabrera's bat, this is probably not the sign of declining power it appears to be.

You can see this in his average carrying distance, which is roughly 10 feet shorter than any of his peers. Cabrera is hitting the ball very hard, but not carrying it as far, generally speaking, even when compared to players who don't make the same quality of contact.

The key factor in making sense of that is the overall angle at which he's driving the ball. According to Statcast, Cabrera's average launch angle sat at 11.8 percent in 2015, which is substantially lower than many of the top home run hitters in the game. J.D. Martinez was at 15.5 percent, by comparison. The extra ground balls Cabrera is hitting are a contributing factor here, but overall it seems reasonable to conclude that he is simply hitting the ball on a lower trajectory more often than he did during his biggest home run seasons.

According to Statcast data, the sweet spot for home runs requires launch angles centered roughly around 25 degrees. For Cabrera to return to form as a guy who can threaten 40 home runs, he has to start hitting the ball in the air more often. Given his ability to hit for both average and power, this doesn't involve a sacrifice of his ability to poke base hits the other way. He remains capable of hitting 40 or more home runs, and even another Triple Crown isn't out of the question for him. The Tigers' have concerns like any team, but Cabrera's power is probably the least of them.