The heart of the Detroit Tigers' order has been on life support for almost two straight weeks. And there's no better defibrillator than Miguel Cabrera going on a tear. Instead, the greatest hitter the Tigers have ever known has been mired in one of the worst slumps of his fabled career. What's ailing the big fella?
Through Sunday, the slugger has a 66 wRC+ on the season. Only two months in his entire career in Detroit have ended with Cabrera posting a number below the league average of 100 wRC+. Disconcertingly, those two months came in the past two seasons. A 90 wRC+ in August 2014 and a 95 wRC+ in September 2015 represent the lowest points in Cabrera's amazing career. This season, Cabrera's start makes it quite likely that he's going to be a below average hitter in back-to-back months for the first time ever.
How terrified should Tigers fans be at this point? It's far too early to worry that Cabrera won't get it going, but we do seem to be seeing an ongoing trend of fading production, punctuated by the occasional vintage stretch of hot hitting. Cabrera's strikeouts are up above his career average in 2016, but not egregiously so. With the small amount of plate appearances involved, a couple of solid days at the plate would erase that from the list of red flags.
But something is clearly out of whack with Cabrera.
The two things that stand out are Cabrera's isolated power (ISO) and BABIP. Both are worlds away from his career averages, and the two are inextricably tied when explaining what's gone wrong. Cabrera has always posted a BABIP far above league average thanks to the consistent hard contact he makes on a routine basis. He is not hitting for power either, so one may assume that Cabrera simply isn't hitting the ball as hard as he normally does, producing terrible odds on balls in play.
That's not entirely accurate, though. So far this season, Cabrera's average exit velocity is 93.92 mph on all balls in play. Last season he led all qualified hitters at 94.48 mph. On line drives and fly balls, Cabrera was punishing baseballs at an average exit velocity of 97.62 mph in 2015. This season, on those batted ball types, Cabrera is putting them in play at a velocity of 96.93. There is a small sign of weaker contact here, but it's a very slight difference, and we're only talking about 70 plate appearances. Something else is going on here, and it's a problem that now looks like a developing trend for the man generally described as the best hitter in the game.
The issue isn't how hard Cabrera is hitting the ball, but how high.
For three years running, Cabrera has continued to increase his ground ball totals, while sacrificing fly balls. Based on his overall launch angle of just 11.8 degrees in 2015, and his results, it's easy to see that Cabrera is simply not getting enough air under the baseball to do the kind of damage we're accustomed to seeing with regularity.
According to Statcast, the optimum trajectory for power involves launch angles between 20 and 30 degrees of altitude. Power hitters are well advised to ignore batting average and actually try to put the ball in the air as much as possible. Even when Cabrera is smoking the ball, he's simply not generating the lift necessary to carry line drives to the wall, and fly balls out of the park the way he used to.
Certainly his batting average will return to its customary zone above .300, as ground balls tend to go for hits more than fly balls do, and he is drilling those ground balls. The Tigers need a lot more than a great singles hitter out of the three-spot in the lineup, though. The real question is why Cabrera is putting so many balls on the ground, while right next to him, J.D. Martinez, works toward hitting an even higher percentage of fly balls.
Perhaps Cabrera just isn't seeing the ball well at the moment. That much is obvious, as his lowered contact rates both in the zone and outside it would attest. His swinging strike rate is also up compared to years past. Anyone watching him the past two weeks can see that Cabrera isn't seeing the ball as well as he usually does.
The real issue to work on may still be rooted in the lower body injuries that have plagued him over the past two seasons. Manager Brad Ausmus commented recently that Cabrera was forced to limit his leg drive in order to remain productive over the past two seasons, and, while now finally working with healthy legs, has some bad habits to work through.
One of the greatest and most underlooked aspects of Cabrera's greatness as a hitter has always been rooted in his lower half. He's renowned for subtle mid-swing adjustments in footwork that allow him to handle pitches both inside and away, or down, with equal aplumb. Now that he can take a full stride again, he should have the leverage and depth in his swing to start launching the ball in the air again, particularly to the pull field.
Yet he continues to have trouble staying back and clearing his hips to drive it in the air. It's as though he's gotten his longer stride back, but not the ability to stay back with his upper half, in prime high-launch position. Too many balls this season have been sharply hit, but rolled over with level shoulders, right to opposing shortstops. It appears it's going to take a little time to find his way back to that good timing.
It's a rare thing to see Miguel Cabrera really struggle at the plate. Certainly the number of articles whose subject is, "What is wrong with Cabrera?" is probably infinitesimally small compared to most hitters. There's good reason for that. Cabrera always figures things out. He always manages to make the adjustments faster than pitchers can keep up. We've seen him adjust to injury in recent years, and continue to be a highly productive hitter. It's foolish to fear that Cabrera is simply bound for a bad year. But for him to return to top form and produce the way the Tigers' hope, he'll have to adapt again.