One of the developing truisms taken from the advent of detailed batted ball data is that power without launch angle is wasted. Way back in February, I wrote about the fact that Miguel Cabrera’s average exit velocity remains among the elite power hitters in the game. Since the All-Star break, Cabrera has really dialed in the power angle. He’s been red hot ever since.
Cabrera holds a line of .358/.422/.650 since the break. The numbers shake out to a 184 wRC+. In short, Cabrera is killing baseballs and despite a brief run-in with a slight bicep strain, shows no sign of stopping.
Projection systems like ZIPS and Steamer predicted home run totals of 24 and 26 respectively for Cabrera in 2016. The Tigers’ superstar has already blown those out of the water, sitting at 28 bombs with almost a week remaining in August. Nine of those home runs, not to mention eight doubles, have come in just 145 plate appearances since the break. He’s already reached the halfway mark of his first half totals in just over a third as many appearances.
Cabrera has actually struck out a little more, and walked a little less in the second half. So these totals aren’t just a matter of putting the ball in play more often. Instead it all stems directly from his .271 ISO, as compared to his .215 mark in the first half. Suffice it to say that any and all rumors of Cabrera’s slow demise over the past two seasons were unfounded.
What matters now, is that right when the Tigers need it the most, Cabrera appears on pace to power the offense with a second half that is shaping up to be in line with his best years. And it all ties directly to air power. Cabrera is hammering the ball, hitting more line drives and flyballs, and reaping the benefits. Fangraphs batted ball data roughly tells the tale.
Cabrera was unlucky in April. He wasn't getting the ball in the air as much he'd like, and they just weren't falling in either. In May, he erupted and was every bit the beast who haunts a pitcher's dreams. But he faded in late June and it continued until the All-Star break. With J.D. Martinez injured, no one really lighting it up, the Tigers really needed Cabrera, and perhaps he pressed too hard.
The sight of a highly frustrated Cabrera, rarely smiling or joking with players on the field, seemed rather ominous as his numbers dipped into the territory of mortals in June and early July. The increasing number of groundballs, particularly with runners on base had both player and fanbase shaking their heads. Monthly totals don't reflect it, but even into mid-July there were still too many balls in the ground. Even worse, line drive rates under twenty percent are not the Cabrera we're used to.
There have been numerous theories floated for Cabrera's declining power numbers the past few seasons. Since his core injury in late 2013, he's battled several lower body injuries. It seemed the hand and eye were still willing, but the legs were weak. The result was some diminishing of his ability to stay back on the ball and drive it in the air. While his average exit velocities largely confirmed that he was still drilling the baseball, and his average and on-base percentage didn't suffer, the power numbers did. He just wasn't launching the ball in the air as often on his hardest hit balls.
But then there's this. Since early June, Cabrera has hit the ball ever harder. Not just a spike here or there, but consistent, sustained hard contact, until really achieving liftoff in recent weeks to monstrous heights. The pop-ups have disappeared entirely in August. The line drives have spiked. While the peak flyball rate in July has come back to Earth a little, those flyballs have been replaced with scorching line drives, rather than groundballs or pop-ups. Cabrera is just smashing the baseball with as much authority as anyone in the game.
Currently, eleven players sit ahead of Cabrera on the batted ball leaderboard for exit velocity in 2016. That's plenty good as only a handful of mashers including Nelson Cruz, Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez and David Ortiz are outpacing Cabrera. But Nelson Cruz' league leading average exit velocity is 95.4 miles per hour. The Tigers' first baseman has sat around that mark or well above since mid-July. But the key to translating raw power into doubles and home runs, is that sweet spot combo of exit velocity and launch angle.
The first half of the 2016 season is represented in the top exit velocity and launch angle chart, with the second half below. Things can appear very subtle in a chart like this, so let me draw your attention to the optimal power hitting band of launch angle centered around 20 degrees. In the second half Cabrera has bulged his average exit velocity around that angle out beyond 100 mph. That's the extra sweet spot of pure contact and angle where basically any ball with those characteristics is leaving the ballpark.
In addition, between about zero degrees and 35 degrees, Cabrera has filled out the exit velocity chart just a few extra miles per hour across the board. That's the kind of contact that, with a little more power added in now, produces line drives to the walls instead of lineouts. Home runs instead of warning track fly balls. Cabrera isn't beating the ball into the ground much at all, apart from that little band of choppers or what-have-you at the bottom. Even the ground balls are more one-hopper than routine, and so he's likely finding more singles there too.
Wednesday night against the Twins, Cabrera smoked a pair of balls for doubles, and then did this.
We've seen how quickly an injury like Cabrera's can result in the player being somewhat written off, the way Justin Verlander was after his 2014 campaign. Cabrera had much the same injury in the same year. Foot and ankle issues, as well as a nasty hamstring injury have plagued him since. But this season, he's been relatively healthy. Perhaps it just took some time to really fully regain the footwork and timing that make him one of the game's all-time great hitters. Or perhaps he's just on a tear with no explanation needed. The mid-season funk is a distant memory, and the big fella is rolling.
Cabrera in currently on pace to launch 36 home runs this season. What that means for his career as he piles up the numbers is yet to be determined. But for a team needing a furious stretch drive to ensure a postseason berth, it's the perfect tonic for the Detroit Tigers. In Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, the Tigers have two of the hottest hitters in the game, and their track records say that this offense is going to do major damage the rest of the way.