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2017 Tigers player preview: Miguel Cabrera was actually unlucky last season

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But he continues to crush baseballs with no signs of slowing down.

Baltimore Orioles v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The 2016 season was an outstanding one for Miguel Cabrera. After two years of declining power numbers and ongoing leg issues, Cabrera hit 38 home runs and reclaimed his status as one of the elite home run threats in baseball. As he approaches his age 34 season, all signs indicate that the Tigers’ superstar is beyond his his absolute peak, yet remains arguably the best pure hitter in the game.

Of course, “pure hitter” is vague enough to take several ways. Jose Altuve may take exception, for example, but in terms of who mashes baseballs the hardest, Cabrera is still right in the mix. We explored this prior to last season using Statcast’s exit velocity numbers, and found that Cabrera had the highest average exit velocity of any hitter in 2015. While Statcast data are still new, they predicted that his power, reflexes and bat-speed were intact despite his age and injury history. As it turned out, this was borne out by his production in 2016.

2016 Statcast Leaderboard

2016 Avg EV Barrels Avg EV LD/FB
2016 Avg EV Barrels Avg EV LD/FB
Nelson Cruz 95.9 68 99.2
Giancarlo Stanton 95.1 43 97.4
Matt Holliday 94.7 25 96.9
Miguel Cabrera 94.5 72 97.1
David Ortiz 94.2 62 97.3

Cabrera was unable to turn the trick once again in 2016, finishing fourth in the major leagues in average exit velocity. That it translated into more home runs than 2015 is a function of plate appearances, launch angle, direction, and ballpark. However, Cabrera might have plenty more in the tank. In a current Statcast article, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello argues that, based on Cabrera’s raw contact data, he was actually one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball.

In 2015, Cabrera’s average exit velocity (EV) was 93.83 miles per hour, tied with Jose Bautista. His average EV on line drives and fly balls combined was 96.86 mph, good for second place to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt. In 2016, Cabrera improved on those numbers. His average EV on all balls in play was 94.5 mph. On line drives and fly balls, he posted an average of 97.1 mph (16th in baseball). Again, this was a slight improvement over his 2015 numbers. Basically, Cabrera hit the ball just a touch harder last season.

While Cabrera didn’t lead the league in exit velocity, he did lead the league in barrels. Barrels are a Statcast metric for balls in play that combined exit velocity and launch angle into a profile that results in a minimum .500 average and 1.500 slugging percentage. These are balls launched in the air at 98 miles per hour or better, with a launch angle profile beginning between 26 and 30 degrees (but widening the harder the ball is hit). Basically, it’s a measure of how many balls a player crushed with an optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle. Cabrera did this more than anyone.

Yet, his production doesn’t line up with his expected OPS based on his contact profile. Statcast expected a 1.098 OPS and a wOBA of .459 from Cabrera, but his actual numbers were .956 and .399, respectively. Those expected numbers would have been the best in baseball by a substantial margin. Statcast postulates that Comerica Park’s cavernous center field measurements are largely to blame here; it’s certainly true that Cabrera hit a lot of balls to deep center field that would have been home runs in just about every other ballpark.

Statcast Expected v Actual OPS

Player Expected vs Actual OPS
Player Expected vs Actual OPS
Kendrys Morales 0.147
Miguel Cabrera 0.142
Albert Pujols 0.114
Joe Mauer 0.093
Howie Kendrick 0.085

Statcast confirms that Miguel Cabrera made seven outs that flew 400 feet or more in 2016, six of them in Comerica Park. Of course, all of them were hit to deep center field. While it doesn’t help the Tigers unless they bring the fences in, it’s at least good to know that Cabrera’s career home run totals will someday be understood through Comerica Park’s impact. He would likely be well beyond 500 home runs already playing just about anywhere else.

There’s little Cabrera can do about the ballpark, of course. All a power hitter can do is hit the ball as hard as he can and at the best launch angle possible, as often as he’s able. Cabrera still does that better than anyone. His fly ball rate increased by roughly three percentage points compared to his 2015 rate. Over 22 percent of those fly balls went for home runs, a rate he hasn’t produced since his 2012-2013 peak. If more of them stay in the park than the Tigers would like, that’s just the price of doing business for half a season in a park that is built to help fly ball pitchers. More importantly to the Tigers’ current concerns, he’s still right there among the truly elite hitters in the game.