Miguel Cabrera is having a bad season. No, not just by his standards, but by many of the league’s standards. Since his first full season in 2004, Miggy has been universally regarded as one of, if not the premier hitter in all of baseball. Respected by all and feared by many, Cabrera’s ability to hit the baseball has elevated him to folk hero status. However, 2017 has proved to be a painful ride for Cabrera in more ways than one.
As of Monday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cabrera checks in with a wRC+ of 100, also known as exactly league average. Disregarding his rookie year where he only played half a season, his previous season low for wRC+ was 129. Since his first trip to the playoffs with the Tigers in 2011, his worst season at the dish produced 148 wRC+ in 2014. Among qualified hitters, Cabrera ranks 27th all time with 150 wRC+. So yeah, Miguel Cabrera is one of the greatest hitters ever.
But back to 2017, where Cabrera is slashing .254/.341/.411, which would all represent the lowest marks of his career over a full season. His 11.4 percent walk rate is right at his career norm, but his 20.7 percent strikeout rates is nearly 4 percent higher than his average. Additionally, his swing percentages are similar to where they’ve been over the last six years, so his plate discipline doesn’t matter. The only number that sticks out there is that his outside-the-zone contact percentage is about 5 percentage points lower than where it’s been since 2011, which we might be able to attribute to an inability to adjust mid-swing on pitches he’s been fooled by.
Injuries taking a toll
The main culprit that Cabrera’s struggles have been attributed to are his early season back injury and his lingering groin injuries. While he’s tried to gut through this season, it’s easy to see that he’s in pain when he’s at the plate. The first sign of pain is that he’s not smiling as much during the game. As silly as that reads, no one in baseball enjoys being out on the field more than Miguel Cabrera, and when you can’t see the joy from the game in his eyes, something is up. The second sign of pain lies in his hits-by-direction percentages.
Cabrera is known for his ability to hit for power to all fields. Having never relied on pulling the ball, he routinely sprays the ball to right field, thus taking whatever the pitcher gives him. This year, that approach has been taken to the extreme, with his pull percentage at 33.3, a career low. Cabrera isn’t turning on the ball anymore, and has become a glorified slap hitter, something that really doesn’t provide a whole lot of value for the type of ballplayer he is. His .158 ISO is .080 points below his average, and a player of Cabrera’s stature needs to drive the ball for extra bases to make up for his deficiencies on the bases.
Swinging a baseball bat requires the use of legs and back (duh), but turning on a major league fastball requires a hitter be quick and powerful in rotating his back leg and lower back, something Cabrera has not been this year. Instead, Cabrera has gone to his “two strike” approach in other counts this season, an approach where he doesn’t step toward the pitcher and instead simply tries to hit a line drive to center or right , sapping his power in the process. While this approach offers protection down in the count, it doesn’t allow a hitter to create as much forward momentum with his lower half. Cabrera, whose swing mechanics have provided the blueprint for many great hitters such as J.D. Martinez, has altered his swing, and the most likely explanation is that he’s physically unable to consistently use his normal approach.
Cabrera is still hitting the ball hard, but his fly ball percentage is lower than his career norms (31.5 percent to 36.2 percent) while his line drive percentage is above career norms (27.5 percent to 22.3 percent), which can be assumed as a result of a change in approach. His home run to fly ball ratio is also lower (15.1 percent to 19 percent), which means when he is getting the ball in the air, he hasn’t generated enough power to hit it out.
Overall, Miggy simply hasn’t been Miggy in 2017. Lingering injuries have clearly taken a toll on him, and at 34 years of age he isn’t able to play through them like he once was. Virtually all of his value is in his elite bat, and because he’s been exactly average in that department, his numbers have taken a nosedive. Cabrera has been worth 0.6 fWAR, and 0.0 bWAR. It’s crazy to think that he’s been replacement level this year, but that’s what nagging injuries can do to players who contrive nearly all of their value from doing one thing at an elite level; just look at Albert Pujols, whose decline has been sharp since leaving St. Louis.
It’s also worth noting that Cabrera has been dealing with quite a bit off the field. A native of Maracay, Venezuela, he has watched from afar as his homeland is torn apart by corruption and revolts caused by it’s current political regime. In an interview, he revealed that he still has family over there and that he sends money to assure his mother’s safety. The fact that he’s been courageous enough to step into the batters box everyday and continue with business as usual is something that should be applauded.
In a season that was pronounced dead at the trade deadline, the wise thing to do would be to give Cabrera time off to heal both physically and mentally, which would also allow the Tigers to experiment with new positions for guys like Nicholas Castellanos and Jamier Candelario. However, given his drive to compete every single day, it’s unlikely that Cabrera will be coming out of the lineup for anything more than the occasional off day every couple weeks. At this point, we all have to hope that he can limp to the finish line without further damage and get healthy for 2018.