Two years ago, Miguel Cabrera was coming off a fantastic 2016 campaign in which he played in 158 games and cracked 38 home runs. All manner of lofty terrain in the record books again seemed within reach. There was reason to think that Cabrera’s late-30’s might look more like Hank Aaron’s than the injury-plagued work of Albert Pujols, for example. Unfortunately, Cabrera’s season-ending injury in June of this season may have finally cooled that optimism for good.
Throughout the month of April, it looked like the resurgent season the Tigers hoped for was underway. Cabrera posted an excellent 152 wRC+ in April, and while the home runs were in short supply it wasn’t hard to imagine his power waxing in the warm summer months ahead. Instead, Cabrera suffered a left bicep spasm and then a hamstring injury that put him on the disabled list for most of May. He returned in June for two weeks before tearing a bicep tendon in the same arm, ending his season entirely.
Projecting Cabrera at this point feels more like a medical evaluation than a statistical one. Per Baseball Reference’s version of wins above replacement (WAR), Cabrera has combined to be worth -0.2 WAR over the past two seasons. FanGraphs’ version is only slightly more positive. While the big fella played in 130 games in 2017, he was hampered by back issues throughout that season, among other aches and pains, and was a below league average offensive player for the first time in his storied career. He was far more productive early in 2018, his age 35 season, but as the years and the injuries pile up, the chances of him sustaining those kind of a numbers for a full season again are dwindling.
One big stat: 94.4 mph average exit velocity (2nd in MLB)
One of the features of the 2018 postseason has been the fatigue induced by overzealous or reactionary pundits, and their misuse and misunderstanding of the modern metrics transforming the way the game is understood. Launch angle and exit velocity are thrown around without context, to the point of being coined into slapdash and cringe-inducing verb forms by some of the worst offenders. Miguel Cabrera’s brief 2018 campaign provides a good opportunity to use the two terms to understand the underlying skill beneath his improved numbers this season.
Compared to every other hitter who put 20 or more balls in play this season, only the mighty Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees averaged a higher exit velocity than Cabrera off the bat. As a rare measure of contact, that’s still somewhat encouraging. However, for three seasons now, Cabrera’s sustained ability to put barrel to ball with as much authority as anyone in the game has functioned as a source of optimism. It hasn’t necessarily led to the level of production one would expect.
Bless You Boys’ first article on the topic came prior to the 2016 season. That year, things worked out just fine as Cabrera played a full season and erupted for a furious second half that nearly carried the Tigers into a playoff berth. But Cabrera’s average exit velocity off the bat is always in the top tier. It hasn’t necessarily prevented real decline in his production the past two seasons. This, of course, is where launch angle comes into play. Here is Cabrera’s launch angle chart on hits from 2016, versus his 2018 version below.
The red represents the clusters of his hits around certain launch angles. The gray represents his raw batted balls, both hits and outs combined. In the end, the issue is pretty simple to diagnose, and much harder to correct. Cabrera just isn’t hitting as many flyballs, particularly those in the sweet spot centered around 25 to 30 degrees off the bat. The question is whether he can get back to driving the ball in the air, particularly to the pull field, after such a litany of back and lower body injuries over the last five years. The raw power and ability to do very Cabrera-like damage is still present.
Really, the Tigers would take his 2018 production levels and call themselves lucky at this point. There’s still plenty to like when he’s healthy. Cabrera’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was elite this season. He posted a .453 wOBA against fastballs. Against fastballs 95 mph and above his numbers were even better. Small sample size disclaimers apply to most of this, but however one slices it, Cabrera’s batspeed, hand-eye coordination, and strength all appear intact when he isn’t battling a significant injury. And of course few can match the experience and hitting intelligence he brings to the batter’s box. It’s just anyone’s guess what his body will allow him to do going forward.
The 14-year veteran’s yearly salary is only going up. The average annual value (AAV) of Cabrera’s monster eight-year extension rose from $28 million to $30 million in 2018. He’ll earn that amount in each of the next three seasons, before moving to $32 million in 2022-2023. Unfortunately, this is how the cookie crumbles. Underpaid relative to his production for the first decade of his career, the bill is now due and the Tigers are on the hook for it all.
Probably the most appropriate grade for Miguel Cabrera’s season is an incomplete. But it was certainly a major disappointment. There’s really no point comparing production to salary any more. The proper bar for expectations is a complete mystery. The Tigers, like the rest of us, will just have to hope for the best in 2019.
What grade would you give Miguel Cabrera’s performance in 2018
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