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Miguel Cabrera’s power outage may be worse than we thought

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The former slugger is struggling against pitches he used to crush.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Miguel Cabrera’s power numbers have been in obvious decline since he hit 38 home runs in 2016. In the following years, plagued by injuries and off-field issues, the boom in his bat has fizzled, reducing him to a slow, expensive singles hitter at best. So far this season, hopes that specific injuries were the culprit are fading. Instead, it appears that he is getting closer and closer to his nadir.

Dan Szymborski of ZiPS fame made on observation on Twitter last Thursday regarding Cabrera’s ability to handle fastballs, specifically those thrown in the heart of the hitting zone. The numbers are terribly discouraging.

There are two issues presented in these data. First, Cabrera’s expected slugging percentage against fastballs in the middle of the zone has dropped precipitously since 2016 — from .963 to .523 — to the point that he is now below league average. These are pitches he used to feast upon, but the second issue in the data suggests that the pitchers are the ones eating him up.

Note that as his xSLG trends downwards, the percentage of balls thrown in the heart of the plate has crept upwards. Not only is Cabrera becoming less effective against his erstwhile bread-and-butter pitch, but he is seeing more of them from the opposition. Maybe this is why he sat against flame-throwing Justin Verlander on Wednesday?

Szymborski went on to add that pitchers are just not afraid of Cabrera, with his actual slugging percentage against all pitches in the heart zone at .362; the league average is .568. He has fallen from holding the fifth-highest SLG among all players with 500 or more plate appearances from 2008 to 2016 to 119th out of 241 batters with 50 plate appearances or more in 2019.

Cabrera is also getting more sliders in the chase and waste zones, almost doubling from 8.5% to 15.1% since 2016, as his futility against the fastball down the middle allows pitchers to get ahead in counts, and makes him an easier mark for breaking balls away. Without the ability to punish pitches over the middle of the plate, Cabrera is much more susceptible to sequencing, resulting in contact that is not favorable for extra-base power, when contact is even made.

The Statcast data tell a similar story and confirm some of the suspicions that arise from the numbers above. Since the 2015 season — the beginning of most of the data available — Cabrera currently sports his highest strikeout and lowest walk rates, stats that both corroborate well with Szymborski’s points. Additionally, Cabrera’s barreled ball percentage right now is nearly a third of what it was at his peak in 2016, though it is a tick up from a horrific 4.6 percent mark in 2018.

Statcast Batting Statistics

Season Pitches Batted Balls Barrels Barrel % Exit Velocity Launch Angle XBA XSLG WOBA XWOBA XWOBACON Hard Hit % K % BB %
Season Pitches Batted Balls Barrels Barrel % Exit Velocity Launch Angle XBA XSLG WOBA XWOBA XWOBACON Hard Hit % K % BB %
2015 1985 349 37 10.6 93.6 12.3 0.326 0.596 0.413 0.431 0.484 53 16 15.1
2016 2510 484 77 15.9 93.6 12.3 0.338 0.68 0.398 0.456 0.533 50.4 17.1 11
2017 2045 362 38 10.5 91.3 12.2 0.282 0.528 0.313 0.378 0.448 47.9 20.8 10.2
2018 601 108 5 4.6 94.4 7.3 0.316 0.462 0.363 0.377 0.416 54.6 16.7 14.1
2019 652 114 7 6.1 92.1 11.6 0.271 0.416 0.321 0.335 0.405 52.6 24.3 9.2
ALL 7793 1417 164 11.6 93 11.8 0.313 0.581 0.37 0.413 0.48 50.9 18.4 11.9
MLB 33924 6.2 87.4 11 0.251 0.408 0.317 0.318 0.37 34.2 21.5 8.3
Source: Baseball Savant

However, there are some positive notes in these numbers. Cabrera’s hard hit percentage, exit velocities and launch angles, while a notch down from his peak, are still maintaining respectable values. Unfortunately, they do not portend the success that one may think at first glance, with his expected batting average at .271, which is 19 points below his actual batting average of .290, and his expected slugging (xSLG) at a putrid .416, which is only 55 points greater than his current .361 SLG. So there does not appear to be much room for improvement based on these numbers, and his batting average may even be due for regression.

Getting back to fastballs, Cabrera’s pitch tracking numbers match up well with Szymborski’s observations. This year in 108 plate appearances, he is batting only .274 (vs. .272 xBA) and slugging .358 (vs. .420 xSLG). Additionally, he is swinging and missing 25.7 percent of the time and striking out on the heater to the tune of 25.9 percent of his total strikeouts. Compare that with his 2016 season, when he batted .318 (vs. .349 xBA) and slugged .605 (vs. .723 xSLG), along with a 15.2 percent strikeout rate and an 18.1 percent whiff rate against the same pitch. The differences in those numbers are as stark as night and day.

Pitch Tracking

Year Pitch Type # % PA AB H 1B 2B 3B HR SO BBE BA XBA SLG XSLG WOBA XWOBA EV LA BB% K% Whiff% PutAway%
Year Pitch Type # % PA AB H 1B 2B 3B HR SO BBE BA XBA SLG XSLG WOBA XWOBA EV LA BB% K% Whiff% PutAway%
2019 Fastballs 395 60.7 108 95 26 20 5 0 1 28 67 0.274 0.272 0.358 0.42 0.323 0.345 93.4 10 11.1 25.9 25.7 25
2018 Fastballs 363 60.4 77 65 27 19 7 0 1 12 54 0.415 0.398 0.569 0.599 0.455 0.464 96.9 12 14.3 15.6 22.4 13.2
2017 Fastballs 1223 60.2 310 271 78 52 13 0 13 51 222 0.288 0.309 0.48 0.588 0.365 0.418 92.5 12 11 16.5 17.9 15.4
2016 Fastballs 1506 61.7 382 337 107 62 19 0 26 58 283 0.318 0.349 0.605 0.723 0.416 0.476 94 12 10.2 15.2 18.1 16.7
2015 Fastballs 1281 66.5 319 271 99 70 17 1 11 37 236 0.365 0.355 0.557 0.647 0.436 0.463 95 15 13.5 11.6 19.9 11.8
2014 Fastballs 1589 63.7 394 347 110 66 30 1 13 60 296 0.317 0.522 0.388 9.6 15.2 17 14
2013 Fastballs 1498 63.6 372 316 118 76 15 0 27 38 279 0.373 0.677 0.487 14.2 10.2 15.8 9.7
2012 Fastballs 1639 64.2 422 379 133 76 28 0 29 48 337 0.351 0.654 0.445 8.1 11.4 15.5 11.7
2011 Fastballs 1632 66.4 404 332 115 75 26 0 14 48 286 0.346 0.551 0.44 16.6 11.9 16.7 11.6
2010 Fastballs 1417 63.4 375 329 122 69 30 0 23 49 284 0.371 0.672 0.472 10.9 13.1 20 15.4
2009 Fastballs 1467 60.6 378 338 112 79 15 0 18 41 298 0.331 0.536 0.407 9 10.8 15.3 12.2
2008 Fastballs 1484 62 391 347 104 61 19 0 24 65 290 0.3 0.562 0.39 8.4 16.6 20.8 17.3
Source: Baseball Savant

On the topic of strikeouts, the overall plate discipline data reveals a less distinct difference from past seasons. While most of the numbers have not veered significantly from the mean, there are some stats that are trending in the wrong direction. The two that are of the greatest concern are his zone contact percentage, which is under 80 percent for the first time in the five-year window at 78.4 percent, and a chase percentage reaching a high-point of 33.2 percent; he is also swinging at the first pitch more often than in the years prior, at a 36.4 percent rate.

One particularly curious number is the edge percentage, which is a measure of how well pitchers are able to work the edge of the strike zone against a batter. Cabrera’s current value is at a five-year high at 43.9 percent, suggesting that he is having a harder time protecting the plate due to either pitchers keeping him fooled by sequencing him better and/or his inability to effectively work balls in the zone, costing him the benefit of the doubt with the umpires. Either way, this would surely lead to more strikeouts under the conditions of his current hitting profile.

Plate Discipline

Season Pitches Zone % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % Edge % 1st Pitch Swing % Swing % Whiff % Meatball % Meatball Swing %
Season Pitches Zone % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % Edge % 1st Pitch Swing % Swing % Whiff % Meatball % Meatball Swing %
2019 652 46.4 67.5 78.4 33.2 63.8 43.9 36.4 49.1 26.9 8 75
2018 601 48.1 68.9 80.9 23.1 65.3 40.6 25.6 45.1 23.2 7.3 75
2017 2045 47.2 73 83.7 30.3 62.2 40 34.4 50.3 23.1 6.8 77.5
2016 2510 45.1 70.9 84 30.7 65.2 41 34.3 48.7 22.5 6.7 78.7
2015 1985 43.2 68.2 83.4 27.2 64.5 39.9 32.9 44.9 23.1 5.3 78.1
ALL 7793 45.5 70.3 83.1 29.3 64.1 40.7 33.5 47.9 23.2 6.5 77.6
MLB 48.6 65.9 83.1 28.1 60 42.7 28.1 46.5 24.1 7.3 74.9
Source: Baseball Savant

The last data set to consider is Cabrera’s overall batted ball profile for the same five-year window. In regards to batted balls in play, the past two seasons have seen his ground ball percentage balloon up significantly. While 2019 has regressed a bit closer to his yearly average, it is still elevated by just under 10 percent over his five-year window average at 47.4 percent. Given his lead feet and propensity for hitting into double plays, this stat is quite discouraging. His line drive rate has also dropped quite a bit, from a high of 32.3 percent in 2017 to 27.2 percent in 2019, sapping some of his power and his batting average.

Looking at where Cabrera is hitting the ball, there is not a great deal of deviation from his norm, though he has trended towards hitting the ball up the middle a bit more, which is right into the heart of the defense and not favorable for extra-base hits. Additionally, he is pulling the ball less than before — with the exception of the 2017 outlier — where power is traditionally generated by the average hitter. While Cabrera demonstrated power to all fields during his heyday, one can expect that to decline in his twilight years, forcing him to rely more on the pull field for home runs.

Batted Ball Profile

Season GB % FB % LD % PU % Pull % Straight % Oppo % Weak % Topped % Under % Flare/Burner % Solid % Barrel %
Season GB % FB % LD % PU % Pull % Straight % Oppo % Weak % Topped % Under % Flare/Burner % Solid % Barrel %
2015 43.3 24.9 27.5 4.3 33.2 34.4 32.4 1.7 29.5 20.1 28.9 9.2 10.6
2016 43 23.3 29.3 4.3 34.3 37.8 27.9 1.9 29.8 19.2 25.8 7.4 15.9
2017 40.6 23.5 32.3 3.6 27.6 39.5 32.9 3.3 28.7 19.6 27.1 10.8 10.5
2018 56.5 13.9 25 4.6 35.2 41.7 23.1 0 36.1 14.8 35.2 9.3 4.6
2019 47.4 21.9 27.2 3.5 30.7 39.5 29.8 0 30.7 16.7 34.2 12.3 6.1
ALL 43.8 22.9 29.1 4.1 32.1 37.8 30.1 1.9 30 19 28.3 9.2 11.6
MLB 45.7 21.7 25.5 7.1 36.3 38.2 25.5 4.7 34.3 24.4 24.8 5.5 6.2
Source: Baseball Savant

Cabrera’s contact profiles illustrate his inability to get under the ball like he has in years past, while at the same time making weaker overall contact. His numbers have shown improvement between 2018 and 2019, but the rebound has been rather feeble. While he is currently making solid contact at the highest rate of the five-year window at 12.3 percent, as mentioned before, his barreled balls percentage has dropped precipitously since his peak.

So what do all of these numbers add up to? As Szymborski noted, Cabrera’s ineffectiveness against fastballs in the heart of the plate is causing a domino effect sapping his power and creating havoc against pitchers who sequence him well. What was once his sustenance has become his Achilles’ heel, and as his fastball hitting skills succumb to the brutal fist of Father Time, the effects of his decline will continue to ripple throughout his game at the plate.

Unfortunately, there probably is not much Cabrera can do at this point except to keep grinding it out. He is still hitting the ball hard, so that is one part of the equation settled. But how and where he’s hitting the ball, as well as which pitches, seems to be the problem for him right now.

The season is only 42 games old — just a bit over a quarter of a full 162 game schedule. His two-double effort on Friday night was one of a scarce few flashes of his what he still has in the tank. So far, Miggy appears to be only a shadow of the giant that he once was, but there is still time to turn that around.

Note that the small sample size caveat still applies to these 2019 data, as well as Cabrera’s propensity for warming up with the weather. His stats from last year should also be taken cum grano salis given that he tore his bicep before he got deep into the summer heat. That said, most of the trends outlined above transcend sample size and seasonal variables.

The days of Cabrera hitting 30-plus bombs are very likely over, but that does not mean his ability to produce at the plate is. He will need to make some adjustments to his approach if he wants to make good on the rest of his lengthy, lucrative contract, preferably focusing on elevating the ball more, tapping into his gap power, and outsmarting the opposing pitchers. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long five years for the future Hall of Famer.


Stats are accurate through May 18th, 2019.