I’m not the first person to point this out, so don’t give me all the credit, but Miguel Cabrera is a really good hitter who destroys the baseball pretty much anywhere it’s pitched. But this year, he’s crushing the inside pitch. He’s always been good, but this year we’re seeing a ton of homeruns on pitches that most hitters literally couldn’t even foul off. Let’s take a look.
Here are his 38 HR so far with an approximate strikezone from the catcher’s perspective measured in feet:
Most of them have been in the zone, but there have been a handful that were way off the plate. Six to be precise. You’ll notice two that were just off the plate, but those seem human. The other six don’t. What do we know about those homeruns?
They were all fastballs.
None of them had more than 7.5 inches of horizontal movement.
They all came when the count was even or Cabrera was behind.
The slowest was 91 MPH, the fastest was 96 MPH.
Five went to left field, one went to center field.
What have we learned from this demonstration? Probably something we already should have known. You can’t get Cabrera out inside and you especially can’t do with with run of the mill fastballs even when you’re ahead in the count. I looked at how you might try to get him out earlier this season and my advice was hard stuff up and away and breaking balls down and away. You have to make him chase, you can’t jam him inside because he can apparently hit homeruns on pitches two feet from the center of the plate.
But I was also curious if this was new for Cabrera. I don’t remember him hitting this many homeruns on inside pitches, which poses the question, “is he getting better?” Let’s take a look at all of his homeruns from 2008-2012:
Apparently, this isn’t terribly new for Cabrera. We might be noticing it more, but he’s been doing it forever even if he is a few ahead of his pace in 2013. Of the 16 pitches that he hit out from 2008-2012 on inside pitches, all of them were fastballs. None of them above 96 and only four came with Cabrera ahead in the count. I’m starting to see a pattern here.
If we do a quick search of every homerun that was off the plate inside to righties (not just the really far inside ones), Cabrera leads baseball by a ton. He has 53 homeruns on pitches off the plate inside since 2008, the next closest RHH is Ryan Zimmerman with 31.
In fact, his homerun against Phil Hughes last Saturday was the furthest inside pitch to be hit out by a righty since Pitch F/X started recording the data. In fact of the 11 most inside pitches hit out by righties since 2008, 6 of them are Miguel Cabrera. Now some of that is selection bias because he’s hit the most homeruns, but 6 of 11 is way of out proportion. He’s a monster.
And he also does this. (Click to play if it doesn’t run automatically on your browser).
Editor’s Note: For more on this subject, the great Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs published a piece with the same premise less than a minute after this post went live. A lot of cool images and GIFs, go read it.
I’m beyond analyzing Miguel Cabrera. His offensive ability is so good that it is boring. There’s nothing left for me to say. He’s off the charts incredible. Clearly the best hitter of the moment, and starting to push his way into conversations with the words “era,” “generation,” and “ever.” You know the drill. Let’s consider his amazing 2013 season. All statistics as of the start of play on August 13.
1. By Weighted Runs Created Plus or wRC+ (what’s wRC+?), Cabrera is having the 15th best offensive season in baseball history. Every player on the list ahead of him is an inner circle Hall of Famer or is Barry Bonds. Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Hornsby, and Mantle are the only players in history with even one season of 210 wRC+ or better.
2. Cabrera is having the best offensive season of his career by far, obviously, but did you know it’s 33% better than his previous high and 44% better than the year he won the Triple Crown?
3. This is the best offensive season in Tigers history, besting Cobb’s 1910 by 4%.
4. Miguel Cabrera is having the 2nd worst defensive season in his career by UZR (what’s UZR?), but is still already a half a win better by WAR (what’s WAR?) than his previous high despite there being 45 games left in the season.
5. Using Weighted On Base Average (what’s wOBA?), because it’s easier for me to calculate, if everyone else in the league stayed on their current pace, Cabrera would have to go 0 for his next 50 in order for Chris Davis to catch him. If Cabrera didn’t get a hit in the next 12 games, he’d still be the best hitter in the league.
6. Cabrera could go 0 for his next 25 and still have a higher OBP than Joey Votto has right now. Votto has baseball’s second best OBP.
7. If Cabrera went 0 for his next 70, he would still be second in baseball in slugging percentage.
8. The ZIPS projection system estimates Cabrera will get 185 more plate appearances before the season is over. If he made an out during every one of them he would still have the 39th best OPS in the league at .812. The only players on the Tigers with an .812 OPS or better right now besides Cabrera are Peralta (.822 in 436 PA), Tuiasosopo (.919 in 144 PA), and Doug Fister (1.333 in 4 PA).
9. Cabrera currently has the best batting average of his career by 22 points, best OBP by 9 points, and bests SLG by 70 points. He’s 8 HR shy of setting a new career high. Since the start of 2009, he leads baseball in HR, R, RBI, AVG, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. He trails Votto by .009 in OBP.
10. Among players with fewer than 7,000 career plate appearances only 6 have more career WAR than Cabrera.
By wRC+, Miguel Cabrera is the 25 best hitter in baseball history at 153 for his career.
A simple Google search of the above headline leads you to about 7 million pages, none of which appear terribly helpful. Some pose the question if one should pitch to Cabrera and some discuss recent attempts to pitch near Miguel Cabrera’s head. Others still just show you .gifs of Cabrera hitting homeruns, which seems pretty similar to just telling you that it’s tough to get this guy out.
In fact, he is the hardest hitter in baseball to get out, posting a league best .454 OBP. He makes the fewest outs in baseball and also does a considerable amount of damage, posting a .670 SLG, .470 wOBA, .306 ISO, and 202 wRC+, depending on which statistics you like to use to measure how much a player crushes a baseball. Heck, I’ll even cite the 26 HR and 85 RBI just because. Here’s the point, he’s hard to get out and when you don’t get him out, he makes you pay.
Which returns us to the original inquiry, how should you pitch to him?
Let’s start with some quick assumptions:
- You can’t walk him because at this point in the game it would be bad strategy.
- You are a RHP
- You are a reasonably competent, average starter with a full repertoire
From here, we’re going to breakdown the approach using Cabrera’s plate appearance data against RHP from 2013 because he’s presumably adapted throughout his career, so we shouldn’t try to get the 2009 version of him out. Let’s go for it.
First, let’s take a look at where in the strikezone Cabrera will swing and miss:
So overall, you can get Cabrera to swing and miss if you go low and away or if you elevated the pitch out over the plate. This stands to reason as his batting average zone plot looks like this:
Generally, this shows us that you have to go down and away or up above the zone if you’re trying to limit contact. If you’re trying to limit the damage, as seen by his slugging percentage by location, the same holds true.
So we have a general idea about where to pitch Cabrera based on his 2013 performance. For reference, the same pattern holds true for the last few seasons. He’ll chase down and away and above the zone, and those are the two places he’ll get the fewest hits and the fewest extra base hits.
Let’s now break it down a little by pitch type. If you throw him hard stuff (various fastballs), you want to keep it away from him. This is his slugging percentage against hard stuff:
And again, whiffs per swing against fastball type pitches:
So we have a little more information now. We know that if we’re a right handed pitcher, when we go with the fastball we want to go up and away, and avoid the inside part of the plate at all costs. Let’s turn to breaking balls and offspeed pitches. Here’s the whiff per swing rate on soft stuff:
Now let’s take the slugging percentage against breaking balls and offspeed:
You can see here that Cabrera isn’t likely to swing at offspeed pitches inside and outside, but he will swing if they are over the plate and will crush them if they are in the zone.
So what have we learned? First, throw the fastball up and away and the changeup and breaking ball low and over the plate. Those are pretty much the only places to get Cabrera to chase and get himself out. We could break this all down by count, but that would get extremely long and messy. There are 12 possible counts to breakdown and that’s a lot of charts, so let’s just stop here with the zone breakdowns.
If we look by pitch type more generally, you can see there are pitches that work better.
He’s more vulnerable to sliders and splitters, and you can get him out with the cuvreball, but there is a big risk involved if you miss with that pitch because he may crush it.
Cabrera is baseball’s hardest out and he’s also one of the game’s most feared power hitters. There isn’t an easy way to get him out, but the way to do it is to work the fastball up and away and the breaking ball down and over the plate. That is, however, no guarantee. Because sometimes he does this (click to play if it isn’t running on your screen):
Correction: In the original positing of this article, we left out Barry Bonds’ 2002 season. This feat has been accomplished 16 times by 7 different players. Two have do so in the last 50 years. New English D apologizes for the error.
I think we’re past the point where I need to tell you that Miguel Cabrera is an exceptionally gifted hitter. It’s pretty clear. Obvious, even. Maybe we could argue over whether or not he’s the best hitter in the game or the best player or whatnot, but we’re all in agreement that he’s great and we’re all comfortable saying he’s having one of, if not, the best seasons right now. He’s a great player who is playing very well.
He won the Triple Crown last year to a lot of fanfare, and while I don’t ascribe much importance to RBI, it’s still very interesting and very cool that he led the league in all three of those categories when no one had done it in decades. But he’s having a better season in 2013 than he did last year despite the fact that Chris Davis is out homering him. In fact, Cabrera is having quite the impressive season by any standard. By his triple slash line, (meaning his batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage), he is having a season that has only happened 15 times in the modern era (since 1901).
Miguel Cabrera is currently hitting .370/.462/.646. which is tied with Davis for the best wRC+ in baseball at 199. Now that isn’t the best offensive season ever, but it’s very good. And it’s extremely rare. Since 1901, a .370/.460/.640 or better season has only happened 15 times it’s only been done by 6 separate players.
Now I don’t mean to say that Cabrera’s first 74 games will perfectly predict his final stat line or that we can hope to extrapolate someone’s performance to predict the future, but these are rate stats and there is no real reason to think Cabrera is playing dramatically over his head. So it’s not totally unreasonable to consider these numbers as potential full season targets.
And I also don’t mean to consider these statistics out of context. wRC+ and WAR are designed to compare players across eras, and I’m fully aware that Miguel Cabrera’s .370 average is not the same as a .370 in 1950. I’m not saying Cabrera is having one of the 20 best offensive seasons ever, I’m saying he’s having one of the rarest combinations of a high average, good patience, and power ever.
What is also so remarkable about this is that only one of the 15 seasons on this list has come in the last 56 years (Here’s the full list). Only Todd Helton’s 2000 season (at Coors during the Steroid Era). Since Ted Williams did it in 1957, only one person has mixed a high average and power the way Cabrera is doing this year. I know the run scoring environment changes over time, but Cabrera is playing in a low average, low OBP, high power era relative to the others on this list, so it’s not like he’s unfairly lifted by context.
Bonds never did it. Griffey never did it. Manny never did it. It’s pretty cool.
Cabrera is essentially the best “pure hitter” and the best “power hitter” in baseball right now and he is having his best offensive season. Just look at the names on that list. Those are baseball’s all-time greats (and Todd Helton). Cabrera looks poised to win his 3rd consecutive batting title (he also finished 2nd in 2010) and is also hitting for excellent power. He’s doing something that has been done just once in the last half century and has only been done by some of the game’s best players.
This isn’t meant to be a post about exactly where Cabrera’s season ranks or what it means to hit .370, it’s really just about pointing out how ridiculous it is to both hit .370 and slug .640. It’s not exactly a typical stat line.
Miguel Cabrera isn’t exactly a typical hitter, though.
Earlier today, Fangraphs’ resident GIF expert posted this beauty that demonstrates Cabrera’s ability to hit for power no matter where a pitch is located. And a large number of other people whose job it is to say things about baseball have flooded the internet with statistics and observations about Cabrera’s torrid start.
I’m not going to rehash everything because most of you can read and it’s pretty easy to call up numbers with a quick Google search. But I would like to point a few things out about Miguel Cabrera with respect to his peers at this moment.
First, Cabrera leads MLB in WAR (3.2) by 0.3 over Evan Longoria (2.9), but Miguel Cabrera is currently rated as the 8th worst defensive player who qualifies by Fangraphs. In other words, Cabrera is hitting so much better than everyone else that he is still the most valuable player even though he is among the worst glovemen going. Let’s look at it:
And now, just for reference:
Miguel Cabrera has been baesball’s most valuable player so far despite being one of it’s worst defenders. That’s how much better he is than everyone else at the plate. You can see from the first graph that the quality of your offense and the quality of your defense aren’t that strongly related (on average a 1 unit increase in wRC+ decreases your defensive score by .007, but the results aren’t statistically significant and the R squared hardly registers.). But on the other hand, Fld and WAR are related (on average, a one unit increase in Fld will increase your WAR by .08 with the results being statistically significant and the R squared at least somewhat reasonable).
In other words, defense and hitting aren’t really related, but defense and WAR are (obviously). That rule just doesn’t apply to Cabrera because he’s outhitting everyone by so much.
He’s out there by himself. If you’d rather break it down by AVG, OBP, and SLG it’s just as impressive.
Miguel Cabrera, through 45 games, is simply outhitting everyone. This is the peak of one of the best hitters we’ve seen in our lifetimes, so enjoy it.
In studying the Tigers offensive statistics so far, I spent some time looking into Jhonny Peralta, whom I have generally defended, but decided that his extremely good numbers so far (3rd in SS WAR) are driven somewhat by a high BABIP which isn’t very interesting.
Then I thought about writing about why Matt Tuiasosopo, the Tigers RH platoon OF, should play a little more but realized there isn’t really any extra PA for him unless you’re willing to bench Victor Martinez, whom I’m not giving up on at all.
Yet in the course of this perusal of Tuiasosopo’s numbers, something very amazing caught my eye. He’s crushing the ball, but that’s not what I mean. There is a belief, one which I share, that a baseball player can do pretty much anything across 60 plate appearances, or a 10 to 14 day stretch. Tuiasosopo has 51 PA at this moment in time. So I’m not shocked that he’s doing well. I’m shocked at how it compares to someone else on the team. First, for reference, he’s Tui’s line:
.366/.490/.561, 189 wRC+ (51 PA, 2 HR, 7 R, 15 RBI, 19.6% BB)
That’s excellent. It’s a small sample, but it’s excellent. He’s 89% better than league average at the plate so far this year. It won’t continue, but that isn’t the point. The point is that Tuiasosopo’s best 51 PA – his small sample peak – still don’t measure up to Miguel Cabrera’s entire season.
Cabrera’s line, despite covering 197 PA or a quarter of a season rather than 10%, is better. Here it is:
.387/.457/.659, 199 wRC+ (197 PA, 11 HR, 34 R, 47 RBI, 10.7% BB)
Cabrera isn’t getting on base at the same rate as Tuiasosopo, but he’s outslugging him by a lot. Cabrera is 99% better than league average at the plate this year. This post is meant to illustrate how awesome that is. Tuiasosopo is crushing the ball over a small sample and he still isn’t on Cabrera’s 200 PA pace (In Cabrera’s last 55 PA, he’s at 220 wRC+ BTW). That’s nuts.
Miguel Cabrera’s wRC+ for the season is better than Babe Ruth’s career wRC+. Now obviously that won’t continue. He won’t be Babe Ruth (although for a second I did actually think about removing the word “obviously”). But right now he’s outhitting everyone. Even great hitters. Even players who are having the best couple weeks of their lives.
Chris Davis is the next closest qualifier to Cabrera with a 182 wRC+. If you drop the threshold from qualified to 50 PA, Tuiasosopo is as close as anyone gets. To find someone with a higher wRC+ than Cabrera, you have to find your way to Matt Adams’ 43 PA.
And just for fun, even though it isn’t a meaningful number, over the last week Miguel Cabrera leads baseball with a 344 wRC+. It’s a small sample, but that’s just silly.
Miguel Cabrera has the 29th best career wRC+ of all time at 150. This is his peak. It has to be. The last three seasons have been his best three and this one looks like it might top them all. We may be watching one of the best dozen or so hitters of all time at his absolute best.
By telling you Miguel Cabrera is a good hitter, I’m telling you nothing you don’t already know. But I was curious about his progression as a hitter and started playing around with the numbers, which led me to the creation of this graph. It seemed silly to waste it, so here you are. This is a graph tracking Cabrera’s career OBP and SLG at the end of each game. This isn’t surprising, but in the last three years he’s gotten better. That coincides with his prime and the obvious uptick in his notoriety in the game.
Cabrera is a good hitter. Not every post can be groundbreaking. This one is just a graph.
What People Think
So this should be pretty easy. The prevailing opinion on Cabrera is that he is among the best hitters in baseball. It is, in fact, that simple. Cabrera is no magician with the glove and he’s not fleet of foot, but he is a supremely talented hitter who does an adequate job at third base for someone who is better suited to play first.
What the Numbers Say
The numbers tell a story about Miguel Cabrera, and boy is it a doozy. I think the best way to demonstrate what his numbers say about him is this:
Here are three stat lines.
1) 37HR, 85R, 127RBI, .292/.349/.537
2) 33HR, 101R, 118RBI, .318/.395/.561
3) 44HR, 109R, 139RBI, .330/.393/.606
The first line is a representation of his worst big league season. The second is his average career line. The third was 2012. So what the numbers tell you is that Miguel Cabrera is at worst, an all-star caliber player, on average an MVP level player, and at best, a Hall of Fame type player.
What My Eyes Tell Me
I don’t think there’s any question that Cabrera is among the best hitters in the game. You can tell that by watching him or looking at his numbers or listening to anyone who knows anything.
What I see in Cabrera is an extraordinary talent driven by brute strength and exceptional hand eye coordination. Cabrera hits baseballs as hard and as purely as anyone I think I’ve ever seen in person. Everyone knows about his light-tower type power, but I’m more amazed by his ability to put force behind difficult pitches and shoot them between fielders for base hits. He seems capable of recognizing pitches a fraction of a second earlier than most anyone and he uses that to his advantage. Obviously he guesses wrong sometimes, but he’s among the best in the game at pitch recognition and reaction to said recognition. It shows.
On the bases, I actually think he’s pretty good at taking extra bases for someone who is as slow as he is. He knows what he’s doing, even if he can’t always capitalize on it. In the field, his arm is superb and his hands are good enough to play for me at third. His range is iffy, but I think his shortcomings are somewhat overstated. He’s not great, but I don’t think he’s terrible. In fact, I thought he was on his way to becoming a very good first baseman before the position change, so I can’t give him too much grief about not being an elite defender.
The Dotted Line
Cabrera’s contract runs through the 2015 season and will pay him $21M in 2013 and $22M in 2014-15. He’s certainly earning the 8 year, $153 deal he signed before 2008 considering the cost of a long term deal these days. The Tigers should be in no hurry to extend him as he is signed through his age 32 season, three years away. If he performs at a similar level for the next couple seasons, he could easily break the bank, but it’s too early to go there.
He’s a perennial MVP contender on a team dedicated to winning, and could easily be on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Those are generally the players who try to keep in your uniform for their entire careers, but the time for that discussion is later.
Hypothetically, if he was a free agent right now, I don’t think 10 years, $280M+ would be out of the question at all. If the Tigers were looking to extend him, say another five years, the price would easily be in the $150M+ range.
If you play fantasy baseball, draft him in the top five. He does everything at an elite level expect steal bases and is among the game’s most consistent performers. Draft him.
Miguel Cabrera is one of the game’s best hitters and remains in his prime. We’re probably in for several more elite seasons and potentially a Hall of Fame plaque. He’s not the game’s best defender and he has a history of off the field issues (that we hope are over), but in spite of all of that, he’s probably one of the most valuable players in the game today.