It's hard to imagine a player meaning more to a playoff-contending team than Cabrera.
CabreraHe’s coming off the best season of his career in a number of categories including home runs (38), walks (89) and slugging percentage (.622). He hit .328 and led the American League in RBI (126), on-base percentage (.420) and adjusted OPS+ (179), according to Baseball Reference. He also led the Tigers in runs (111), doubles (45), walks (89) and total bases (341).
On top of all that, he was clutch. In 96 plate appearances in late and close situations, Cabrera hit .367 with eight home runs, a .479 on-base percentage and a .737 slugging percentage. The rest of the team hit .265 with a .340 on-base percentage in such situations. (Baseball Reference defines late and close situations as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.)
Despite Cabrera’s numbers, the Tigers were just eighth in the American League in runs scored. And as good as he was last season, the Tigers didn’t have enough firepower around him, which was evident when Magglio Ordonez broke his ankle. In the 58 games after Ordonez's injury, Cabrera was intentionally walked an astounding 23 of his league-leading 32 times. Without protection, opposing pitchers had little incentive to pitch to Cabrera. That’s a big reason the Tigers added Victor Martinez, a career .300 hitter with 43 home runs over the past two seasons.
100 RBI Each Season Since 2004
However, neither Ordonez nor Martinez can come close to matching Cabrera’s production.
Since 2004, only four players have driven in at least 100 runs each year: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Cabrera. Of those four players, Cabrera is the only one who is still in his 20s. (He’ll be 27 on Opening Day.) He’s also been durable, playing at least 150 games every season since 2004.
Trying to measure just how important he was to the Tigers last season, using the statistic win probability added is helpful. (WPA measures how a player increases or decreases a team’s chance of winning based on his offensive contributions, particularly in high-leverage situations.) Cabrera led the majors with a 7.42 WPA, according to FanGraphs. That means the Tigers won more than seven games last year by having him in the lineup.
Last year, nobody else in Detroit’s lineup was higher than 1.56 (Ordonez).
So, while Leyland will decide when Cabrera's ready to return, Cabrera himself may be the key to Detroit's season.