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Improved Cabrera having pantheon season

8/13/2013

Last Wednesday, Miguel Cabrera was facing hard-throwing Cleveland Indians rookie Danny Salazar in the eighth inning with two outs and a runner on. The Indians led the Tigers 3-2 and Salazar had struck out Cabrera three times -- looking on an 88 mph changeup, swinging on a 99 mph fastball at the letters, and then swinging again on a 100 mph fastball on the outside corner that left Cabrera awkwardly spinning in the dirt at home plate.

So Terry Francona let Salazar face Cabrera a fourth time. He had thrown 102 pitches. The fans at Progressive Field rose to their feet, sensing the drama of the moment, a potentially defining showdown of the Indians’ season. “This is the game right here, baby,” said the Indians broadcaster.

Salazar’s 103rd pitch was a 96 mph fastball over the middle of the plate and Cabrera crushed it to dead center field, 427 feet away -- 427 feet of misery for Cleveland fans, the rookie craning his neck as the ball flew out into the night, his face eventually contorting into a confused look of shock.

Don’t worry, Danny, you’re not the only one who hasn’t solved Mr. Cabrera. Two nights later, Cabrera hit a two-run, game-tying homer to center off Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, the seventh pitch of an epic confrontation. He homered on Saturday off Phil Hughes. He homered again off Rivera on Sunday. Monday night, he lined a first-pitch, 96 mph fastball from Chris Sale over the fence in right, his fourth homer in four games and fifth in six games (although the White Sox did beat the Tigers, 6-2).

Not that we haven’t been asking this question all season, but how are you supposed to get this guy out? You thought he was pretty good last year when he won the Triple Crown and the MVP Award, but Cabrera has somehow raised his game. He may not win the Triple Crown this season -- Chris Davis leads him in home runs, 43 to 37 -- but he’s better and it’s not even that close.

In 2012, Cabrera’s Triple Crown was the result of great numbers and even better timing. It was an epic achievement, but his 2013 season is more epic in its complete devastation of opposing pitchers.

The baseline numbers:

2012: .330/.393/.606, .999 OPS, 164 OPS+ , .417 wOBA, 166 wRC+

2013: .366/.459/.692, 1.151 OPS, 205 OPS+, .479 wOBA, 208 wRC+

So far he’s raised his batting 36 points, his on-base percentage 66 points and his slugging percentage 84 points. His advanced metrics -- OPS, park- and league-adjusted OPS, weighted on-base average and wRC+, essentially a park- and league-adjusted version of wOBA -- all correspond with that.

From a pure production standpoint, 2012 wasn’t really a historic season; it wasn’t even Cabrera’s best OPS figure at that point in his career. But using the advanced metrics we can place his 2013 in context of other all-time great seasons. There have been 49 seasons (including Cabrera’s) since 1901 in which a player recorded an OPS+ of 200 or greater, via Baseball-Reference.com. The last four were by Barry Bonds, the two before that by Sammy Sosa in 2001 and Mark McGwire in 1998, the two before that by Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell in the strike-shortened 1994 season, and the one before that Barry Bonds in the 1993 expansion. Albert Pujols, as great as he’s been, has a career-best OPS+ of 192 in 2008, a year he hit .357/.462/.653.

Of course, the 2001 to 2004 run that Bonds went on, as well as the Sosa and McGwire seasons, are understandably met with a bit of skepticism. They weren’t the only hitters putting up monster numbers from 1993 to 2009, just the ones who put up the biggest.

For the purpose of this next list, let’s go back before 1993, avoiding all those messy seasons from that era, and list the seasons with a 200 OPS+ since 1950:

Miguel Cabrera, 2013: 205

Barry Bonds, 1992: 204

George Brett, 1980: 203

Willie McCovey, 1969: 209

Mickey Mantle, 1961: 206

Norm Cash, 1961: 201

Ted Williams, 1957: 233

Mickey Mantle, 1957: 221

Mickey Mantle, 1956: 210

Ted Williams, 1954: 201

Those are pantheon seasons -- Bonds in his pre-PED heyday when he was still the best player in the game, Brett’s chase for .400, McCovey’s MVP season, Mantle’s Triple Crown year. Sorting by wOBA or wRC+ produces similar lists. FanGraphs currently ranks Cabrera’s 2013 as the seventh-best wRC+ since 1950, behind those four Bonds seasons and the 1957 years of Williams and Mantle.

What’s fun is looking at Cabrera’s batting average by zone this year:

Pitchers will try and work him up high, but pitching up leads to walks or home runs if you don’t hit your spot. What’s the big difference from last year? It’s hard to tell when looking at the numbers. He’s chasing pitches outside of the strike zone about 3 percent less often, so that’s certainly helped him zone in on a few more hittable pitches. More than anything, however, I think his continued improvement in going to right field has helped.

Check his opposite-field home runs by year:

2009: 5

2010: 11

2011: 6

2012: 9

2013: 9

But it’s not just the power to right field that has improved. Check his batting averages when going to the opposite field:

2009: .374

2010: .382

2011: .395

2012: .433

2013: .467

This is a batter -- like Bonds (with or without PEDs) or Williams -- who has mastered the art of hitting. In the case of Cabrera, that means trusting his hands to go to right field, but probably involves other little things like adjusting his feet and stride to the pitcher or situation.

Finally, and this is a big one, it also means setting up the pitcher. Here’s an example: Last year, he put the first pitch in play 31 times, hitting .387 with five home runs. This year he's already put the first pitch in play 77 times, hitting .481 with 11 home runs.

When Cabrera stepped in against Danny Salazar -- or Chris Sale on Monday -- it’s almost like he knew what was coming. He was sitting fastball and didn’t miss.

These days, it’s not often that he does.