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Friday, May 10, 2013
Ten awesome things about Miguel Cabrera

By David Schoenfield

Miguel Cabrera leads the American League in batting average (.382) and RBIs (37) as he tries to go for another Triple Crown. It seems unfair to even suggest that would be possible, but if he goes on a home run tear at some point, I wouldn't put it past him.

So let's talk 10 things about Miggy as he lights up scoreboards across the country.

1. How awesome would three batting titles in a row be?
By "batting title" we mean batting average, so if this isn't your cup of Earl Grey, skip to the next section. The following players have won three titles in a row: Tony Gwynn (1994-97), Tony Gwynn (1987-89), Wade Boggs (1985-88), Rod Carew (1972-75), Stan Musial (1950-52), Rogers Hornsby (1920-25), Ty Cobb (1917-19), Ty Cobb (1911-15), Ty Cobb (1907-09), Honus Wagner (1906-09) and Nap Lajoie (1901-04). Gwynn, Boggs, Carew and Musial were all left-handed batters, so the last right-handed batter to do it was Hornsby almost 90 years ago. The only right-handed batters since World War II to win at least three batting titles in their career are Bill Madlock and Roberto Clemente, who each won four. So, yes, pretty awesome.

2. Does he really have a shot at the single-season RBI record?
Not really. With 37 RBIs in 32 games, Cabrera is on pace for 187, four shy of Hack Wilson's record set with the Cubs in 1930. But it would take a Herculean effort to even approach Wilson's mark, set in an era of high batting averages and high on-base percentages. Since 1950, only nine times has a player driven in 150 runs, with Manny Ramirez's 165 in 1999 the most. The Tigers rank only 15th in OBP from the leadoff spot (.335) but first in OBP from the No. 2 slot (.419), so even if Austin Jackson starts getting on more, Torii Hunter will probably get on less.

As is, Cabrera is second in the majors (behind teammate Prince Fielder) for the most runners on base while batting and is hitting .533 with runners in scoring position. I mean, he's good, but I'm pretty sure he won't .533 with RISP all season. Wilson hit .356 while batting cleanup for the Cubs in 1930, but one big advantage compared to Cabrera was he hit 56 home runs, so he drove in himself a lot. Plus, he played on a team that scored 998 runs, so he had many more RBI opportunities than Cabrera likely will receive -- Cubs leadoff hitters had a .332 OBP in 1930, but the No. 2 guys had a .425 OBP and the No. 3 hitters were at .424. That's a lot of baserunners to knock in.

3. He is durable. That should help.
True. Wilson missed just one game in 1930, and Cabrera's most underrated asset is his durability. He may have a body by red meat, but check out his games played since his first full season: 160, 158, 158, 157, 160, 160, 150, 161, 161. The only prolonged time he's missed was the final week of 2010, when he sprained an ankle.

4. What makes him so scary right now?
For one thing, Cabrera has adapted his swing in recent seasons. Compare the hit charts below from 2009 versus 2012-13. Now, he was still plenty awesome in 2009, hitting .324 with 34 home runs, but nearly all his home runs were pulled. Now he's more willing to take the ball the other way -- but still has the power to hit it out. His line-drive percentage right now is 26 percent -- more than 4 percent higher than last year. It's possible he's still getting better at the plate.

Cabrera Hit Chart
Miguel Cabrera's home runs don't just go over the left-field fence anymore, as most did in 2009.
5. Does he have a weakness?
Believe it or not, Cabrera struggles with pitches "up" in the zone. He's hitting .200/.400/.200 this year against pitches classified as such (36 plate appearances); last year, he hit .208/.453/.429. The trouble with pitching up in the zone is that you're also more likely to walk him. And if you miss too low, you're right in his wheelhouse. And Cabrera doesn't miss those pitches.

6. Remember skinny Miggy?
Of course, Cabrera has been a devastating hitter for years, going back to his Marlins days. Cabrera made his debut with the Marlins on June 20, 2003, and was 0-for-4 when he stepped up in the bottom of the 11th against Tampa Bay's Al Levine with a runner on. Levine threw a first-pitch fastball, and Cabrera crushed the ball over the fence in center field. He might have been 40 pounds lighter than now, but he always had the raw power. He also knew how to hit. "They got me out the first four times, but I told myself they are throwing a lot of fastballs, so I am going to look for a first-pitch fastball," he said after that debut blast.

Cabrera played left field and batted eighth that game. By the World Series he was batting cleanup.

7. OK, where does Cabrera rank among all-time right-handed batters?
Right now he's playing his age-30 season. He has 327 home runs, which ranks 11th -- more than Willie Mays had through age 30 but fewer than Andruw Jones or Juan Gonzalez. He's fifth in RBIs, behind only Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Hank Aaron, and is a good bet to pass Aaron and maybe Pujols (70 behind).

8. Those are old-school stats. What about some of your fancy sabermetric stuff?
OK, let's look at OPS+ from Baseball-Reference.com -- a player's on-base plus slugging percentage, but adjusted for park and era. Cabrera doesn't fare quite as well there, with an OPS+ of 152, 16th-best since 1901, and behind Frank Thomas, Pujols, Jeff Bagwell, Ramirez and Mike Piazza, among more recent players (although better than A-Rod). Remember, the early part of Cabrera's career still came in the high-scoring period, which really didn't end until about 2008, when offensive numbers started dropping.

Using the wRC+ stat from FanGraphs, Cabrera ranks 19th among right-handed batters since 1901.

This makes Cabrera elite, but not necessarily a more valuable hitter than others we've seen in the past two decades. He can't match the on-base percentage that Thomas (.443) or Pujols (.426) posted through age 30, for example. (Cabrera is at .396). Even compared to Ramirez, Miggy's career-best slugging percentages have been .622 and .606 while Manny had seasons of .697, .663, .647 and .609 through age 30, plus three more above .600 after turning 30.

9. Does he have a shot at Aaron's career RBI record?
Definitely possible. Cabrera stands at at 1,160; Aaron had 2,297, so he's 1,137 away. That's how amazing Aaron was: Cabrera has recorded 100-plus RBIs nine seasons in a row and is barely halfway to Aaron's total. You can do the math pretty easily: Cabrera needs to average 114 RBIs for 10 seasons to catch him. Including this year, that takes him through age 39. Like Aaron, he'll have to remain productive and durable until he reaches 40.

10. Does he win the MVP award again?
Well, the voters do love them some RBIs, so I'd have to say he's the favorite right now.