Commentary

We're witnessing greatness

Miguel Cabrera among the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of baseball

Originally Published: August 15, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

"We're watching one of the greatest right-handed hitters who ever lived."

-- From a longtime AL scout, after a series spent beholding the amazing Miguel Cabrera at work

One of the greatest right-handed hitters who ever lived. Wow.

Now there's an expression that ought to make Willie Mays and Hank Aaron jolt to life -- and might just make Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx jolt back to life. Do we have your attention yet, men? Right. Thought so. Now let us repeat:

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonMiguel Cabrera is attempting to win the American League batting title for a third straight season.

One of the greatest right-handed hitters who ever lived.

This is not the sort of praise we should be tossing around lightly. But we can let it fly here, because the man we're talking about is the remarkable Miguel Cabrera.

If you'd rather kick around whether he can win the Triple Crown again, that's fine. If you'd rather talk about whether he's the favorite to win another MVP award, that's cool.

But I think it's now time for a much bigger, much more important topic:

Where does Miguel Cabrera rank among the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of baseball?

Top 10? Absolutely. Barely even an argument. Top five? Possibly. Top three? Not out of the question. Seriously.

And now comes the fun part. Now I get to prove it.

He's Hank Aaron

Cabrera arrived in the big leagues at age 20. He's now 30. And that's a beautiful thing, because it makes for a perfect comparison between this guy and another player who once arrived in the big leagues at 20 -- the legendary Henry Aaron.

Let's just say it's scary how Aaron-like Cabrera's numbers are if you compare them to Aaron's stats through his age-30 season:

Cabrera still has a month and a half to pad some of these numbers. But you get the picture. If we're comparing him to a hitter this iconic, we have something special going on.

He's Joe DiMaggio

And speaking of iconic …

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Well, you've become Miguel Cabrera. That's where. Check out this comparison of DiMaggio's career, which spanned 13 seasons, with Cabrera's career, now in its 11th season:

Did these two men play in very different eras? Of course they did. But even when you compare them with the other players of their generation, their level of dominance looks remarkably similar. Cabrera's career OPS (.969) is 211 points better than the average player's OPS in his era (.758). DiMaggio's was 213 points better (.977/.764). So there's a song lyric in there someplace. Isn't there?

He's Rogers Hornsby

Who led the American League in batting average last season? That would be Miguel Cabrera. And who led the AL the year before? That would also be Miguel Cabrera. And who holds a 30-point lead this year?

Heh-heh. You know who. It isn't Adam Dunn. Put it that way.

So if you catch my drift, what we're witnessing, before our eyes, is a man who's well on his way to his third straight batting title. And friends, just so you understand what that means: Right-handed hitters don't do that!

To find the last right-handed hitter to win at least three straight batting titles -- and, in fact, the only other right-handed hitter to do that in the live ball era -- you have to travel back nearly nine decades. To Rogers Hornsby, who won six in a row in the NL from 1920-25.

So how cool is that list -- Rogers Hornsby and Miguel Cabrera?

But wait. Here come a few other related tidbits:

• Know the last right-handed hitter to lead the American League in hitting in at least three consecutive seasons? That would be Nap Lajoie. Who did it in the first four seasons in the history of the American League (1901-04).

• OK, want to guess the only other right-handed hitter since 1900 to win at least three batting titles in a row? How about Honus Wagner -- in 1906-09.

• And can you name the only right-handed hitters in the past 80 years who have won at least three batting titles total, even if they weren't consecutive? That answer is: Roberto Clemente (1964-65-67) and Bill Madlock (1975-76-81-83). And that's all, folks.

Now obviously, Cabrera hasn't won his third yet. But get back to me in a month and a half. It's an excellent bet that will change.

He's psychic

I spoke this week with two scouts who have been watching baseball for a long time. They come from baseball families. They know what greatness looks like when it appears in front of their eyeballs. So it tells us something that when they watch Miguel Cabrera hit, they're blown away. …

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesIt's no laughing matter for pitchers when Cabrera steps to the plate.

By his genius: Much like the way Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez once pitched like men who seemed to know what hitters were thinking before they did, and seemed to know what was going to happen before it happened, Cabrera is a hitter who has that gift.

"He knows how pitchers are trying to get him out, and it almost seems like he's a step ahead," said one NL scout. "He has tremendous visualization. He's a very smart individual when it comes to hitting sense."

"This guy has an intelligence at the plate that other guys don't have," said an AL scout. "I honestly think he'll sometimes give away at-bats to set you up for a later at-bat, for a more important at-bat later in the game. He's always thinking ahead of you. And there's another gear with runners in scoring position. I've seen him do it too many times. I've seen him come through in the clutch too many times."

By his fearlessness: "He's not intimidated by anything," the same AL scout said. "He's not intimidated if you throw a pitch at his chest. He's not intimidated when you move his legs. … He's the one in charge when he's in the box. I've seen real good pitching coaches and real good pitchers try to disrupt him. And no one has done it yet."

"He's under complete control in every at-bat," said the NL scout. "You never see a panicked swing. You get the feeling he can set up a pitcher when he wants to. He's confident when he's behind in the count. He's got a great swing. He stays inside the ball as well as any hitter I've ever seen. And you know he's just waiting for a mistake, or a ball he can put in play hard."

By his drive to be the best and beat the best: "He's a guy who gets big hits, hits big home runs, against good pitching," said the AL scout. "It's not like he's doing this against the underbelly of the bullpen in the middle of the game. This guy does it in key moments, in the highest-leverage situations in the game. He's not just doing it against Triple-A retreads."

"I always say this," said the NL scout. "He hits the best pitchers' best pitches. And very few guys can do that."

He's one of the top five right-handed hitters of modern times

Here's one man's totally arbitrary list of the greatest right-handed hitters whose careers began after 1900, not counting Miguel Cabrera, with no PED judgments mixed in:

1. Rogers Hornsby
2. Jimmie Foxx
3. Honus Wagner
4. Albert Pujols
5. Joe DiMaggio
6. Willie Mays
7. Hank Aaron
8. Alex Rodriguez
9. Hank Greenberg
10. Frank Robinson

There are no wrong answers, of course. So maybe Frank Thomas should be in there. Maybe Manny Ramirez should be in there. You could even make cases for an eclectic group of five to 10 other men, a group that ranges from Edgar Martinez to Harry Heilmann.

But somewhere in there is Miguel Cabrera. And I think that when we look back on his career -- which is still on the ascent, by the way -- he lands solidly in that top five.

Here's the case for that. Take a look at all the right-handed hitters in history with a slash line and home run rate as good as Cabrera's (in a minimum of 6,000 plate appearances). It won't take long:

Right. That's the whole list. Or, if we factor out home run rate, Hornsby and DiMaggio join the group:

Or we could lower the batting average threshold and invite a half dozen other hitters to move into the neighborhood. But you get the idea. Bring up any name you'd like. It's still tough to shove Miguel Cabrera out of this picture.

"He's obviously one of the great right-handed hitters of all time," said the NL scout, a man who once saw Mays and Aaron in real life. "It doesn't matter which names you want to compare him to. You could go through a list of Hall of Fame hitters and stack them up against Cabrera, and he'd stack up favorably against anybody you want to pick. And that's about the highest compliment I can pay."

This is a debate that could last for days, or weeks, or decades. We all concede that, right? Your list wouldn't totally agree with my list. My list wouldn't totally agree with the lists of Bill James, Bud Selig, Tim Kurkjian or Alyssa Milano.

But before we get lost in that debate, for like the next 50 years, let's agree on one thing: This is a level of greatness that doesn't come around very often in life. And whether it's top-three, top-five, top-10 or top-whatever, it doesn't change the definition of Miguel Cabrera that kicked off this column:

One of the greatest right-handed hitters who ever lived. Period.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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