Don’t Stick a Fork in Miguel Cabrera

Well, it’s a bad idea to stick a fork in anybody, really. Usually heading into a new baseball season, most fantasy team owners are looking for young, largely unheralded players as breakout candidates. A 35-year old who underwhelmed for two straight seasons and then had a season-ending injury does not sound particularly tantalizing. But this is Miguel Cabrera, one of the greatest pure hitters of our generation. That’s not to say he’ll replicate the ageless wonder David Ortiz, who was certainly the exception to the norm that at some point in their career, even the most talented hitters crap out. But the only “crap out” Cabrera did last year was hit the crap out of the ball.

You’re probably at this point wondering if I had a time machine malfunction and am still stuck in 2016. After all, in 2018, Cabrera just hit 3 home runs in 159 PA. and even with a .299 average that likely reminds folks of a Nick Markakis-like player (well, pre-2018 Markakis).

But here is why I am excited. Here’s xStats analysis of his 2018 numbers (small sample size caveat applies)

AVG OBP SLG
2018 actual stats .299 .395 .448
2018 expected (x) stats .334 .426 .466

In 2018, Miguel Cabrera SHOULD have been an elite hitter. Nobody would say a 334/.426/.466 is anything other than an elite season, but he never got the chance for his bad batted ball luck to balance out. What’s most encouraging is that in 2018, despite a litany of ailments, he hit the ball harder than ever. His average velocity of 94.4 mph was second-best in baseball only to Aaron Judge and led the league in percentage of 95+ mph balls hit with 54.6%. His FB/LD eV of 98.1 mph was 5th best in baseball, and all of these elite exit velocities crush the ones from his dismal 2017 (eV = 91.3 mph, FB/LD eV = 95.5 mph) and even top his fantastic 2016 (eV = 93.6 mph, FB/LD eV = 97.1 mph).

However, in Cabrera’s triumphant return to greatness in 2016, he led the league in Barrel%, with 11.3%. Even in his mediocre 2017, he posted a Barrel% of 7.2%. So why, in a season where he posted the best Hard Hit rate of his career, did he post a stinking, no-good Barrel rate of 3.2%? The answer is about as difficult as a Where’s Waldo who’s wearing neon.

Miggy’s Mysterious Missing Barrel Rate

In 2018, Cabrera’s ground ball rate spiked substantially, from a rather consistent average GB% of 41.6% to an alarming 54.6%, and as a result, his average launch angle dropped from 12 in 2016 & 2017 to just 7.3. This could be a cause for concern, but then again this was just 157 PA, and while GB/FB stabilizes earlier than most stats, it’s still within a small sample where one could expect that to change.
Even if he were now a 54.6% GB% hitter.

Still, he deserved better on the flyballs he did hit. His 13% HR/FB was similar to his 2017, although with how hard he was hitting the ball, one would expect this to have been closer to his 18.8% career mark or higher. But let’s compare him to some other hitters with similar profiles and see how they stack up.

LA Overall eV (mph) FB/LD eV (mph) GB% Barrel%
Miguel Cabrera 7.3 94.4 98.1 54.6% 3.2%
Christian Yelich 4.7 92.3 97.2 51.8% 8.8%
Robinson Cano 8.3 93.1 95.0 47.9% 6.6%
Franmil Reyes 7.4 92.3 96.4 49.2% 7.4%
Ryan Zimmerman 7.1 92.6 97.8 48.9% 9.9%
David Bote 3.2 93.5 96.6 57.5% 6.7%
Yandy Diaz 3.2 92.1 93.6 53.3% 3.3%

When you look at most of this list, it seems to indicate that a player with Miggy’s exit velocity, launch angles, and groundball rates should have a much higher Barrel%. And Cabrera had higher eV than all of these guys! But there’s one scary comp at the end of the list and his first name rhymes with “candy”. In order to see why Miggy’s Barrel% is closest to that of Yandy Diaz, we must dive deeper.

High Drives vs. Low Drives

Despite such hard contact, Cabrera’s average hit distance is a meager 140 ft, the lowest distance of all high-velocity hitters on the list not named Yandy Diaz (138 ft). That’s because he had a small percentage of High Drives, at just 7.4%, and High Drives are the best contact type, with a .656 AVG and 2.059 SLG%, while comprising 90% of all Home Runs. However, he had an excellent Low Drive rate at 31.5%, nearly double the league average of 16.6%. While Low Drives are not as desirable as High Drives and seldom result in home runs, they are still the second-best batted ball type with strong outcomes, especially for batting average, with a .766 AVG and .930 SLG%. Prior to 2018, Cabrera had near-equal rates of LD% and HD%, with both at 19% in 2016 and 18% in 2017. So in 2018 he had the same elite percentage of total drives (HD + LD), he just traded High for Low, and getting upset about that is like Satan saying his party is ruined because instead of a Ferrari cake he got an Acura cake (old reference, but it checks out).

So the million dollar question is, well, why did he hit so few High Drives? Well, it’s anyone’s guess, but my guess is that prior to going down, the bicep injury was still bothering him a little and affecting his follow-through, though not affecting his mammoth power. The left bicep season-ending injury didn’t come out of nowhere, as he missed several games in early April due to spasms in that same bicep. It’s also possible that he was instead affected by the hamstring injury that knocked him out for another month. Or, perhaps this was just a statistical anomaly that would have corrected itself over a full season, seeing that it’s only 157 total plate appearances. But the takeaway is that for 2019, I don’t see this as a significant cause for concern.

Contact and Plate Discipline

If you wanted indicators of an aging player’s decline and you didn’t find lower exit velocity, you’d expect to find declining contact ability. In fact, contact ability is one of the first things to go for most hitters, even as power remains intact (See: Albert Pujols).  However, Cabrera’s contact is the same as it ever was. In fact, his 17% K% was an improvement from 2017 and right in line with his 17% career mark, supported by a 9.6% Swstr% that was tied for best since 2012. It also came with an excellent 14% BB% that’s supported by a 28% O-Swing%, his best rate since 2006. While his Z-Contact% of 83% was his red-shirted worst (Career 86%), his overall Contact% of 78% is unscathed (Career 79%) and compensated for by his O-Swing% improvement.  Long story short, his discipline and contact don’t indicate any notable signs of decline.

Injuries

Now, perhaps your best argument against Cabrera is that he could be the new Rich Hill of hitting… excellent when healthy, but you can never expect a full season. And that would be understandable. After all, over the past few years, he’s dealt with injuries to his biceps, hamstrings, hips, and back, a list that sounds like a neutered sequel to “My Neck, My Back”.  The back injury is especially concerning since back issues are notorious for derailing careers, and he reported at the end of 2017 that he had two herniated disks in his back. However, he didn’t miss any time with back issues in 2018, and perhaps having so much time to rehab and recover after trying to play through so many of his injuries over the years will allow him to return in 2019 fully or mostly healthy.

He started hitting in December and fully expects to be ready for Spring Training, barring any surprises, so hopefully, that will give him a chance to shake off any rust. While it may seem hard to imagine him playing a full season, don’t forget that aside from 2018, Cabrera has totaled over 500 PA in every full season of his career. If you believe health is a skill, he’s still pretty darn skilled at staying in the lineup. And he can always DH when the need arises.

2019 Outlook

Well, I wouldn’t have spilled this much digital ink on Cabrera if I weren’t bullish on what the Tiger holds in store for this year. His current NFBC ADP stands at Pick #159, right after Rick Porcello… ouch. I picked him up at the PitcherList Mock Draft at pick #256, yet I had to fight Nick to get his SOPA (Seal of Pollack Approval), but in the end, I convinced him of the value.  While I highly doubt he will fall this far in other drafts, he is the kind of profile that can easily slip in drafts focused on younger, newer talent, but I expect Cabrera to finish the 2019 season a Top 100 player. I personally will start looking at taking him after pick #140, but if he does well in Spring Training, I will likely have to be more aggressive.

There’s also the chance that he may at some point be traded to a contender, which would almost definitely boost his fantasy value. Although he’d prefer not to be traded, he recently indicated he’d agree to waive his no-trade rights for a team that was a good fit. Getting out of pitcher-friendly Comerica would certainly turn more of his doubles into homers, and he’d likely drive in more runs. Of course, if he stays and Castellanos is traded, Miggy may be hard-pressed to drive in much, with their next-best hitter arguably being Niko Goodrum. Yeah, really.

Steamer projects him for a .283 AVG, 26 HR, 84 R, 90 RBI, and 2 SB over 649 PA. I personally expect him to have 550 PA with 20-25 HR but an average above .300. But I would not be surprised to see him return to hitting High Drives like before, surpassing the 30-HR mark, and for the Tiger to roar once more.

(Main photo by Daniel Bartel)

Ben Pernick

Fantasy baseball nerd, music therapist, and comedy singer/songwriter and stand-up/sketch comedian. I am also an insufferable enthusiast of puns and dad jokes. I grew up as a Red Sox fan in New York, but now I declare allegiance only to my fantasy teams.

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Comments


Brian

The problem with assuming his bad luck on fly balls will improve is that the entire league had bad luck on fly balls. On fly balls, his SLG was 24 points lower than his xSLG, and his xBA was 4 points lower than his BA. But league wide, there was a 41 point drop in the xSLG vs actual SLG, and a 12 point drop in xBA vs actual BA. The ball was de-juiced. If anything, he was been luckier than the rest of the league on fly balls.

He’s still a great hitter, getting great exit velo, but the drop in launch angle will definitely hurt him if he can’t fix it. And the few fly balls he’s still hitting won’t get any better outcomes unless MLB decides to switch up the balls yet again.

Ben Pernick

Hi Brian, you make some great points, especially about the de-juicing! Interesting note on the fly balls, though according to xStats, most of Cabrera’s contact was on Low Drives (31.5%), and although he had a small amount of High Drives (7.4%), only 2.8% of his hits classified by xStats as Fly balls (FB). Those FB are the ones with the worse outcomes (.253 AVG .489 SLG% in 2018), so it’s a positive that he largely avoided those. Especially with the small amount of 2018 PA, that seems like too small of a sample to judge accurately his flyball luck for this year.

You’re right in that the drop in launch angle, were it to continue, would massively cut his power production. Perhaps I’m being optimistic in assuming that will be corrected with a clean bill of health, because it was just 157 PA and it’s never been an issue throughout his long career, and no other aspect of his game suffered.

I’ll definitely be watching his GB/FB rates and launch angle closely in Spring Training.

Lewis

This is pretty interesting. One of the things that I believe Eno Sarris has noticed is the statcast guns in Detroit seem a bit off. I think we/he noticed it 2 years ago when all of the Tigers were hitting the ball significantly harder at home than on the road. May be something to look into and could also explain why the EV and everything is so high, but the Barrel’s and Slug is lower. Just a thought.

Nick Gerli

This is a good point, Lewis. Comerica’s Statcast cameras seem to run hot, and this is backed up by Cabrera’s 92.8 MPH home exit velo compared to his 91.1 MPH away exit velo the last two years (Note that the average MLB hitter experiences no difference between home and away exit velo).

And while Comerica inflates his exit velo, it’s a ballpark that hurts his overall production. Cabrera hits a lot of hard-hit balls to dead and right-center field, a death valley-area in Comerica.

Ben Pernick

It’s an interesting note, Nick, though Miggy’s better home readings could be just due to hitting better (or at least harder) at home. But it’s enough that’s it’s worth checking out if ALL Tigers have better eV at home, since that would be significant.

Still, even if you took a mile per hour off Cabrera’s eV, his overall eV of (93.4 mph) and FB/LD (97.1) would still be among the best in baseball. But Comerica does hurt him in the power department. Even though I love the Tigers, I do think he’d do much better in basically any other park, especially one that’s short in RF.

Ben Pernick

Hi Lewis, I remember hearing about the Comerica Statcast guns from Eno a few years ago, but back then the numbers looked more suspect (even Victor Martinez had high eV readings) and I haven’t heard anything about it since. So I’m assuming they remedied that discrepancy.

If that were still the case, I’d expect ALL Tigers hitters to have elevated eV readings and better xStats as a result, but looking at the readings and xStats for Goodrum, Castellanos, Candelario and Hicks, this doesn’t seem to be the case. But still good to keep in the back of our mind should a stadium’s Statcast guns be inaccurate again.

Ben Pernick

It very well may be affected, though the trend Perpetua mentions in this article from last year didn’t seem to carry over as strongly as previous years for other Tigers hitters. But I do believe, if the Tigers manage to trade Cabrera, it would be a huge boon to his offense… perhaps not to the extent it helped JD Martinez’s offense post-Comerica, but maybe.

Bryan

…a list that sounds like a neutered sequel to “My Neck, My Back”…

This line is golden. Good work sir.

John

What bunk. All the nerds talk numbers that only they know and understand. How hard you hit the ball doesn’t matter unless it goes over the fence. A “Texas Leaguer”
hit over the shortstop head scores runs,while a hard hit
“Liner” hit directly to second base
Scores no one. Metrics writers
need to go write fiction books.
Quit trying to be a wannabe!!!
Coach R.

Ben Pernick

I appreciate your old school, Murray Chass-esque repudiation of newfangled baseball analysis. But tell me John, ahem, Coach R, if sabermetrics is just a bunch of “bunk”, why do more and more successful Major League Baseball teams keep hiring these numbers nerds to help them make big-money decisions?

Kyle

Great South Park reference from one of my favorite episodes!

In sticking with this theme, obviously, Miggy’s Ferrari cake days are over. However, with 1B having such a large drop off after the big names, I’d much rather take a flyer on him in the later rounds if I miss out on the first tier of 1B. I would take a Bentley or BMW cake Miggy over names like Gallo, Hosmer, or Olson any day.

Benjamin Pernick

Thanks Kyle! I agree, though I actually do also like Gallo and Olson for 2019 as well (depending on your team needs) but definitely like him over Hosmer.

Theo

How many Adderalls did it take to write this overthought jibberish? He’s an aging slugger. Best right handed hitter since Manny Ramirez (IMO); But same shit happened to him. It happens. Let it go. You don’t need to nerd out about it. We’re not talking about the same Miguel Cabrera from 2012. He’s a drastically different player regardless what your stats say. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Benjamin Pernick

First things first, regarding your excellent comp… Manny Ramirez ultimately fell apart in 2009 because he stopped making Hard Contact that year (from 43% in 2008 to 36% in 2009) and it only went further downhill. Cabrera actually posted the best Hard Contact Rate of his CAREER in 2018, at 46%. Sure, it could drop off a cliff at some point, maybe next year even. But there are no signs it’s in decline yet, and even if he’s not Miggy from 2012, a no-doubt first rounder, he’s still good enough to provide great value after round 12 or later.

And it took five. Five Adderalls, thank you very much.

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