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)
|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%|
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.
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.
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)