Is Miguel Cabrera Ready for a Bounce-Back Season?
If it were any other player, Miguel Cabrera's 2014 season would have been incredible.
But we are talking about a Triple Crown winner, here. We're talking about the man who many believe is the best pure hitter in the game. Looking through that lens, the Detroit Tigers' first baseman suffered a "disappointing" season last year, compared to previous seasons.
Pretty much every player in baseball would kill for a .313/.371/.524 slash line with 25 homers, a league-leading 52 doubles and a 5.4 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). That batting average was 7th-best in the American League, his on-base percentage was 10th, his isolated power (ISO) was 9th, and his home run total was tied for 14th. And his nERD of 2.88 -- which means a lineup full of Cabreras would have generated 2.88 runs a game more than a league average player -- was 10th best in baseball.
But for Cabrera, these numbers were down from recent seasons, especially his Triple Crown-winning season of 2013. So what gives? With Cabrera entering his age-32 season, are we about to embark on the down-side of his career, or does he have another season or two where he's among the top two or three hitters in the AL again?
Trying to predict what a player will do in future seasons is always tricky. But one of the things most helpful to look at is plate discipline. And for Cabrera, last year saw a reversal in his strikeout and walk rates. He walked in just 8.8% of his plate appearances last year, down from 13.8% the year before, the lowest total since 8.2% in 2008. And he struck out in 17.1% of his plate appearances, up from 14.4% the year before, and the highest total since that '08 season, when he struck out 18.4% of the time.
Most notable was his home run-per-fly ball percentage (HR/FB), which was a career low 14.0% last year, way down from his career-high of 25.4% in 2013 and his career average of 19.0%. FanGraphs' Mike Podhorzer examined why his HR/FB percentage may have dropped so severely, given that his fly ball rate remained the same as in previous seasons.
Podhorzer noted that Cabrera did not hit the ball near the first and third base lines as much last season, which is also perhaps one of the reasons why he had so many doubles last year. Fences are closer in along the baselines, so fewer fly balls and line drives near the lines means fewer homers. The other reason noted was that Cabrera didn't hit as many monster home runs as in years past, which can sometimes correlate to an overall drop in power.
But perhaps the greatest reason for the fall-off, and the greatest reason for concern in 2015, is injury. In October, Cabrera had surgery to repair a bone spur in his ankle and a stress fracture in his right foot. Those injuries likely hindered Cabrera from generating the kind of power from the lower body that he was used to, resulting in a dip in his numbers.
The most worrisome part about his injury status is that he only was able to shed his walking boot about two weeks ago, and hadn't been able to put any weight on it the entire offseason. He is now in normal shoes, but he's lost an entire season of normal baseball training. Much of the time he'll have left before the regular season will be spent on strengthening his foot, and it's uncertain how it will respond. He could miss the beginning of the season, as well.
The Tigers sure hope Cabrera can return to perennial MVP status. They will be paying him $22 million this season, $28 million in 2016 and '17, $30 million a season from 2018-2021, and then $32 million in '22 and '23. There are also two vesting options for 2024 and '25 for $30 million each.
The 2015 season will be Cabrera's 13th in the Majors. At some point, the decline was going to begin, and at 32 years old with a bad wheel, it's likely we're seeing the start of it. Of course, Miguel Cabrera on the decline is better than most players' primes, and he's still likely to put up All-Star caliber numbers, much like last season.
He's not going to challenge for any more Triple Crowns, he's probably not going to hit 40-plus home runs, and he's going to be a below-average defensive player and base-runner. But he's going to hit for average, get on base, and still be one of the better run-producers in the game.
It's time to lower your expectations for Miguel Cabrera and admit that he's only going to be really good, instead of ridiculously, outrageously, incomprehensibly good.