Why Miguel Cabrera Is Still a Fantasy Baseball Stud
For the past decade, Miguel Cabrera has probably been the safest bet in fantasy baseball.
Since 2006, Cabrera has had seven seasons with at least 20 home runs, 100 RBI, a .320 average and .900 OPS. Albert Pujols , who has had four such seasons in this span, is the only other player with more than two.
Last season marked his fifth season during this time with a wRC+ north of 160, while he has only dipped below 140 once. He hit .338/.440/.534 last year, improving from his .313/.370/.524 in 2014 (which were his lowest marks since his second season in Detroit in 2009).
So why is there some concern over the 31-year-old Cabrera heading into this season?
Most of it stems from injury concerns, as Cabrera made the first Disabled List appearance of his career after a calf injury last July and also had ankle surgery after the 2014 season. In 2015, he appeared in fewer than 148 games for the first time since his debut season in Miami in 2003.
Cabrera hit for less power after returning from the injury, as he posted an Isolated Power Rate (extra bases per plate appearance) of .138 from August 14 onwards. This was a far cry from his career rate of .241 and even his first-half ISO of .228.
Still, he posted a .316/.410/.454 line after being activated from the disabled list, so despite the downtick in slugging, he was still incredibly valuable at the plate.
What We Can Learn from His Second Half
It stands to reason that if there are currently any lingering effects from Cabrera’s injury last year, these effects were also present during the second half of last season.
The importance of half-season splits is often overstated. Because the sample sizes are inherently small, they tend not to be as predictive of future success as full-season numbers.
After a red-hot start, Cabrera regressed a bit as we might expect (injury or not) but still ran a walk rate and BABIP that were higher than his career marks, while continuing to bring his strikeout rate down.
|1st Half||15.9 %||16.5 %||0.35||0.456||0.578||0.227||0.394||179|
|2nd Half||13.5 %||15.2 %||0.316||0.41||0.454||0.138||0.366||139|
|Career||11.2 %||16.8 %||0.321||0.399||0.562||0.241||0.348||153|
The only area where significant decline is evident was ISO, which dropped by almost 90 points. This could theoretically be cause for alarm because Cabrera had 152 at-bats in the second half; this is close to being a large enough sample to conclude there was more than random variation at play (Russell Carleton found that ISO stabilizes after roughly 160 at-bats).
A closer look, though, reveals a different approach -- rather than a change in skill -- may be at least partially the cause.
After returning from his injury, Cabrera posted a hard-hit ball rate of 38.1%, which was lower than his first-half rate of 41.3% but in line with his career average of 39.1% (per Baseball Info Solutions, via FanGraphs).
The small drop also did not correspond with an increase in soft contact percentage (which actually fell to 9.5%, 2.0% lower than his career average) but merely an uptick in medium contact.
In terms of average exit velocity, Cabrera did not experience much change, posting an exit velocity of 93.6 miles per hour in the first half and 94.3 in the second half, according to BaseballSavant.com.
These numbers are significant, as both hard-hit ball rate and exit velocity correlate with ISO at a very high rate (Bradley Woodrum of The Hardball Times found that ISO correlates with hard-hit ball rate at 0.84 and exit velocity at 0.62).
It’s possible that Cabrera was a bit unlucky in the second half as he only ran a .080 BABIP on fly balls in the second half, which tied for 72nd among the 143 hitters who put at least 20 balls in the air during this time, per BaseballSavant (he tied for 27th with a .167 BABIP on fly balls in the first half).
As mentioned, though, there does also seem to be a change in approach, as Mike Podhorzer of FanGraphs noted that Cabrera posted a 32.7% fly ball rate in 2015 (his lowest since 2003) and a career-high opposite-field rate (33.5%). Both factors naturally contributed to his first season in the Majors with an ISO below .200 (dramatic as that sounds, his 2015 ISO was .196).
The opposite-field rate seems to have little to do with any lingering effects from the injury, as it was 33.6% in the first half and 33.3% in the second.
As for the fly ball rate, it did decline from 35.0% to 28.6% from half to half, but his ground ball rate remained constant throughout. Cabrera replaced the fly balls with line drives after his disabled list stint, pushing his line drive rate to 29.4% (a 6.5% increase from the first half).
Line drive rate tends to be very volatile (Carleton found it takes 600 balls in play to stabilize), but grounder and fly rate are among the most stable numbers in the game (they only take about roughly 80 balls in play to hit their stabilization rates).
Cabrera put 349 balls in play in 2015, so the decline in fly ball rate could be a sign of an actual trend. This may not be a bad thing though, especially if he can run a line drive rate above 24.0% as he has in each of the last three years.
This apparent new approach, coupled with the second-best walk rate of his career, produced the third-highest on-base percentage of his career (a silly .384 BABIP, which was probably due in part to the second-half line drive rate spike, helped, but Cabrera does own a .348 career BABIP; this is a skill he possesses).
If there is any real decline in terms of power ability, these factors could at least partially offset it.
It should also be noted the projection models are not expecting much of a decline.
It seems safe to say we can expect Cabrera to continue being his same dominant self in 2016.