I didn’t watch the Tigers lose 5-3 to the Rangers on Tuesday night—I was paying attention, instead, to the local baseball team that was actually trying to win. But a tweet from the Tigers’ broadcasters caught my eye in the middle of the Michigan-Vanderbilt game. I assumed, at first glance, that Miguel Cabrera had hit his fifth dinger of the season, but as I started watching, I was treated instead to the saddest highlight of a two-time MVP I’ve ever seen.
This is what passes for a big Miguel Cabrera play nowadays—an infield single made possible by a throwing error, captioned with a patronizing “atta boy.” Cabrera had an awful 2017 and a practically nonexistent 2018, due to injuries, and now, stuck on a Tigers team that won’t be trying to contend for several more years, he’s playing out the stretch of his lengthy, expensive contract in the most depressing way possible.
The 36-year-old Cabrera has so far in 2019 been a league-average hitter, but the complete disappearance of his power and the total breakdown of his body have combined to make him less than a shell of his former self. It says a lot about the putrid, 26-48 Tigers that Cabrera’s batting average (.296) and OBP (.361) are still team bests. But purely as a power hitter, with his slugging percentage of .388, he’s the worst everyday player in Detroit. So far this season, a staggering 79.7 percent of Cabrera’s hits have been singles, down from 67.5 percent in 2017 and 62.8 percent in 2016 (league average this year is 62.1 percent). Cabrera’s now a slap hitter who can’t run, and an underwhelming bat stuck at DH for maybe the rest of his career despite four years and $124 million still left on his contract.
Unsurprisingly, he’s not thrilled about his decline. Back in early May, as his complete lack of pop was becoming more and more obvious, Cabrera snapped at reporters, blaming his diminished supporting cast for his disappointing numbers.
“You know Prince Fielder?” Cabrera said. “You know who’s hitting behind me right now? That’s a big difference, too.
“How am I going to hit 40 home runs? In the past, I got Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta. I got a big bat behind me. You see the way guys pitch me? That explains everything.”
The idea that pitchers are avoiding Cabrera because now he’s backed up by lesser talents like Brandon Dixon and Niko Goodrum doesn’t check out, however. Statcast helps us visualize the change (or lack thereof) in what Cabrera’s seeing. On the left is Cabrera’s pitch breakdown from 2016, when he hit .316 with 38 home runs. On the right is Cabrera’s 2019. Aside from a slightly increased tendency to pitch him low and away, there’s little difference. In fact, present-day Cabrera is seeing more pitches in the strike zone now than he did when he was the Miguel Frickin’ Cabrera of old.
The problem, obviously, is that Cabrera isn’t making solid contact like he used to. Also per Statcast, Cabrera’s average exit velocity is down from 93.6 mph in 2016 to 90.0 mph in 2019, a drop from 3rd to 105th in MLB. Over that same time, his hard-hit percentage—or, balls that have gone off the bat at 95 mph or more—has dropped from 50.4 to 46.1, or 3rd to 54th on the leaderboard.
Cabrera played in almost every game for his teams through the first decade of his career, and he’s been paying the price since he hit his mid-30s. His 2018 ended early because of a biceps injury, and he’s also had trouble in the past with his groin, his calf, his ankle, his back, and his hamstring. Right now, though, the issue is his right knee, which has been diagnosed with “chronic changes” that have moved him out of the infield and into the DH slot full-time. He’s played just one game at first base in the month of June, and as The Athletic’s Cody Stavenhagen noted when the changes took effect, the psychological impact of being essentially sidelined for most of every game is no small thing.
When he’s playing first base, Cabrera smiles and jokes and plays tricks on the baserunners who stop by. He chats and talks trash to opposing players in different languages. He has said he feels more engaged in the game and better at the plate when he is also in the field.
Cabrera himself didn’t get especially introspective, but he did say, “It’s really sad, you know? It’s something yesterday I was thinking about. It’s sad because I like to be in the field.”
And it is sad! Analytically minded Mike Trout fans can quibble about his MVPs all they want, but for a tremendously long stretch, Cabrera was one of those guys you had to watch when he was up at the plate. Along with Trout and Albert Pujols, he is a sure-thing Hall of Famer when he retires, but unfortunately for almost everyone, that day could be a long way off. Cabrera won’t be free of his deal until after the 2023 season, and speaking for myself at least, no amount of knee pain would keep me from collecting those paychecks. Four and a half more years for Cabrera, and they’re only going to trend one way. A hint: it’s not up.