Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #28: Miguel Cabrera

Even for baseball fans who don't get too caught up in them, numbers tend to be at least part of what the game means to them. More than any other sport, baseball is connected to its own history. By the time I began following baseball in 1986, it had been 19 years since Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown (which means he led his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI). That was already the longest stretch MLB had ever had without a Triple Crown winner. Two-and-a-half decades later, we were still waiting, and the Triple Crown had long since grown into a mythical accomplishment to me, something I wasn't sure I'd ever see happen. 

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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When it became clear that Miguel Cabrera had a real shot at the Triple Crown entering the final few weeks of the 2012 season, I was excited, despite him playing for the top rival of my beloved Indians, and even though I understood that runs batted in and batting average are not the best measures of a player's performance. Maybe I was supposed to be bothered that Cabrera was getting more attention than Mike Trout, but I wasn't. Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown was a moment in baseball history, a moment that connected with Yastrzemski, and with Frank Robinson, and Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig. Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown was awesome.

The best hitter of the last 30 years was Barry Bonds, and there isn't an argument against that stance that I have any interest in. The second-best hitter of the last 30 years? There are five players I think you can make a case for, and Cabrera is one of them. That he doesn't rank higher than 28th speaks to three things: He runs the bases poorly, he fields his position(s) poorly, and his career isn't over yet.

There are a few other active players who'll appear in this countdown (though not many), but they tend to be guys whose career is just about over. Cabrera's prime is behind him, but he's still probably got some very good seasons ahead of him. If anything, I've erred on the side of caution, not wanting to be too bullish on ranking Cabrera, because he's got time to climb. There's a reasonable case he should be seven or eight spots higher, because while he doesn't do the other things well, boy can he ever hit.

Cabrera made his MLB debut with the Marlins when he was just 20 years old, and promptly helped them win the World Series, joining Mickey Mantle and Andruw Jones as the only players to homer in a World Series game before their 21st birthday. By the end of 2007, Cabrera was still only 24 years old, but he'd established himself as one of the absolute best hitters in the game. As the Marlins have been wont to do for almost their entire existence, they decided to trade an incredible talent away before he became too expensive, and Cabrera was off to Detroit.

The change of scenery didn't do much to slow Cabrera, his numbers dipped slightly, but quickly climbed again, so that before long he wasn't just one of baseball's best hitters, he was the best.

After having hit 138 home runs with the Marlins, Cabrera hit his 100th home run with the Tigers on August 18, 2010, at the age of 27 years and 4 months, making him the youngest player in Major League history to have homered 100+ times in both the National and American Leagues.

Cabrera won that Triple Crown in 2012, and (amid much arguing) the A.L. MVP award as well. He didn't lead the league in home runs or RBI in 2013, but he had a better overall season at the plate (a reminder that winning the Triple Crown has at least as much to do with what others do as it does with what you do yourself), and won his second MVP. His bat remains incredibly potent, but injuries kept him off the field for more than a quarter of the 2015 season, and it remains to be seen if that was a blip or the beginning of his decline.

With a lifetime batting line of .321/.399/.562, along with 408 home runs and 492 doubles, Cabrera could retire right now at the age of 32 and coast into Cooperstown on the first ballot, which tends to be where Triple Crown winners end up.





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