Miguel Cabrera’s Monster Milestone

On Sunday afternoon against the Blue Jays, Miguel Cabrera became the newest member of an elite baseball club by hitting his 500th regular-season home run, making him just the 28th player to reach that mark in MLB history; he joins Albert Pujols as the only active players on the list. (He’s also the first-ever Tiger and first ever Venezuelan-born player to get there). Cabrera is also chasing entry into the equally exclusive 3,000 hits club, but he would need roughly a hit per game for the rest of the season to do that, making 2022 more likely, so let’s focus on 500 and his road there.

It’s yet another milestone achievement in the 38-year-old’s Hall of Fame-worthy career. Signed in 1999 as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela, Cabrera reached Double-A in 2003 and made his major league debut that same year at age 20 in June. It didn’t take him long to hit his first home run, and he did so by announcing his presence to Marlins fans and the entire sport, walloping a walk-off to dead center in his first game and becoming only the third major leaguer ever to do that.

Over 87 games that season, Cabrera hit 12 home runs but also struck out a fair bit, with a 24.3% rate. He was showing signs of the player he would become in terms of power, but he didn’t quite have the discipline at the plate yet. Still, he had a meteoric rise with the Marlins, helping them win the World Series in his rookie year and making four straight All-Star appearances from 2004 to ’07.

During those incredible first seasons of his career, he collected another milestone home run, hitting the 100th of his career on Aug. 23, 2006 — a year in which he dropped his strikeout percentage to 16.0%, upped his walk rate to a then-career high 12.7%, and posted a 153 wRC+.

After one final All-Star season in Miami, Cabrera was dealt along with Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers for a package of top prospects led by Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin in December 2007. He continued his rise in Detroit; his 2010, ’11, ’12 and ’13 seasons there were unquestionably the best of his career. Home run No. 300 came in that third year, when he won the Triple Crown and led the Tigers to an AL pennant (though they lost to the Giants in the World Series).

Cabrera had a career-best 14.1% strikeout rate that year to go with 44 home runs, 139 RBI, a .330/.393/.606 line, and a wRC+ of 165, then somehow topped that in 2013, hitting .348/.442/.636 with a 193 wRC+. He won the league MVP award back-to-back those seasons; not coincidentally, the Tigers surpassed 3 million in fan attendance for each of those two years. And in 2013, when he and Detroit narrowly lost the pennant to Boston, both he and teammate Justin Verlander appeared on that year’s top 20 MLB jersey sales list. Cabrera was a superstar, and as a star, he was a huge part of the Tigers’ financial success over those years.

The latter part of his career, though, has been plagued by injury concerns and a general decline of quality we see in almost all aging players, and while he is a lock for entry into the Hall of Fame, that doesn’t mean the road has been smooth. In 2017, Cabrera’s wRC+ dropped all the way to 92, the first time he’d been below league average in his entire career. He appeared in only 38 games in 2018, sidelined first by a hamstring issue, then a season-ending biceps tendon rupture suffered in June, followed by chronic knee issues that hampered him in ’19.

Cabrera was always one to push himself physically, even when it defied logic or medical advice. Recently, J.D. Martinez spoke about being a teammate of his in Detroit, and how he would play even with broken bones and spurs in his feet. During that 2019 season, as he spent more time at DH than first base, he acknowledged that he shouldn’t have pushed himself as hard as he did in his youth.

Cabrera was primarily a DH in 2019 and solely one in the shortened ’20 season, but he’s returned to the field this year, with 36 games played at first base so far. And through injury and flagging power, he has continued to make history. On Opening Day, as snow fell over Comerica Park and with his 38th birthday approaching, he hit the first home run of the year in the majors and his 350th in a Tigers uniform. Only two other Tigers hit as many while sporting the Old English D: Norm Cash with 373, and Mr. Tiger himself, Al Kaline, with 399. And it was also career homer No. 488; with a healthy 2021, he had a real shot at 500.

There has been an electric feeling this season in Comerica Park, watching the countdown-to-500 games, that has been missing for several seasons. Unsurprisingly, since the Tigers returned to full capacity attendance on June 22, they’ve gone from a crowd of 13,492 for that game to as high as 32,845 on August 14, thanks to the hope of seeing Cabrera’s big moment (as well as a post–All-Star break winning streak). Fans have been invested and engaged. Every at-bat potentially put him one step closer to history, and the Tigers leaned all-in on the countdown, putting his milestone numbers out with the team’s iconic jersey numbers, so fans (and likely Cabrera himself) could see them easily. Everyone wanted to be at the game where Tigers lore happened.

Mild injuries have dogged Cabrera in 2021; a biceps strain put him on the injured list in April, and a calf issue had him day-to-day in June. Yet he seems like a different version of himself now, in spite of the toll his years have taken on him. He’s shown a youthful enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen in his at-bats in years, and an infectious excitement and determination. It has been a long, sometimes bumpy career, but Cabrera has provided one more highlight fitting for a future Hall of Famer and a generational baseball talent.

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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2 years ago

His skills have certainly declined and he struggles to catch up to fastballs, but he does seem to be enjoying himself and the team still isn’t ready to compete for a playoff spot anyway. Seems like he is content to help the franchise transition to a new core of players. That 2011-2014 team was the best in the AL but just couldn’t bring home a world series– if only they woulda had a deeper bullpen….

2 years ago
Reply to  LMOTFOTE

It’s a fine situation now because the Tigers aren’t in contention and haven’t been for the past several years, but with signs of improvement this year and with Tork and Greene knocking on the door they have a real chance to be good in 2022. Miggy’s an all time great but he’s also on pace for a full win under replacement, they simply can’t trot him out there every day next year if they hope to contend