Miguel Cabrera’s Snow-Doubt Home Run and Cloudy Future

The first-pitch temperature for Opening Day in Detroit was a frosty 32 degrees, and what’s more, snow was falling. Amid those decidedly baseball-unfriendly conditions, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera launched the first home run of the 2021 season, and off reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, to boot. It was a sight to behold, yet it wasn’t easy to see. Launched off Cabrera’s bat at 101.8 mph, the ball caromed off the railing atop the outfield wall and back towards the field of play. Given the limited visibility, Cabrera didn’t believe he had homered, and slid into second before realizing the ball had gone out.

The two-run shot not only helped power Detroit to a 3-2 win over Cleveland, it was the opening salvo in what has the potential to be a milestone-laden season for the slugger, who tuns 38 on April 18. That was Cabrera’s 488th career homer, and his 350th as a Tiger; it was also his 2,867th hit. For as modest as his preseason projections are — I’ll get to the full lines, but 21 homers and 139 hits are the numbers to start with — he projects not only to become the seventh player to attain those twin milestones but the first to reach both in the same season:

Players with 500 Home Runs and 3,000 Hits
Player 500th HR Total HR 3000th Hit Total Hits
Hank Aaron 7/14/1968 755 5/17/1970 3771
Willie Mays 9/13/1965 660 7/18/1970 3283
Eddie Murray 9/6/1996 504 6/30/1995 3255
Rafael Palmeiro 5/11/2003 569 7/15/2005 3020
Alex Rodriguez 8/4/2007 696 6/19/2015 3115
Albert Pujols 4/22/2014 662 5/4/2018 3236

Mind you, Cabrera doesn’t have much margin for error with the hit count if he’s going to do it this year while puttering along at the .261/.332/.418 clip from our Depth Charts projections, which take the average of his separate Steamer and ZiPS projections. Opening Day is a time for optimism, however, and in this case that optimism resides in the fact that until Thursday, he hadn’t hit an Opening Day homer since 2009. The reality, on the other hand, is that even when he’s homered early in the other seasons of what we might call his wilderness years — such as in the third game of 2018 and the second game of last season — his production was meager.

Indeed, over the past four seasons, Cabrera’s age-34 to age-37 campaigns, he hit just .267/.342/.406 for a 99 wRC+. Injuries played a part in that decline, particularly a pair of herniated discs that caused lingering pain throughout the 2017 season, and a ruptured left biceps tendon that ended his ’18 season — in which he’d gotten off to a strong start — after just 38 games. He did play 57 out of the Tigers’ 60 games last year, and his 102 wRC+ (.250/.329/.417) outdid both his 2017 and ’19 showings, as did his 0.3 WAR, but for a two-time MVP and 11-time All-Star making $31 million annually (before proration), that’s nothing to write home about.

If there was good news to be found in Cabrera’s 2020 numbers beyond his ability to DH nearly every day, it’s that he hit the ball hard. Leaving the small sample of 2018 aside, his 9.7% barrel rate matched his high for the past four season, while his 49.7% hard-hit rate was a high for that span, with the latter just a hair below his 50% in 2016, his last excellent season. Even given the fact that he’s hitting too many groundballs (1.33 GB/FB ratio, a bit better than his 1.41 from 2017-19), his .375 xwOBA placed in the 86th percentile. The problem is that given his first-percentile sprint speed — “slower than a Molina dragging a Molina with another Molina on his back” is the phrase that I have used for such measures — he managed just a .323 wOBA. His 52-point underperformance placed him in the second percentile from among the 252 players who faced at least 500 pitches last year, and this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon; his 33-point underperformance over the past four seasons (.354 xwOBA, .321 wOBA) placed him in the first percentile. Sticking to last year’s numbers, his expected batting average of .285 was 35 points higher than his actual one, and his expected slugging percentage of .514 was 97 points higher than his actual mark. If not for some combination of bad luck and bad wheels, he’d be even closer to the aforementioned milestones; based on his 35-point batting average underperformance over the past four seasons, he’d have another 46 hits even before accounting for injuries.

If Cabrera’s Depth Charts projection is underwhelming, his ZiPS projection is even more so. Dan Szymborski provided me with a percentile breakdown:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Miguel Cabrera
90% .284 .358 .477 426 50 121 22 81 49 85 2 122 2.1
80% .274 .343 .449 430 48 118 20 75 45 91 2 111 1.5
70% .266 .333 .424 432 46 115 18 72 43 95 1 102 0.9
60% .260 .324 .410 434 44 113 17 68 41 98 1 97 0.6
50% .256 .320 .396 434 43 111 16 64 41 101 1 92 0.3
40% .252 .314 .385 436 43 110 15 64 39 105 1 87 0.0
30% .247 .308 .380 437 42 108 15 63 38 107 1 84 -0.2
20% .240 .301 .364 437 41 105 14 60 38 113 1 79 -0.5
10% .232 .289 .345 440 39 102 13 57 35 120 0 70 -1.1

There’s quite a gap between that 50th percentile ZiPS projection and the one from Steamer (where he’s forecast for a .266/.343/.440 line) due to their different ways of weighing past performance. The eagle-eyed reader will also note that there’s a gap between the WAR associated with that 50th percentile and the ZiPS line on his player page (-0.4), owing to the fact that FanGraphs applies a heavier positional adjustment factor to DHs (-17.5 runs per year) than Baseball-Reference (-15 runs), and that the park factors may differ as well. Still, we’re talking about a player whose median projection is in the ballpark of replacement level, and expected to get worse over the next two seasons, though the same caveats apply to Cabrera’s three-year ZiPS projections, which on his player page forecast seasons of -0.9 WAR (2022) and -1.4 WAR (2023). You can mentally add maybe half a win to each of those figures but that’s just putting a bit of Chapstick on a pig, which won’t make it any prettier.

Most teams will curb the playing time of somebody whose production has fallen off to that degree — that is the concept of replacement level, after all — but as we’ve seen in relation to the Angels and Albert Pujols, the big contract of a future Hall of Famer can get in the way of things. As Dan noted last year, because of his contract, we’ve seen Pujols at his worst for longer than any other great hitter; he’s “produced” -0.6 fWAR over the course of 3,153 PA from his age-35 season onward, which takes a bit of the shine off his astounding totals of 662 home runs, 3,153 hits, and 80.9 JAWS, which ranks second among first baseman even with that arid stretch, behind only Lou Gehrig.

Sticking with fWAR for the moment, among Hall of Famers only Willie Keeler (1,291 PA, -0.8 WAR) and Jim Bottomley (1,146 PA, -1.2 WAR) have surpassed 1,000 PA from 35 onward while festering below replacement level. Based on that three-year ZiPS projection, Cabrera is a very real threat to join their company, as he’s managed only 0.6 WAR in 941 PA from his age-35 season onward. By Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, Cabrera has produced 0.4 WAR from age-35 onward, but even with that minimal production, his career WAR (69.3), peak WAR (44.8) and JAWS (57.0) are all solidly above the standards at first base (66.9/42.7/54.8), and with the pending milestones and already-acquired hardware, he figures to be a lock for Cooperstown.

Tangential to that subject, I often get asked in my FanGraphs chats a variant of the question of whether there are examples of players who have hung on too long and played their way out of a Hall berth. It’s a difficult question to answer, though we’ve certainly seen future Hall of Famers deliver sub-replacement level work as they’ve slogged past milestones. Craig Biggio‘s -2.1 WAR in 2007 as he surpassed 3,000 hits, comes to mind, and likewise Lou Brock‘s -2.0 WAR over his final three seasons as he surpassed both Ty Cobb’s career record for stolen bases (then believed to be 892, currently 897 at B-Ref) and the 3,000-hit mark. Wade Boggs had -0.3 WAR in 1999 as he went over the 3,000 line, and given time I’m sure I could come up with a few more.

Keeping with an age-35 season as the dividing line, here are the non-Hall of Famers with at least 500 PA from that point onward who have produced the lowest bWARs:

WAR Drop-Offs in Age-35 Seasons or Later
Player Years PA Thru 34 WAR Thru 34 Years PA 35+ WAR 35+
Bernie Williams 1991-2003 6403 50.6 2004-2006 1659 -1.0
Dale Murphy 1976-1990 7312 47.3 1991-1993 711 -0.7
Paul Hines 1872-1889 6462 45.4 1890-1891 679 -0.5
Minnie Minoso 1949-1960 5586 50.2 1961-1980 1154 0.1
Sal Bando 1966-1978 6265 61.4 1979-1981 907 0.1
Vada Pinson 1958-1973 8920 54.1 1974-1975 772 0.1
Sammy Sosa 1989-2003 7543 58.2 2004-2007 1417 0.4
Miguel Cabrera 2003-2017 8322 68.9 2018-2021 941 0.4
Joey Votto 2007-2018 5563 59.7 2019-2021 836 1.2
Matt Williams 1987-2000 6243 45.3 2001-2003 830 1.3
Buddy Bell 1972-1986 8068 64.9 1987-1989 1039 1.4
Joe Mauer 2004-2017 6444 53.8 2018-2018 543 1.4
Bob Elliott 1939-1951 6501 49.2 1952-1953 746 1.4
John Olerud 1989-2003 6994 56.5 2004-2005 692 1.7
Ryan Braun 2007-2018 6034 45.3 2019-2020 649 1.8
Robin Ventura 1989-2002 6520 54.2 2003-2004 628 1.9
Mark Teixeira 2003-2014 6157 48.4 2015-2016 900 2.2
Jack Clark 1975-1990 6109 50.7 1991-1992 907 2.3
Albert Pujols 2001-2014 7943 96.9 2015-2021 3157 3.0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Non-Hall of Famers with at least 45.0 WAR through age-34 season and at least 500 PA from age-35 onward.

I don’t think we could say definitively that any of those players were derailed en route to enshrinement, though in his 1994 book The Politics of Glory, Bill James predicted that Parker, an MVP and two-time batting champion, would be elected by the BBWAA in 2003, and likewise for Murphy, a two-time MVP, in 2008. Then again, from that vantage he also had Pete Rose, Joe Carter, Jack McDowell, and Ruben Sierra — among others — eventually getting the nod.

Among the players above who escaped James’ cloudy crystal ball, Bando and Bell might have helped to flesh out the dearth of Hall of Fame third basemen had they stuck around longer. Williams felt like he had a shot as a pivotal player in the Yankees’ turn-of-the-millennium dynasty, at least until advanced fielding metrics — and perhaps his disinterest in anything besides starting in center field — squashed his hopes like a bug. Miñoso’s actual birthdate is unclear; B-Ref uses 1925, the youngest of the four apparent options according to various sources, which would have placed his debut at age 23 and meant that his age-35 season was still a productive one (2.0 WAR in 1961).

Mauer and Votto are of particular interest to statheads, as we fret over whether the general BBWAA electorate will appreciate their charms, statistical and otherwise, as much as we do. Mauer is seventh in JAWS among catchers and above all three standards (his seven peak seasons all took place while catching, it’s worth noting), while Votto, whose contract situation makes him an analogue to Cabrera and Pujols, albeit without the milestones, is 15th among first basemen, above the peak standard (46.9 vs. 42.7) and 0.9 shy in JAWS (53.9 vs. 54.8).

Of course, there’s nothing set in stone about 45.0 WAR, age-35 seasons, and 500 PA as cutoffs; my qualifications above notably omit both Tony Oliva (43.1 WAR through his age-34 season, -0.1 thereafter) and Dave Parker (40.5 WAR through his age-35 season, -0.4 thereafter), two other Era Committee candidate of note. This seems like a topic worthy of further exploration.

As for Cabrera, who’s making $31 million annually this year and each of the next two, the Tigers can only hope he’s about to find his way out of the doldrums. If they’re to turn the corner on their rebuilding effort, they may face the type of hard choice that the Angels have been unwilling to make when it comes to Pujols. In the meantime, until Spencer Torkelson arrives and the likes of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning carve their places (knock on wood), we can hope that Cabrera hits well enough to avoid such awkwardness.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

There is iconic video on other sites of Miggy batting and rounding the bases after that homer while the big flakes fly. It should go to the HOF with him.