He's been so good for so long that I almost feel like we take him for granted at this point. We've gone through so many special hitters over the past 20 years that it's almost like we're failing to appreciate one of the most impressive ones as his career unfolds before our very eyes. Sure, we're constantly blown away by his remarkable hitting prowess, but how often do we really cite how unique this guy's performance has been over the past eight-plus years?
Because I was combing over the numbers today, and I think that it's time that we start to wonder about this: In Miguel Cabrera, are we witnessing the career of one of the very best hitters that Major League Baseball has ever seen?
Consider this: through Cabrera's eighth season, 2010, he had 247 homers, a .313 batting average, a .388 on-base percentage and 33.4 WAR accumulated according to Baseball Reference. Only six other players have gone through their first eight seasons while posting those kinds of numbers, and it's the kind of company that reflects how special Cabrera is. When you're in a select group with Albert Pujols, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Frank Thomas, Todd Helton and Mickey Mantle, it becomes pretty clear what kind of place his career could take in the long history of the game.
Now, only to be fair, all six of those players actually out-played Cabrera during their first eight years. But Helton and Thomas were aided by their playing environment, Mantle and Mays offered defensive value that Cabrera could never match, and Pujols and Williams are the kind of historically great hitters that often can't be compared to their peers. But even being in that kind of group, surrounded by three Hall of Famers and three guys who will deserve to be there in a couple years, can be a quick and easy reminder of the kind of resume that Cabrera's been working on the past eight seasons.
And with few signs of slowing down at age-28, Cabrera has the potential to push his way into that truly elite class of MLB hitters. When you begin your career on the same path as players like Mantle, Mays, Williams and Pujols, that kind of potential is probably obvious, but it's important to see that Cabrera's continued to improve and develop his game over time.
Even this season, after thousands of plate appearances at the game's highest level, we're still seeing Cabrera make adjustments as a hitter. He's on pace to post the highest walk rate of his career AND the lowest strikeout rate as well, reflecting a more patient and refined approach, and his overall offensive performance since the beginning of last season has been a clear step up from his previous work. After generally being in the .375-.405 range with his wOBA during his first six full seasons, he's been above .420 in both 2010 and 2011 thus far.
Cabrera's youth is obviously on his side, but player's with his skill set sometimes age pretty poorly, and it remains to be seen how the player's issues with alcohol and himself will end up affecting his performance in the long run. Before the season, ZiPS offered projections of Cabrera's entire career as a part of their Tigers forecast, and they project the first baseman to finish his career with a .296/.370/.517 line, 536 homers and 1880 RBI in 10384 PA. Given Cabrera's current .942 career OPS, that means that ZiPS has him posting just a .829 OPS over his final ~5000 plate appearances. Projection systems are often fairly conservative when it comes to the long-term future, and that's pretty clearly reflected in the projection of Cabrera's career. But when you see that his performance can drop pretty sharply from here and he'll still finish with over 500 homers, 1800 RBI and an OPS near .890, it's easy to picture scenarios where he easily out-performs those kinds of numbers.
Right now, no matter how you twist it, Miguel Cabrera's on pace to be something special in the history of this game. We always talk about how great numerous players are, and at this point it's almost like we've gotten bored of reminding everyone about how good Cabrera is. But he deserves every ounce of praise thrown his way, because thus far in his career he's blazing a path that few have ever traveled before.