Over the last few months, the Detroit Tigers finally began their long-avoided rebuilding process by trading away J.D. Martinez, Justin Verlander, and Justin Upton. The team is in the midst of its second losing season in three years, after having six straight seasons at or above .500. The team’s demise coincides with the miserable season of one of the best players of this generation, Miguel Cabrera.
The thirty-four-year-old first-baseman ranks 217th out of 234 players at -0.2 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. His .724 on-base plus slugging and .247 batting average are by far the worst of his career. He has hit just 16 home runs in 512 plate appearances and is striking out 21 percent of the time, his highest strikeout rate since 2004.
Cabrera has seen a notable drop in exit velocity and batted ball distance from last season. His average exit velocity is down to 91.1 MPH after being at 93.6 MPH last year. His average batted ball distance is just 191 feet after posting a 197 batted ball distance last year and his barrel percentage has dropped from 11.3 percent to 7.4 percent.
And yet, despite his outcome based struggles at the plate, and dip in batted ball distance and exit velocity, Cabrera still finds himself near the top of the leaderboard in Statcast metrics and FanGraphs' batted ball data.
His 91.1 average exit velocity ranks 13th out of 374 batters with over 100 batted ball events. Cabrera finds himself above Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Gary Sanchez, among many, many others. He has hit 48.3 percent of his batted balls above 95 MPH, which is eighth-best in baseball. Looking at Statcast metrics alone, Cabrera looks like one of the best hitters in baseball, despite his sharp decline.
FanGraphs' batted ball data agrees Cabrera has been one of the hardest hitters in the league. His hard hit percentage is 43.7 percent, his best since 2014 and ninth-best in the league. He is also still one of the best line drive hitters in the league. His 27.3 line driver percentage is sixth-best in the league. Once again, Cabrera looks like one of the best hitters in baseball, depending on what metrics you look at.
Cabrera has been held back by career-lows in batting average on balls in play and home runs per fly balls. His BABIP is below .300 for the first time in his career at .286. His HR/FB is 13.8 percent, about league average but well below his career mark of 18.8 percent. Cabrera is still spraying the ball all over the field and staying out of infield pop-ups. His pull, center, and oppo percentage are all above 30 percent and he is popping the ball up on just 2.6 percent of his fly balls.
When looking at Cabrera's season through this lens, it seems he has been extremely unlucky. It's easy for someone to take a look at his slash line and conclude he's on the Albert Pujols path. Although 512 plate appearances is a ton of plate appearances to be unlucky in, it has happened before. Last year, Bryce Harper had a BABIP of .264 in 627 PAs, batting .243 in the process. This year, he is hitting .326 with a .359 BABIP. Big swings in BABIP are prone to happen, even in a season as long as major league baseball's.
FanGraphs' two major projection systems, Steamer and ZiPS, call for Cabrera to hit 16 and 39 percent better than the average hitter for the rest of this season, suggesting that they agree: he should still have a lot left in the tank. The Tigers better hope so. Cabrera is owed 184 million through the 2023 season. Cabrera may never be the triple crown winner he was in his early thirties, but he should stay away from complete albatross territory with a little better fly ball and batted ball luck.
Dylan Svoboda is a writer for Beyond The Box Score and BP Milwaukee. You can follow him on Twitter at @svodylan.