Miguel Cabrera: April’s Thud Will Bring Summer’s Stud

by Jon Erkkila | Posted on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014
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Miguel Cabrera

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”Socrates

Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers hasn’t hit a ton…yet.

Defining a “slow start” in MLB is really in the eye of the beholder and the expectations placed on each particular player have to be taken into account. There are plenty of players off to slow starts all over baseball. Some are met with more critical eyes than others while some slow starts are slower and scarier than others. Fans of the Cleveland Indians can look at Carlos Santana starting out 10-82 (.122/.301/.196) and nod their heads and sigh. Former Tigers Jhonny Peralta was posting similarly poor numbers before a two homer outburst on Sunday for the Cardinals. There are people with varying degrees of worry about Cabrera. But it’s April. All the stats have only limited meaning and the “eye test” doesn’t always give us the whole picture either. In April we simply don’t “know” a lot yet about where a season is heading. We can give our best guess.

Cabrera is the game’s biggest offensive force in the view of many. As most know he was in the mix to possibly achieve a second straight American League Triple Crown in 2013 before an injury curtailed his production down the stretch and into the playoffs. Off-season surgery to his core followed and he has been in recovery mode ever since. However it really hasn’t dampened expectations placed on the Tigers’ superstar. The Tigers re-organized their offense for 2014 to emphasize speed and base running. Gone were sedentary sluggers Prince Fielder and Peralta to be replaced by the more athletically diverse Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler. With those changes in place, much of the “guaranteed” power available for the Tigers to bank on rested on the shoulders of Cabrera.

To this point, that power has not been present and the Tigers offense has been sputtering at times even though the club sits at 12-9 and on top of the AL Central. Cabrera has had a seemingly inordinate amount of quiet outs that seem wholly out of character from what Tigers fans have been treated to since he arrived in 2008 from the Marlins. With 91 Plate Appearances in the books he is posting a rather modest slash-line more reminiscent of Tigers luminary Craig Monroe instead of a future Hall-of-Famer. Cabrera sits at .259/.308/.412 and that’s actually headed in the right direction from his nadir this month. The effortless opposite field power has only shown itself a time or two with more meek flyouts seen instead.

Using the numbers supplied at Fangraphs.com, we can see some early trends that are contributing to Cabrera’s languid start. First, let’s put it out there that we are talking about a sample of under 100 plate appearances. Many, if not all, of Cabrera’s issues will likely be solved by time. Plenty of great players have a disappointing string of a 100 PA’s. He is going to get about 600 more to generate the production fans expect and the Tigers will need. In reality, much of the concern stems from the slow stretch coming at the start of the season without a few months of his normal production to tidy up the overall the numbers. If a rather ordinary stretch like this was buried in mid-June there would be fewer concerns among the fan base and chattering classes. Second, there would seem to be little reason to believe he is missing the “protection” of Fielder hitting behind him. Victor Martinez is off to a fine enough start and Cabrera fared just fine in 2011 with Martinez batting behind him. Third, there could be some who wonder if the burden of Cabrera’s monstrous contract extension is weighing him down and making him “try to do too much”. To this I will say…”we can’t possibly know”…but the contract isn’t going away. If it’s on his mind, he’ll need to forget it. Cabrera has performed in the past with a big contract in hand however. I don’t put much into this possible theory.

When poking through the numbers there are some small variations to be seen. He is hitting more ground balls and fewer fly balls than his usual rates. Obviously power gets generated on fly ball and this probably gets at some of his issue. He seems to be getting roughly the same mix of pitches from the opposition as most seasons. Only one number really jumps off the page. Cabrera’s homer per fly ball (HR/FB) is way off his usual pace. In 2012, as he captured the home run title, Cabrera was seeing 23.0% of his fly balls leave the yard. In 2013 he actually raised that number to 25.4%. One ball in four that he elevated had the distance, an impressive number. But, so far in 2014, he has only seen 8.7% of his fly balls find the seats. That is obviously a huge disparity. One only needs to have watched the games to know the ball hasn’t been jumping off his bat but those numbers clearly illustrate the loss of power production. The good news is that with a career HR/FB of over 19% it’s a safe bet that over time Cabrera will start to drift back toward career norms and that means balls will be sailing. Warmer weather won’t hurt either.

Having watched the vast majority of his at-bats, it does seem that Cabrera has been a little late on some fastballs and that he is falling behind in a lot of counts. Indeed his “first pitch strike percentage” is at a career high right now. His walk-rate is rather low right now and his K-rate is above his career number. He might be a little jumpy. Once he settles in and starts taking the walks, it’s a fair bet based on what we’ve seen in past seasons that the graceful swing and thunderous power he generates will come back as he waits on better pitches. The Tigers haphazard schedule probably hasn’t helped Cabrera find a true rhythm either. Between a few rain-outs and the rather preposterous amount of early season off-days, the Tigers have not really been following the usual pattern of daily baseball many players probably use to get themselves rolling. Couple the schedule with Cabrera mentioning that he the cold weather of spring has him feeling some effects from his operation. As his body heals and the weather likely improves, Cabrera’s power stroke will likely reappear.

The schedule will change. The games are eventually going to come fast and furious. Assuming his body cooperates, the daily reps will likely start to yield most of the production fans are accustomed to.

 Make no mistake…the Tigers offense is built around Miguel Cabrera doing Miguel Cabrera stuff. If he doesn’t catch fire, the odds of the Tigers scoring enough runs to support their fine starting rotation dim in dramatic fashion. They have weathered this down spell by Cabrera in fine fashion but that isn’t something to bet on continuing if Cabrera falters long term.

However, in the end, bet on the talent. We know Cabrera possesses the talent in droves. As recently as last August he was the most dangerous man on the planet with a bat in his hands. It seems unlikely that one operation to his core muscles and less than 9-months of time have really changed the equation of Cabrera’s capabilities. It seems safe to imagine by the time the calendar hits June, Cabrera’s overall slash-line will look dramatically better, his walk and strike out rates will have normalized, and the HR/FB will be much closer to his usual standards.

Yes, we’ve seen a slow start…but we can’t really say we’ve seen a damaged player or one that is looking like a man with no hope of busting out. There have been flashes of late. There are bound to many more…and the rest of the AL Central will be at the receiving end of most of those moments. 

Cabrera just needs at-bats, he needs good weather, and he needs a normal baseball schedule. All of those are probably on the way.

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Jon Erkkila
About the Author

Jon Erkkila is a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan. Currently living in MLB Blackout Hell, otherwise known as Iowa. Follow him on twitter @yooper_ia

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