Manny Ramirez is back in Major League Baseball.
Sort of, anyway. After taking some hacks in Taiwan for a few months, Manny signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers this week that might land the veteran slugger back in the majors.
Yeah, we all know it's a long shot. And even if Ramirez does make it back to the majors, him looking like his old self is going to be an even bigger long shot. At this point, his prime years are a distant speck in the rear-view mirror.
But you know what? That's OK. If you ever feel the need to relive Manny's prime, an appropriate alternative is to just watch Miguel Cabrera now. The Detroit Tigers slugger is in the middle of his prime years, and they have a few things in common with Manny's prime years.
This being a baseball comparison, we can obviously begin by taking a look at a few numbers.
First, we need some ground rules.
A player's "prime" encompasses all the years in which he was at his best. That's where things are a little tricky in this discussion, as Cabrera entered his prime more quickly than Manny did. Miggy became one of the game's top hitters in 2004 when he was only 21 years old. Manny didn't enter his prime until 1995 when he was 23 years old.
That age works pretty well for a starting point for this comparison, however, as Cabrera's own age-23 season in 2006 was something of a benchmark campaign for him. He was already a fantastic hitter, but the '06 campaign saw him set new career highs in average, on-base percentage and slugging.
The phrase begging to be used is "came into his own." So what the heck. I'll use it: Manny came into his own in 1995, and Miggy came into his own in 2006.
And as young hitters, the two were remarkably similar producers. Just take a look at the numbers they racked up between the ages of 23 and 25.
*ISO is Isolated Power. It's like slugging percentage, except it ignores singles and only focuses on extra-base hits.
These figures aren't quite carbon copies, but they're awfully close. It's almost like the same player appeared and then reappeared roughly a decade later.
The key stat is OPS+, which you should have heard of by now. If you haven't, it's a version of OPS that's park- and league-adjusted. That makes it super-handy when comparing players from different eras (i.e. exactly what we're doing now).
As far as OPS+ is concerned, Miggy was a slightly better hitter in his age 23-25 window than Manny was in his age 23-25 window. But the difference is minuscule, and both were certainly the best young hitters of their time.
Among players 25 or younger with at least 300 games played between 1995 and 1997, OPS+ saw Manny as being far and away the best young hitter the league had to offer in that span.
Same goes for Cabrera between 2006 and 2008. He was tied for sixth in OPS+ among all hitters in that span, but he was easily the top 25-or-younger hitter. Just like Manny back in the mid-to-late 1990s, Cabrera was a rising superpower.
What was their secret? I'm going to cheat a little bit and reach into 1998, but this vintage video of Manny's first career three-homer game can give you a clue:
Notice how two of those balls went out to the right of center field? That was something Manny did a lot as a young hitter, which isn't exactly typical of young hitters. Youngsters with legit opposite-field power don't grow on trees (yet...).
Manny had legit oppo power in his younger days, and Miggy had a fair amount of his own. About as much as Manny, in fact, as we can tell by comparing their production on balls hit to the opposite field during their younger days:
Manny had a better batting average when he went to right field as a young hitter, but Miggy's power production the other way was about the same. It helps that he actually hit more oppo homers than Manny did.
Because a young Miggy was so similar to a young Manny, you won't be surprised to see how closely the numbers they racked up in the thick of their primes stack up.
After coming into his own in 1995, Manny eventually exploded in 1998 at the age of 26 when he topped 40 home runs for the first time and established himself as one of the top run producers in baseball.
Miggy didn't explode in his age-26 season in 2009, quite like Manny did in '98, but the numbers he's racked up since 2009 through his age-30 season this year look mighty similar to the numbers Manny racked up between '98 and his own age-30 season in 2002.
Manny was the more prolific power hitter, as he holds significant edges in home runs and Isolated Power. This power advantage exists largely because he got even better at going the other way than he already was, while Cabrera has only made modest improvements. Manny had a .415 ISO on balls to right field between '98 and '02 compared to a .295 ISO for Cabrera from the start of '09 to the present.
But the power edge for Manny is only worth so much consideration in this case—and I'm not saying so because of PEDs, as it's only fair to acknowledge that there's nothing to suggest Manny was juicing any earlier than 2003.
For one, Miggy still has half a season worth of games to close the home run gap. He's also a better batting-average merchant now than Manny was back then, and OPS+ once again gives Cabrera the slight edge while also highlighting the fact that we're talking about two extremely similar hitters.
There's another thing OPS+ can tell us about thick-of-his-prime Manny and thick-of-his-prime Miggy, and it has to do with just how awesome Manny was and just how awesome Miggy is.
Between 1998 and 2002, no other right-handed hitter in baseball had an OPS+ as high as Manny's 169. That serves to underscore what he was by reputation: the best righty hitter the game had to offer.
We generally view Cabrera as the best hitter in the game of any kind. Even if you want to argue that, there's no denying that he's the best right-handed hitter out there. We all say so, and so do the OPS+ ranks for righty hitters since the start of the '09 season.
Such is the essence of this comparison. Cabrera is the best right-handed hitter of his generation, just as Manny was the best right-handed hitter of his generation. Miggy hasn't earned his title by hitting for as much power as Manny did, but he fits the same mold: an elite average hitter with elite power.
It's not, however, all about the numbers. Cabrera now and Ramirez then aren't just similar hitters. There are also a couple similarities between their personalities.
When you think of Ramirez now, you think of Manny Being Manny and all that entails. There's the goofy on-the-field antics, and then there's the not-so-goofy everything else. PED use. Anger issues. A tendency to quit. Et cetera, et cetera.
Much of this, however, came later. The phrase "Manny Being Manny" has roots in the mid-1990s, but it didn't take off until Ramirez was a few years into his Red Sox career. Before he was goofy and generally weird in the eyes of the public, he was something of a mystery man.
He wanted it that way. Right around the time Manny signed with the Red Sox in 2000, he said the following in Spanish to Dan Le Batard in a piece for ESPN the Magazine:
I'm the invisible man. Not moody, just shy. If I go to a club, I hide in the corner. I don't need to be a VIP with Dom Perignon. I don't want people to treat me a certain way for who I am. I want people to treat me a certain way for how I am.
In that same piece, Manny described himself as "simple." One of his sisters described him as "timid, quiet and closed." Le Batard acknowledged that writers preferred the word "enigmatic" to describe Manny, and he never really shook the label. Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com tried to unravel the mystery of Manny Ramirez as recently as 2010.
Sound like anybody else you know?
Indeed, the enigma label also fits Cabrera pretty well. He's easily the quietest superstar in baseball, and that's by design.
Sam Alipour can vouch. He did his damndest to write the definitive profile of Cabrera for ESPN the Magazine earlier this year but failed to do so for a couple reasons. Cabrera's not much of a talker to begin with, and he had a simple answer when Alipour asked him about his biggest fear.
"People," said Cabrera. "You can't trust people."
Alipour found that out the hard way. All it took was a few questions about Cabrera's history with alcohol, which got him into trouble in crunch time during the 2009 pennant race and further trouble in 2011. Miggy didn't want to talk about it, and that proved to be the end of Alipour's access to him.
But this is about as far as I want to stray into Cabrera's dark side. I had to bring it up because it's part of the mystery of Miguel Cabrera, but I don't want to dwell on it any further for a couple reasons.
One is that Cabrera's issues with alcohol might as well be ancient history. The ugly incident that took place in 2011 was over two years ago and, by all accounts, Cabrera has used it as a learning experience and moved on. He deserves credit for that.
Cabrera also deserves credit for the transformation he's made in the process. He was a hard guy to like when he was going through his issues with alcohol. It's pretty much impossible not to like him now because, shoot, he's just too much fun.
Tune in to watch a Tigers game, and odds are you'll see Cabrera smiling at least a couple times throughout the course of the proceedings. He's as focused as they come, but he has as much fun playing the game as anyone else.
We have plenty of video evidence to prove it. Here's Cabrera boxing out the catcher and rebounding a wild pitch:
Here's Cabrera being amused at a quick-pitch attempt from Luke Hochevar:
Having fun with pitchers is something that Cabrera does often. Earlier this year, he got into a fun trash-talk exchange with Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Roberto Hernandez. Earlier this week, he gave Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey a couple "game recognize game" nods after striking out.
Miggy even showed a willingness to chuckle after striking out on a slow curveball from Yu Darvish:
Though not quite to such an outrageous degree, Miggy is a lot now like Ramirez was when Manny Being Manny was at its height. It eventually became all too easy to mock Manny's antics, but there was a time when you couldn't help but laugh and just plain enjoy the silliness. There was even something endearing about that ridiculous cutoff play back in 2004.
Maybe there will come a time when it will be all too easy to mock Cabrera's lighthearted style. For whatever reason, maybe he'll cease to be endearing as time goes along. He's become likable, sure, but staying likable in a culture where everyone's a target is another challenge entirely.
But for the time being, it's all good. Perhaps Cabrera will descend into unlikability like Ramirez did later in his career, but Miggy is in his prime now and his prime is enjoyable for the same reasons Manny's prime was enjoyable.
Like Manny before him, Cabrera has gone from being a brilliant young hitter to being the top hitter in the game from his side of the plate. And though he may be a Manny-like man of mystery, it's about as much fun watching Cabrera have fun playing ball as it was to watch Manny have fun playing ball.
The only thing to do is enjoy it while it lasts. Because if this comparison is any indication, it could take as long as a decade before we see another hitter quite like this.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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