When Miguel Cabrera steps up to the plate, you stop what you are doing because odds are good you will see something amazing. It is a testament to his natural talent and evolution as a hitter, though the magic of numbers makes it so we can tell you how he does it.
There are very few athletes you drop everything to watch. The two baseball players I have to watch every time they play are Cabrera and Mike Trout. Albert Pujols used to be in that category in his prime.
Yet there is something about watching Cabrera that fascinates me because he doesn't look like a traditional athlete. He has worked on conditioning in recent years to slim down, but he's got one of the worst bodies you will find on an elite athlete.
Cabrera has mastered the art of hitting, posting a .366/.459/.692 slash line with 37 home runs and a 72-69 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 415 at-bats this season. If you look back at the last 162 games, the Tigers third baseman is hitting a remarkable .359/.438/.681 with 53 home runs.
Instead of simply gushing over Cabrera's ability as a hitter, because everyone has done that, we wanted to look at the numbers and figure out why he has gotten to be so much better than the rest of the league.
Looking over Cabrera's career, he has never been a bad hitter for average. That is a remarkable feat considering he was brought up midway through the 2003 season at the age of 20 and played his first full season in 2004 at the age of 21.
Cabrera's worst career slash line came in 2008 (.292/.349/.537). It is hard to find fault with a player who has a season like that, much less when that is your worst season to date after 11 years in the league.
But over the last three years, Cabrera has really taken his game to another level. He has won back-to-back batting titles, hitting .344 in 2011 and .330 in 2012, and will add another one this season thanks to a .366 average through 109 games (36 points ahead of Trout).
One of the biggest differences between Cabrera now is the rate at which he hits line drives. While he has always driven the ball incredibly well, Cabrera has gotten better in the last three years, as you can see from the table below.
Even though Cabrera's 2012 rate is essentially the same as his career mark, his 2011 and, especially, 2013 rates are substantially higher.
For instance, Cabrera put 483 balls in play two years ago (197 hits, 286 non-strikeout outs). Using his 2011 ratio, that would mean he hit 108 line drives. If we use his career mark to calculate the total, Cabrera would have hit 104 line drives.
That's not a huge difference in the scheme of things, but one hard hit ball here or there could find its way over the fence or go off the wall. Every hit gives a team just one more opportunity to put a run on the board.
If we do the same thing for Cabrera's current season, he has hit 86 line drives. If he were hitting line drives at his career rate, Cabrera would have 74 line drives. That is a substantial difference, suggesting a little random variation in his performance this season or just another sign of growth where he is more capable of driving the ball than ever before.
Just think if those 12 extra line drives turned into outs, Cabrera's average would drop to .337. Obviously that's still an incredible average, but it only gives him a small cushion over Trout for the AL lead.
Consistency is not a hallmark that you will often see from power hitters. Of course, most power hitters aren't Miguel Cabrera. He has hit at least 30 home runs in seven consecutive seasons.
By comparison, the preeminent power hitter in baseball today, in my opinion, is Miami's Giancarlo Stanton. He has shown ridiculous amounts of pop at such a young age, but because of injuries (and possible frustration with the direction of the franchise) he has only hit 13 home runs this season.
The fact that Cabrera is maintaining that level of success in Comerica Park, which does play well to offenses but not to power, shows how great he is.
For instance, using ESPN's Park Factors, Comerica Park has been a top-10 stadium in runs during four of Cabrera's six seasons with the Tigers (2008, 2011-13). But it has ranked in the bottom half of the league in home runs four times (2009-10, 2012-13).
Also, because he has been in the league for so long, we forget Cabrera is very much in the "peak" of his career.
During this run of offensive dominance, Cabrera was 28 in 2011, 29 in 2012 and 30 this season. For a player with his body type, those are the best years of a career. It could also result in him falling apart rather quickly in a few years, but we don't know how long his bat speed and ability to square the ball up will last. It could hang around for six or seven more years.
The point being that when we were seeing Cabrera hit 37 home runs at age 25 in 2008 with a .292/.349/.537 slash line, we should have expected him to get better as he reached peak physical maturity in his late 20s.
That's not to say we could/should have predicted this, because right now Cabrera is otherworldly. As Dave Schoenfield of ESPN.com noted in a recent post that avoided players from the "steroid era" (1993-2009), Cabrera has the best OPS+ (205) since Willie McCovey in 1969 (209) and is the first player since Barry Bonds in 1992, his final season in Pittsburgh, to have an OPS+ over 200.
Schoenfield also noted the way that Cabrera has evolved as a hitter by raising his batting average and power output going to the opposite field:
A perfect illustration of Cabrera's prominent offensive prowess came last week in a series against division rival Cleveland. Facing rookie Danny Salazar, who had already struck him out three times in his first three at-bats, the 2012 MVP stepped up to the plate with the Tigers down 3-2 and a man on first base.
Cabrera looked as bad as we have seen him look since this run of dominance started in 2012. But in his fourth at-bat, on the first pitch he saw, Cabrera took a high fastball clocked at 96 over the fence in right-center field.
The in-game adjustments are what separates the great players from the good ones, and the adjustments made from one pitch to the next are what separates the legends from the great ones.
That pitch was a microcosm of everything that Cabrera has done so well for the last three years, and perfectly illustrates the maturity he has developed since coming to Detroit.
Deeper Into The Metrics
Despite what some people might tell you, advanced metrics do love Miguel Cabrera just as much as they love any other great player.
This year is no exception, as Cabrera has taken a huge step forward in several categories that measure offensive output. We mentioned his OPS+ already, but there is still a lot more that we can tackle.
For starters, there's weighted on-base average, which assigns a proper run-scoring value to the type of hit (single, double, triple, home run) a player gets. Cabrera has posted the three highest wOBAs of his career in the last four years.
By comparison, no player this season is within 45 points of Cabrera's total. Chris Davis is second at .437, but the gap between first and second is greater than the gap between Davis and Paul Goldschmidt, who is eighth in the category.
Cabrera is also setting a new standard for himself in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which shows a player's ability to create runs compared to the average player. It currently stands at 210 for Cabrera, which means he is 110 percent better than the average player in the AL.
Again, Davis is second in the category but not particularly close to Cabrera at 179. Carlos Gonzalez is 31 points behind Davis but also ranks ninth in baseball.
Cabrera is effectively lapping some of the best players that baseball has to offer, including the player I would have as the NL MVP if the season ended today (Andrew McCutchen, ranked eighth).
It is becoming a bit tired to praise the greatness of Miguel Cabrera, but the things he is doing even as he reaches the age of 30 continue to astound. His offensive performance is spectacular.
Just watching Cabrera from pitch to pitch is a treat because you can see the wheels turning. He can beat two Mariano Rivera cutters off his leg and barely be able to walk, but then he can turn the next pitch around and deposit it over the center field wall.
Cabrera continues to get better and better with each passing season. Right when we think we have seen everything, Cabrera comes out the next day to show us something that we didn't even know was possible.
History will ultimately pass proper judgment on Cabrera, but right now there is no doubt about who the best pure hitter in Major League Baseball is.
If you want to talk about Miguel Cabrera, or anything else baseball related, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.