Miguel Cabrera wasn't just great in 2012, he was outrageous.
On the path to a Triple Crown and American League MVP, the Detroit Tigers star emerged from Albert Pujols' shadow to become the most respected and feared hitter on the planet.
As the torch of best hitter in the world was passed from Barry Bonds to Pujols to Cabrera, it wouldn't have been surprising for 2012 to double as the best year the Tigers slugger ever posted.
Yet, in an achievement almost more amazing than simply winning a Triple Crown, Cabrera has been better in 2013 than he was in 2012. Despite trailing Chris Davis for the AL home run lead, with the hopes of back-to-back Triple Crowns slowly dissipating, the 30-year-old hitting machine has had a more productive season this time around.
With a higher totals almost across the board—OPS-plus (196 compared to 165), on-base percentage (.446 to .393), slugging percentage (.667 to .606) walks (81 to 66)—it's clear that Miggy has got even better since his Triple Crown. He's also on pace this season to hit more home runs, drive in more runs and strike out less than in 2012.
How did he manage to accomplish this?
Before attempting to answer, it must be acknowledged that Cabrera is an all-time great hitter. No deep dive at numbers, video or analysis will find anything earth-shattering. Since arriving on the scene in 2003, Miguel Cabrera has hit a baseball as well as anyone in the history of the sport.
The easiest of Cabrera's stat-line upticks, on-base percentage, explains it all: Simply put, Cabrera is walking more.
In 132 games this season, Miggy has taken 81 walks. Last year, he took 66 walks in 161 games. His walk rate of 13.9 percent is over four percent more than his rate from last season.
As I detailed a few weeks ago, Cabrera is making it impossible for pitchers to throw around him, totally due to outrageous plate coverage. However, they are trying to do so often enough that his patience is resulting in an uptick in free passes.
For me, one of the most ridiculous parts of Cabrera's superior 2013 season has been his transformation from clutch hitter with runners on base to impossible to retire in those situations.
Why is Cabrera nearly at his 2012 RBI total of 139 in 29 less games? Last year, he hit .356 with runners in scoring position. This year? That figure is up to .418.
RBIs can be a very simplistic and rudimentary way to look at hitters, especially those who bat in the middle of the order; but when it comes to Cabrera, his ability to improve on a .356 mark is worth noting.
One of the least talked about differences between Cabrera's 2012 and 2013 campaigns: ground-ball double plays.
Last year, one of the talking points in the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera MVP discussion revolved around outs made. By hitting into 28 ground-ball double plays, compared to just seven by Trout, the Triple Crown winner made two outs via one swing way too many times.
This year? That number is down to 16.
Of course, numbers, good or bad, can be fleeting. The purpose of this piece is to give a why and how for Cabrera's success.
Plate discipline, as described, can change walk totals and percentages.
2013 best hitters in baseball by wRC+: Miguel Cabrera 204 Mike Trout 180 Chris Davis 177 Jayson Werth 160 Joey Votto 155— Bill Baer (@CrashburnAlley) September 2, 2013
From my perspective, the difference in double plays and knocking in runners with a .418 RISP clip stems from hitting blistering line drives at a higher rate.
According to Fangraphs' batted-ball data, Miggy was able to win his Triple Crown while posting a 21.7 line-drive rate and hitting 42.3 percent of balls into the ground. This season, those numbers are 24.5 and 38.3 percent, respectively.
In other words, Cabrera is striking the ball for line drives, away from the reach of infielders and into the outfield at a higher rate than last season.
Who has been the best hitter over the last 20 years?
When you are as good as Miguel Cabrera, incremental improvements may be hard to notice on the surface; but when a player improves on a Triple Crown campaign, it's time to take notice.
The scary part for opposing major league pitchers: Cabrera could become even better as the years go on. If his mastery of the strike zone, something that tends to come with age, improves even more in his 30s, baseball fans could be in for a few more all-time great campaigns before this star hits a decline.