What the Future Holds for 2013 MLB MVPs Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen

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What the Future Holds for 2013 MLB MVPs Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If you see Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen walking around, they might be comporting themselves a little differently. Chest puffed out. Semi-smug grin. Bouncy steps.

If so, well, who can blame them? Awards tend to do that to people.

If you missed Thursday's news, Cabrera and McCutchen were named the Most Valuable Players for their respective leagues: Miggy for the American League and 'Cutch for the National League. It wasn't particularly close either, as Miggy easily outpaced Mike Trout and 'Cutch comfortably held off Paul Goldschmidt.

While Trout (especially) and Goldschmidt did have strong cases, neither Cabrera nor McCutchen was a truly outrageous selection. Cabrera led the American League in average, on-base percentage and slugging to help the Detroit Tigers to the AL Central crown. McCutchen hit over .300 and notched his third straight 20/20 season to help lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to their first playoff berth in two decades. 

But it's in the past now. A good question to help pass the time is what the future holds for both of the 2013 MVPs. Where are Cabrera and McCutchen going from here?

We'll tackle them one at a time, starting with Cabrera.

 

For Miguel Cabrera

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

You know you're talking about a truly great year when an amazing hitter manages to outdo himself.

That's what Cabrera did in 2013. He entered the year as a .318/.395/.561 career hitter and proceeded to hit .348/.442/.636. Only his OBP wasn't a new career high, and he also set new career highs in OPS+ and, according to FanGraphs, wRC+ and WAR.

Whether or not Cabrera can keep doing his thing is not a matter that requires pondering his skill set. He's proven himself many times over as an ideal hitter. Great plate discipline, excellent plate coverage, an extraordinary ability to put his bat on the ball, easy-as-it-comes power and so on.

However, there is still a question mark hanging over the notion of how much longer Cabrera can keep it up. It just has more to do with his health, his age and all the mileage he's covered.

We all know what happened to Miggy down the stretch in 2013. He battled abdominal and groin injuries for much of the second half, and by the end of the year he just wasn't himself anymore. He hit a respectable .284 with a .396 OBP in his final 25 games but with only two extra-base hits. He was able to pop a couple homers in October but was overmatched on anything hard that he had to reach for.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It all felt like a reality check. Cabrera was an iron man up until 2013, playing in at least 150 games every year between 2004 and 2012. His injuries ultimately forced him to miss that mark in 2013.

Now, Cabrera did have surgery to repair the groin injury that plagued him toward the end of the year. The word is that he should be ready for spring training. And if there's a bright side to the Tigers getting ousted from the postseason when they did, it's that Cabrera didn't risk a more serious injury by playing in as many as eight more playoff games.

But still you wonder. Cabrera will be 31 years old in April and has already played in 1,660 career games and logged over 7,000 plate appearances. That's an awful lot of action.

Historically a lot of action, in fact. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Cabrera is one of only 17 players in history with as many as 7,000 plate appearances through the age of 30.

Most of the other 16 didn't do quite so well in the years following their age-30 seasons. I used FanGraphs to pull up their wRC+ totals through their age-30 seasons, and then compared those numbers to what they did over the next three seasons (31-33). 

The comparison looks like this:

The Greats Through 30, and Then 31-33
Name Through 30 wRC+ 31-33 wRC+
Ty Cobb 179 157
Mickey Mantle 174 165
Jimmie Foxx 164 154
Mel Ott 160 153
Hank Aaron 155 155
Frank Robinson 153 169
Eddie Mathews 151 132
Alex Rodriguez 145 158
Ken Griffey Jr. 142 121
Al Kaline 132 163
Ron Santo 130 120
Cal Ripken 125 97
Vada Pinson 118 102
Andruw Jones 114 90
Robin Yount 113 135
Edgar Renteria 99 80

FanGraphs

The players who are highlighted are the ones whose offensive performances declined in the 31-33 window. Count 'em up, and 11 out of 16 players are highlighted. Not exactly an encouraging percentage.

A definitive sign that doom awaits Cabrera?

Not necessarily. There's always a chance that Miggy will be an exception to the rule, a la Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Alex Rodriguez, Al Kaline and Robin Yount. And because his performance itself had never been better than what it was in 2013, Cabrera could obviously be standing on shakier ground.

A sharp decline, however, is a possibility that needs to be taken seriously. We know that Miggy has an awful lot of miles on his body, and we know that said body finally broke down as 2013, his 11th season in the big leagues, wore on.

We also know that Miggy's at an age when declines have been known to happen even regardless of workload.

According to research done by Jeff Zimmerman for Beyond the Box Score, most hitters are already declining rapidly by the time they hit their 30s. Zimmerman went on to do further research on star hitters (i.e. Cabrera) for FanGraphs, and what he found is that even Hall of Famers have tended to go into steep declines upon hitting their 30s.

For what it's worth, disaster probably isn't awaiting Cabrera in 2014. In fact, the Steamer projection system (via FanGraphs) sees his 2014 season being a lot like his 2013 season:

Miguel Cabrera's Projected Follow-Up
Split PA AVG OBP SLUG HR wRC+
2013 652 .348 .442 .636 44 192
Steamer 2014 661 .325 .416 .588 36 170

Steamer via FanGraphs

As good as his 2013 season? Nope, but still outstanding. At the least, it is encouraging that Steamer sees a wRC+ higher than Cabrera's career mark. 

So my advice is to not take Cabrera's 2014 season for granted, as there's a decent chance it will be his last great year. He'll be 32 in 2015, which is something of a frightening number. Guys like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Albert Pujols all got reality checks in their age-32 seasons. Josh Hamilton just did in his own age-32 season.

Cabrera's recent injury troubles, the history of heavy-workload-before-the-age-of-30 guys and the aging curves of star hitters suggest that he could well be next in line.

 

For Andrew McCutchen

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Who's in for a different sort of discussion? One that's a bit more optimistic?

You? Good. Because that's what we're in for here with McCutchen's future.

McCutchen is different from Cabrera in a couple ways. He's several years younger, for one, as he just turned 27 in October and is only through his age-26 season. Whereas Cabrera is likely nearing the end of his prime, McCutchen is still in the thick of his own.

The other difference with McCutchen, however, is that with him it's still possible to be curious as to what sort of hitter he really is. He went from being a .276/.365/.458 hitter in his first three seasons to being a .322/.402/.531 hitter in the last two. That's quite the leap, so we can still look at him and ask, "Yeah, but is this really who he is?"

Given what McCutchen has going for him, I'd say yes. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

McCutchen didn't hit for as much power in 2013 as he did in 2012, but that was bound to happen. He hit a career-high 31 homers in 2012 despite a career-low 34.3 FB%, according to FanGraphs. Factor in his home ballpark, the power-suppressing PNC Park, and his 19.9 HR/FB rate just didn't add up.

Things essentially normalized for McCutchen in 2013. His FB% stayed steady at 34.8 percent, and the 12.4 HR/FB he posted looked a lot like his 12.2 HR/FB in 2011 and his career HR/FB of 12.3.

In terms of power, this is more than likely the real McCutchen. He's a 20-homer guy rather than a 30-homer guy. A guy with above-average power rather than a guy with well-above-average power.

And that's OK. McCutchen just won an MVP with simply above-average power, largely because he didn't lose any of his hitting prowess. His on-base percentage increased from .400 in 2012 to .404, and the only reason his batting average dropped from .327 to .317 was because his BABIP went from .375 to .353.

And based on how he actually hit balls, he probably didn't deserve that. McCutchen's contact habits had never been more BABIP-friendly.

Using batted ball data from FanGraphs, here's a chart:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Fly balls are bad for BABIP. Ground balls are better, but line drives are better still. What McCutchen did in 2013 was keep his fly-ball habit steady while trading in some ground balls for line drives.

You can also see that his LD% is on an upward trajectory, which is good. What's more, Brooks Baseball can show that his LD/BIP (line drives per balls in play) in 2013 skyrocketed on hard, breaking and off-speed pitches. He was hitting everything on a line.

This will do for an encouraging trend. If McCutchen keeps it up, perhaps he'll get a BABIP he deserves in 2014 and beyond. If not, he should at least be able to keep the hits coming as frequently as he did in 2013.

If there's another thing that bears watching, it's how McCutchen is being pitched and how he's adjusting to how he's being pitched. 

One thing to know about McCutchen is that he's an outstanding fastball hitter, as Brooks Baseball says he owns a .318 career average and a .224 ISO (Isolated Power) against hard stuff. He's also very good at making contact within the zone with a career Z-Contact% of 87.8 percent, according to FanGraphs.

As such, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that McCutchen has been seeing fewer fastballs and, not so coincidentally, fewer pitches in the strike zone:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

McCutchen has certainly earned this kind of treatment. But as long as it keeps up, his plate discipline is going to be of paramount importance. He can't let himself be beat by pitchers' pitches.

To this end, things could be going worse. Here's another chart:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Shown here are the amount of pitches outside the strike zone McCutchen is swinging at and how many he's making contact with. One trend is that he's been hacking away at more pitches outside the strike zone. In 2013, however, he made contact with more pitches outside the zone. And on those, Brooks Baseball can show that he did alright. 

While McCutchen did go after more pitchers' pitches in 2013, he was good enough to make it worth his while. And besides, it's not like he's really developed a "problem" with hacking at pitches out of the zone. Because his O-Swing% in 2013 was 27.9 and the league average was 31.0, he still has better-than-average plate discipline. 

So McCutchen's power? Not as good as it was in 2012, but still there. His hitting? It was better than ever in 2012 and was at least as good, if not even better, in 2013.

Elsewhere, McCutchen shouldn't be in danger of losing his physical prowess any time soon. Both his bat speed and his running speed should be sticking around for a few more years, which is good because he'll need the latter to continue to come in handy on the basepaths and out in center field.

Whether or not McCutchen has another MVP in his future is something I can't tell you. There are too many variables at work there. But he was an MVP-caliber player in 2012, was again in 2013, and there are few reasons to think he won't be again and again and again.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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