June 9, 2010
Checking the Numbers
The Baby-faced Assassin
While the game of baseball involves uncertainty in a variety of areas, at least one constant exists: When a very young player begins to make an impact in the major leagues, everyone takes notice.
Perhaps it’s due to the idea that, while the game is certainly no stranger to stars, getting such a head start could potentially lead to super-stardom, a legendary career bound for Cooperstown that fathers will tell their sons about years later. What has made Jason Heyward so impressive isn’t just the gaudy triple-slash line but the production relative to his mere 20 years of age.
Similar sentiments apply to Justin Upton’s 2009 campaign and to everything Felix Hernandez has done since entering the league while unable to buy an alcoholic beverage. Well, there is another youngster continuing to produce historical numbers that some forget is still technically not even at his peak age, regardless of how one feels about the subject: Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.
At the time this article will hit the web, Cabrera will have been just 27 years old for less than two months, even though it seems as if he has been in the game for over a decade. It’s easy to forget that the current frontrunner for the AL MVP entered the league as a 20-year-old third baseman back in 2003, when he almost instantly found himself slotted in the Marlins’ cleanup spot after hitting a walk-off home run in his first game. He would finish the year hitting .268/.325/.468 with 12 home runs in 346 plate appearances, but would become more famous for an incident in the playoffs that served as a modern equivalent to one of those old-timey stories our grandfathers like to tell. In Game Four of the 2003 World Series, Cabrera was knocked to the ground by a patented Roger Clemens brush-back pitch; no more than two pitches later, Cabrera smashed the ball out of the yard and into the right-field bleachers. The Marlins went onto win that championship, and while Cabrera’s rookie numbers were not eye-popping by any stretch, the entire sport knew a new star had joined the ranks.
Over the next six seasons, Cabrera never played fewer than 157 games, and if one were to pluck his worst slash-line components from different seasons, the makeshift .292/.349/.512 would still end up markedly above average. In that span, Cabrera hit .315/.388/.548, averaging 39 doubles and 33 home runs per season. Even more impressive is the fact that he also averaged just 124 strikeouts per year, a figure that decreases to 119 when the 148 punchouts in 2004 are removed; that happened to be his first full season. No matter how one chooses to slice and dice the numbers, Cabrera is an elite hitter in every sense of the term, combining an ability to make contact with tremendous power and a patient eye.
The numbers look even better this season, as he is hitting .351/.421/.678 in 235 trips to the dish, with 17 doubles and 17 home runs. He also ranks fifth in OBI Percentage, our metric that measures the efficiency with which batters knock in runners, measured relative to the number of RBI opportunities. In fact, since 2005, Cabrera is the second-most efficient batter in terms of knocking in runners in the entire sport. The table below shows the top five in this category with 3,000 or more plate appearances:
With the background out of the way, how does Cabrera compare to players from the past? Aside from Justin Upton—due to Cabrera’s age-21 season—the comps at Baseball Reference are Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey, Jr. Looking at comparable players through a certain age, Cabrera’s production resembles that of the aforementioned duo, as well as Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Albert Pujols, and Mickey Mantle. It's no wonder, as his WARP3 sum between the ages of 21 and 27 ranks 20th among players in the same age range since 1962, and that includes his numbers in the current season, suggesting that he could certainly move up a few spots come the end of September. The table below shows his classmates in the aforementioned query:
If there is a chink in the proverbial armor, it is that Cabrera is by no means a solid defender. Then again, he isn’t exactly Adam Dunn with the glove, either; being five to eight runs below average defensively does not negate that much of his value given the offensive prowess. What the future holds for Cabrera is unclear, especially given his body size and the issues with conditioning that have plagued him for several years, but it might take an MVP award in his eighth season for everyone to finally catch on that the guy is pretty darn great.