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January 31, 2012

Painting the Black

Don't Forget: Miggy Can Mash

by R.J. Anderson

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It took fewer than seven days for Miguel Cabrera’s season to take on added significance. Cabrera’s move to third is the talk of the league right now, talk that will resurface whenever he makes an error or mishandles a routine play third base. Fair or not, the focus on Cabrera’s scabrous glove is going to overshadow his bat at times, making this as good a time as any to remind everyone about his offensive talents.

Cabrera enters his age-29 season with a career line of .317/.395/.555. That rare blend of average, on-base, and slugging abilities puts Cabrera in a special class of hitters. How special? Since 1901, here are the players to hit at least .300/.350/.500 in more than 1,000 plate appearances through their age-28 season while maintaining a higher adjusted-OPS than Cabrera:

Player

Age

PA

OPS+

BA

OBP

SLG

Babe Ruth

19-28

3,830

218

.346

.477

.708

Ted Williams

20-28

3,980

197

.352

.487

.645

Ty Cobb

18-28

5,954

183

.368

.431

.512

Nap Lajoie

26-28

1,492

183

.385

.422

.579

Frank Thomas

22-28

4,140

182

.327

.452

.599

Lou Gehrig

20-28

4,762

182

.342

.443

.643

Rogers Hornsby

19-28

5,408

180

.359

.424

.562

Shoeless Joe Jackson

20-28

3,745

175

.361

.427

.522

Stan Musial

20-28

4,747

172

.346

.428

.578

Jimmie Foxx

17-28

5,932

172

.339

.440

.639

Mickey Mantle

19-28

6,053

171

.307

.422

.568

Johnny Mize

23-28

3,582

171

.336

.419

.600

Albert Pujols

21-28

5,382

170

.334

.425

.624

Mike Piazza

23-28

2,856

162

.334

.398

.576

Chuck Klein

23-28

3,707

160

.359

.412

.632

Joe DiMaggio

21-27

4,417

159

.339

.403

.607

Hank Greenberg

19-28

3,917

159

.323

.415

.617

Willie Mays

20-28

4,629

158

.317

.391

.590

Jeff Bagwell

23-28

3,693

157

.307

.406

.525

Hank Aaron

20-28

5,868

155

.320

.373

.571

Mel Ott

17-28

6,642

155

.316

.415

.554

Manny Ramirez

21-28

4,095

152

.313

.407

.592

Joey Votto

23-27

2,589

151

.313

.405

.550

Ken Griffey

19-28

5,982

150

.300

.379

.568

Miguel Cabrera

20-28

5,777

149

.317

.395

.555

A hitter would be hard-pressed to find better company. Just about every player eligible for the Hall of Fame is in, and those on the outside are there due to non-performance reasons. A casual observer would recognize a great number of players on the list, from Ruth to Aaron and most of the names in between.  Maybe the only player folks would be unfamiliar with is Klein, which is too bad since he invented the humble brag:

“I find it very difficult to realize that I, Chuck Klein, the chap who was working in a steel mill three years ago, am the same fellow who led the National League in home runs this season. Isn’t that a laugh?”

[…]

“I think I can hit fifty [home runs] this year. Last year I didn’t really try for homers until I realized I had a chance for the record. I’m going to try this year right from the start and I’m sure I can beat my own record.”

It is fair to suggest that Cabrera’s bat has him on a Hall of Fame pace. Using Jay Jaffe’s JAWS methodology, Cabrera finds himself with a 35.5 JAWS score (resulting from 37 career Wins Above Replacement Player and 33.9 wins coming during his peak). Of the first baseman eligible for the 2012 ballot, Cabrera’s numbers come closest to resembling Fred McGriff’s tallies. McGriff seems to be a long shot for enshrinement, as he received fewer than 24 percent of the votes in his third year on the ballot, but even so, that Cabrera has a similar candidacy despite having just 57 percent of McGriff’s plate appearances is a testament to his offensive prolificacy.

As impressive as Cabrera’s raw stats are, it should surprise no one that few batters can match his output in two-strike situations. This is not a new revelation, as some may recall that Cabrera’s play in the American League Championship Series inspired this comment:

This same fellow is very good at hitting baseballs, but even good hitters are not supposed to have much success once they fall behind 0-2 in a count. Yet, Cabrera does have success, relative to the league, after falling behind 0-2. In 2011, major league hitters batted .169/.198/.253 after falling behind 0-2; Cabrera has hit .225/.255/.375 for his career in the same situations.

The offseason allows for digging, and thanks to Bradley Ankrom’s assistance, here are the five batters with the highest True Averages in two-strike situations since 2007 (minimum 500 plate appearances):

Player

2007-2011 PA

TAv

Albert Pujols

1,385

.275

David Ortiz

1,496

.251

Kevin Youkilis

1,510

.248

Miguel Cabrera

1,480

.248

Dustin Pedroia

1,452

.248

Cabrera’s broad offensive skill set includes an ability to cover the plate in otherwise difficult circumstances. He is, in a sense, close to being the perfect hitter. The rough fielding makes him the comparison de jour for bat-only prospects without a steady glove or defensive position. As appealing as it is to make those comparisons, it is unfair to everyone involved. Asking a prospect to live up to Cabrera’s offensive performance is asking a lot, and it undermines just how great Cabrera is. Besides, it ignores that Cabrera was not an all-bat prospect, but rather a soft-handed, strong-armed shortstop that outgrew the position and moved to third base. He outgrew third base in time, too, but there is a difference between being able to play poor defense at a premium position at a young age and being limited to designated hitter duty immediately. Plus, any prospect that causes Jack McKeon to call his son deserves some extra credit points.

The position change is going to net Cabrera plenty of attention, but he deserved some added limelight anyway.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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