For more than a decade, Miguel Cabrera has been one of the truly elite hitters in all of baseball. Despite consistently great performances, fantasy owners in recent seasons have been wary of using first-round picks (or equivalent money in auctions) on the future Hall of Famer, with concern for his imminent decline engrained in discussions of his value. Repeatedly, he’s proven that kind of talk to be silly, and that he’s still an elite hitter. Still, time eventually catches up with all of us, and even Cabrera isn’t immune to the aging curve.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering how Cabrera has struggled to start the season. At least, he’s struggled relative to the standards he’s set for himself. Through his first 139 plate appearances, he is hitting .264/.360/.430 for a TAv of .267. Prior to this season, his lowest TAv not including his rookie year was .295, and that was way back in 2008. He’s ranked as the 32nd first baseman on the Player Rater, right between Mike Napoli and Wilmer Flores. To put it simply, this is not the kind of performance at the plate that we’ve come to expect from Cabrera. Is this the start of that decline we’ve long been worried about—or is it just a blip on the radar?
We’ll start with the batting average; Cabrera's .264 mark deviates from his career trend, to put it lightly. In this era, where hitters are less concerned than ever about striking out, and the league as a whole is moving away from AVG as an important indicator of offensive talent, Cabrera's batting average still managed to thrive. Before 2017, he had just one season with a sub-.300 AVG over the past decade—and he finished that year with a .292 AVG.
As we all know, AVG essentially comes down to two things: Strikeouts and success on balls in play. For starters, Cabrera is having an increase in strikeouts. After consistently keeping his K-rate in the teens over his career, he’s striking out 23 percent of the time in 2017. His plate discipline numbers back up some of the strikeout increase, too. He’s currently whiffing more often than at any other point in his career, and is having trouble fighting off pitches out of the zone in particular. The good news is that his judgment of the strike zone hasn’t deteriorated, with his O_Swing_RT staying mostly consistent with his career rate. Cabrera is being peppered with more breaking balls this season, and that seems to have a real effect on his ability to put balls into play. It’s fair to expect the 34-year-old to strike out more this season, but I’d also expect the rate to come down to around 20 percent.
In addition to avoiding strikeouts, Cabrera has been one of the more consistent high-BABIP hitters over his career. His .321 BABIP this season might seem high, particularly for a player with his lack of athleticism, but it actually would be the second-lowest of his career and his lowest since 2008. The good news is that not much has changed for Cabrera's contact ability. He’s hitting the ball as hard as ever, he's still spraying it all over the field to keep defenses honest, and he is hitting it on a line consistently. All things considered, Cabrera should be able to raise his AVG considerably, although it might not reach his normal levels given the newfound strikeout concerns.
In addition to the AVG, Cabrera also is struggling to hit for power. His current .165 ISO easily would be the lowest of his career, and just the second time with mark under .200. As with his AVG, the near-future outlook in this area is a mixed bag. On the one hand, as I mentioned earlier, he’s still striking the ball well. As long as he’s connecting like he is, we have to assume the ball eventually will find its way over the wall more often—based on track record alone. On the other hand, Cabrera's not hitting as many fly balls, and he’s not pulling the ball nearly as often. As with most hitters, a large portion of Cabrera’s career power has been to his pull side. It is worth noting that he has a .200+ ISO to all fields over his career, per FanGraphs. I think it’s safe to say Cabrera won’t repeat his 38-homer season from 2016, but he should be able to at least get close to the 30-homer mark based on how well he’s hitting the ball.
In the end, whether Cabrera is declining before our eyes probably depends on your definition of “decline.” If it simply means getting worse at the plate, then yes, he’s probably declining. With that being said, he’s certainly not looking like someone who is about to fall off the face of the earth. The two controllable fantasy categories in which he’s excelled are AVG and home runs. Looking forward, there is reason to expect he’ll improve in both areas as spring turns to summer. It’s been hard to watch a legendary hitter turn into someone less impressive, but this is not a good time to sell on Cabrera. He’ll turn it around at some point soon.