Since seemingly the dawn of the millennium, but really only the last eight-ish years, Miguel Cabrera has made a hobby of brutalizing the Cleveland Indians. In my recent series about division rivals that crushed the Tribe, Cabrera was the Tigers' greatest representative on a list full of legends and Hall of Famers. Nobody in Cleveland except this one little Tigers fan is happy to see Miggy step to the plate. A successful at-bat is him singling up the middle. He brings only pain for the city with him from Detroit. But one day, that has to end, right?
Anyone who is a baseball fan wants to see Cabrera continue to be spectacular for as long as possible. But the reality of the game is that age is an ever lurking figure. You never beat Father Time as they say, and as Sam Miller of ESPN so eloquently put it, we love baseball in at least in part because it's a constant battle against time. Players only have so much of it to write themselves into the record books, and a career, even a long and richly rewarding one like Cabrera's, is painfully short. Eventually he has to be not so good.
As aging curves go, we all recognize a player's peak as being that five or six year period from around 27 to 32 or 33. This doesn’t mean they get immediately horrible at 34, their best is just behind them. Here’s Cabrera’s batting lines from 2009 to 2016, when he was ages 26 to 33.
And, if you’re curious, his batting lines from those same years when facing the Indians.
There is a decided peak in there, along with an injury-hampered year in 2014. Despite his getting nagged to less than greatness, he had maybe his best season against Cleveland. Odd how it worked out that way. Also, it's interesting to note that the year after he won the Triple Crown in 2012, he led all of baseball in average, OBP and slugging. Kind of a new age Triple Crown. He was incredible. He’s always outperformed against Cleveland, even in 2015 and 2016 when the pitching staff truly coalesced and became dominant. Despite the hammering the Tribe laid upon the Tigers this past season Miggy continued to hit. But only very well, not the same level of domination we’ve seen in years past. What, if anything, does this portend?
Aside from just the subtle dip in the numbers he’s put up, Cabera has shown a few small signs of fade. He had a season that was right in line with his career averages, but we’ve also seen his strikeout rate jump the last three years. In 2014 it was 17.1%, 2015 showed 16%, and 17.1% again in 2016. This after years where he hung around 14%. There’s something more to that. Here’s Cabrera’s whiff rate based on strike zone location of pitches, provided by Brooks baseball. The first is how he did between 2010 and 2013, when he was otherworldly, the second from the last three years.
As you can see, he’s had increased trouble with balls up in the zone. While this isn’t confirming anything, this does tell as story of not being able to get around on balls, or reach fastballs up and away. If his bat slows down, he gets worse, simple as that.
Now here’s how often he’s swung at pitches based on zone location. Again, the first image is from 2010 to 2013, the second from the last three years.
More swings up and out of the zone, and also some interesting discipline in general. He’s demonstrated a command of the strike zone like he didn’t have some years ago ad attacks pitches in the zone, but he’s also chasing some pitches he didn’t used to. Could he be cheating on certain pitches, guessing and failing? Or maybe pitching is just better. Something is there though, and he's getting a bit more anxious on certain pitches.
Another marker to look at is another player of similar skill set and ability. Specifically Albert Pujols. Pujols was so amazing between 21 and 31 when he was with the Cardinals, he puts Miggy to shame. A Hall of Famer by 30 is hard to do, but Pujols did it and then some. He was worth as much by WAR between 23 and 30 as Cabrera has been his whole career. Cabrera isn’t as good as Pujols, he never was, but he’s a similar player in style and tools. One has to wonder whether he’ll be debilitated by foot and other old man problems as he gets older. That struck Pujols down right as he came to the Angels, and he hasn’t been anything more than decent since. This is not to say Cabrera will suffer the same fate, but again, father time is undefeated.
This fade is a thing nobody roots for without some selfishness in their hearts. But Miggy has dismantled the Indians for so long, everyone in Tribedom has been asking when it will cease pretty much since he signed that extension a couple years back. If 2016 was any indication, he’s going to keep being great, because he is great. But the fade will come, in time, and 2017 could be when we see him hit "merely" .305 with "only 30 home runs. Or he’ll refute the clock, and keep dominating. But it’s something to keep an eye on. With the pitching the Indians have on staff, he’s going to have a tougher time than he ever has in Cleveland. Maybe they can finally crack him.