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A Swing and a Miss with Miguel Cabrera

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening — whichever is applicable to you. This game of fantasy can be frustrating. So much time and effort goes into building each and every team we own. Not a single one of us has left a draft table feeling that we are walking out of there with a under-performing squad who will ultimately label us a loser. Often times we take this disappointments personally. This frustration builds and builds over the course of the season, sometimes to the point you’d kind of like to hit something.

Flashback to Thursday afternoon in Yankee Stadium. The Tigers, in the midst of a full on rebuild, have some built up frustration thanks to 70 losses and a real good chance at 90 for the season. At the middle of this struggle has been perennial All-Star Miguel Cabrera. After one too many high and tight offerings Cabrera was left wondering – was this personal? After a brief conversation gone bad, Cabrera attempted to take his season long frustration out on the face of Austin Romine. While watching the video over and over, I couldn’t help but wonder how many Cabrera owners thought to themselves……..”Now you know how we feel!”.

*****

As we came into the 2017 Fantasy Baseball season, Miguel Cabrera was viewed as a timeless classic. With an NFBC ADP of 17th overall, Cabrera was a consensus safe, albeit boring, pick toward the front part of the second round. After a disappointing 2015 season shortened by injuries, Cabrera silenced all critics in 2016. He managed to hit .316 with 38 HR and 200 combined Run+RBI, all while, once again, playing in more than 150 games. Those who believed in Cabrera were rewarded with another excellent season. Those who doubted admitted their mistakes. All transgressions had been forgotten and Cabrera’s “proven track record” was once again his calling card in drafts.

The track record I speak of is written for Cooperstown. In 13 Full Seasons at the Major League level, Cabrera has:

  • Hit .300 or more 11 times.
  • Hit 25 home runs in all but one season(2015), with 30 HR in 10 and over 40 on two occasions.
  • Clear at least 200 Run + RBI in 11 of 13 seasons.
  • In eight of those seasons Cabrera managed to clear the 100 Run plateau, and in 12 of the 13 (2015) he has driven in 100 or more runs.

As astounding as these numbers are, the most impressive could be the amount of games played over that span. Cabrera played in 145 games or more in 12 of his 13 seasons, and 10 of those 12 he played in more than 155 games.

While all of these past accomplishments have provided him with a one-way ticket to Cooperstown, they don’t provide any value whatsoever for his owners this season.

Cabrera owners this season have been the recipient of easily his worst full season at the Major League level.  Cabrera’s .258 batting average is 60 points below his career mark, and 10 points below his .268 AVG in 87 Games as a baby-faced 20-year-old for the Marlins. His .342 OBP is 54 points below his career mark and 51 points below 2016.

Perhaps the most significant number of all is the .411 SLG%. That mark is over 140 points below his career mark, 152 points below his .563 last season, and 57 points below his .468 mark as a rookie. Cabrera’s .411 mark is just slightly better than Chase Headley’s .410. If your top 20 pick is keeping Chase Headley company statistically, you’re going to be in for a long-season of frustration.

Naturally the declines ratios have massively affected his counting totals. Cabrera is current pace would have him right at 20 home runs with fewer than 80 RBI and just over 60 runs scored. These totals combined with the lackluster batting average and offensive ratio’s have him valued at less than a 1 Win a year player overall. If you were to use Fangraphs player value tools, Cabrera comes in as -5.4 player offensively.

It’s nearly impossible to fathom that there would ever come a day when Cabrera’s glove would be his best offering. Once again, if you believe in what Fangraphs does, 2017 would be the year where the leather reigned supreme; -3.7 Defense compared to -5.4 on offense.

So, we’ve established that Miggy’s statistical 2017 has been a disappointment, but what about his underlying skill set? Could we be looking at a man whose effectively been struck by lightning over and over again this season?  

While some underlying numbers offer concern, namely his 21% K rate, the overall story would suggest better days lie ahead. Even the K rate could be put into question considering his overall Swing% has changed minimally while his SwStr% rate of 11% is only 1% over his career mark. Furthermore, Cabrera has maintained the same plate discipline we’ve come to expect with a walk rate right in line with his career mark and both Swinging strike and contact data within recent norms.

When it comes to contact, the numbers only become more favorable to Miggy’s outlook moving forward.  His 78% Contact rate is his lowest mark since 2008, but it’s only 1.1% below his career mark. The 9.3% Soft Contact rate is the 3rd lowest mark of his career while his 45.2% hard hit rate serves as not only the 6th best mark in all of baseball, but also a personal career high. A  drop in pull rate bleed into an increased amount of balls up the middle. This typically serves as a favor for the hitters – at .258, clearly that has not been the case up to this point.

The batted ball profile only adds to the batting average conundrum as his 39.9% ground ball rate not only served as his third best mark for his career, but also bleed directly into his line drive rate. Typically an increase in line drives would build directly into a favorable batting average. As previously mentioned, that has not been the case up to this point.

The raw data is giving us one story while the underlying numbers suggest more prolific production could be awaiting. As fantasy owners, what are we to do?

Ultimately every player who sticks around long enough will have their value altered at some point. The question still remains as to what path Miguel Cabrera will ultimately travel. Will Cabrera be a cliff diver of sorts, whose value simply plummets, or will Cabrera continue to provide some sort of value up to the point where he decides to hang it up for good?

In order to best project this I wanted to take a look at Baseball References Player Comparison Tool. For his career up to this point, Cabrera’s Top 3 players comparisons are Vladimir Guerrero, Jeff Bagwell, and Todd Helton. In hopes of getting a projection moving forward I tallied all three players seasons beyond the age of 33.

  • Vladimir Guerrero played three more seasons after his 33rd birthday. In 2 of the 3 seasons he managed to play in over 140 games, and in doing so provided at least a steady influx of production. He hit .295, .300, and .290 respectively – on the downside his OPS exceeded .800 only once during that stretch, low for a player who had a career mark of .931.
  • Jeff Bagwell managed four season after his age 33 season. He managed to play in 158, 160, and 156 game respectively before finally wearing out at the age of 37. Bagwell cleared a .265 average to go with  33 home runs and an OBP north of .880 over his age 34-36 seasons, but in the age 37 season he only managed to hit .250 over the course of 39 games with zero home runs and a silent exit from baseball. 
  • Finally, Todd Helton managed to play all the way until his advanced age of 39. After his age 33 season he managed to exceed 125 games only once. During that season Helton cleared 30 home runs for the last time (38), to go with a .904 OPS and a .325 average . During his age 37 season he managed to carry a .302 average and .850 OPS to go with 14 homers over 124 plate appearances. During those remaining four years Helton never managed a 125 game season, nor did he ever manage an OPS over .780.

Using age and the player similarities above would lead you to believe there’s more to expect from Miggy moving forward. With that being said, one could also project that window could quickly be closing. So the question now could be, why is that?

Todd Helton was a picture of health until his age 34 season. Much the same can be said about Guerrero who failed to play in less than 140 games only once before his age 34 season. Bagwell’s health was a little more suspect, but that could also be said about his entire playing career. Still, Bagwell managed to play in 162 games four times while playing in over 140 games in 12 of 14 years before his 39 game cameo in his final season.

Could this expected window have something to do with workloads, or was it simply a matter of bad luck? If workload is a factor, ones optimism for Cabrera could be diminished.  At 34 years old, Cabrera has played in 2,202 games. That total has already surpassed all but Helton’s 2,247 games played.

In order to account for this I wanted to take a look at players whose career most mirror Cabrera’s through his Age 33 season. The three players Cabrera’s career most resembles through the age of 33 are Albert Pujols, Hank Aaron, and Frank Robinson.

  •  We’re all familiar with the exploits of Pujols; a 12 year stretch among the all-time greats, one injury plagued season at 33, and 3 seasons of good fantasy production followed. His story, like Cabrera’s, is still being written. 
  • Hank Aaron was a perennial All-Star and one of the games best players through his age 33 season. That same sentiment can be shared from his age 34-37 season. For the next three seasons Aaron’s on field production was still among the games elite, but his games played went from 129 to 120 all the way down to 112 at age 40. Finally at 41 Aaron’s production had fallen off the cliff as the career .928 OPS hitter managed a .687 mark at age 41 and a .684 mark in his final season playing in only 85 games.
  • Robinson’s career wasn’t as celebrated as Aaron’s, but his Hall of Fame career wasn’t any less impressive. Like both Aaron and Pujols, Robinson was a perennial All-Star through his age 33 season. After his age 33 season Robinson had three years of steady play, but failed to log 140 games played or more. At age 37 and 38 the production continued, and the games played exceeded 140 both times. Robinson’s proverbial cliff occurred during his age 39 and 40 seasons as Managing took first priority and Robinson managed only 85 combined games during that span.

Collectively, this group offers hope for Cabrera, with each having produced multiple productive seasons well into their 30’s even if it may be accompanied by a reduced workload.

It goes without saying that Cabrera is closer to the finish line than he is his peak. Still, I find myself believing that 2017 will be viewed as simply an off-year in the career arch of Miguel Cabrera. The underlying numbers suggest lady luck has not been on his side this year, while some of the same numbers suggest he’s never been better.

Players aging curves are incredibly unpredictable. Several varying profiles were used, and all indicated that productive seasons can be obtained moving forward. Will that period be the next 2-3 or 4-5 years? I suppose we will find that out in due time.

My proposal is not the return of MIGUEL CABRERA in 2018, but perhaps a Top 20-25 version of him for an undetermined amount of time. In deep keepers or dynasty formats I’m quite certain the asking price will never be better. A season filled with nothing but struggle can tend to wear on you – just ask Miggy himself.

 

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Josh Coleman
Father of four SP1 children. Replacement level husband to a top tier wife. I love my family, value my friendships, and spend as much time as possible (too much according to the aforementioned Mrs. Coleman) dedicated to the pursuit, of another Fantasy Championship. I'm the oddball at the bar who prefers Fantasy Baseball to Fantasy Football.
Josh Coleman

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