What happened to Miguel Cabrera?
What happened to Miguel Cabrera?
Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera is not the same hitter he's been the last few seasons. That's not to say he won't be again. It's just to say he isn't right now.
If it seems unfair to bring this up, well … it is, because we're comparing Cabrera, who was not in the lineup today for the series finale against the New York Yankees, to one of the best right-handed hitters in the history of baseball, and comparisons to your former self are so often unflattering.
Yet two-thirds of this season has passed, and Cabrera's numbers are at a six-year low. That he remains among the American League leaders in batting average and doubles (he is first in that category) speaks to his otherworldly talent. And yet, do we really need numbers to tell us something isn't quite right?
His power numbers are down. Just as telling, so are his walks.
Few hitters in the game combine balance and power the way Cabrera does. He taught his slugger's frame to behave like a contact hitter, resulting in a kind of liquid power. He was born with dancer's feet and lottery-luck hand-eye coordination, but it's the way he handles the bat that has made him appointment viewing.
As his manager, Brad Ausmus said, "Miguel Cabrera's swing is so good that even when he's not right he gets his hits. There's not many people you can say that about."
Ausmus has a talent for sounding substantial but revealing little. That statement, however, says a lot.
Cabrera is not himself, at least not by his all-time standard. He is also not completely healthy — if, by health, we mean he hasn't recovered from off-season surgery to repair a torn core muscle.
The first baseman admitted as much during the All-Star break when he told USA TODAY Sports' Jorge L. Ortiz he hadn't regained the strength in his lower half. This was a surprising admission from Cabrera, who generally doesn't like talking about himself and hates to make excuses.
It's easy to look at his age and think his dip is simply natural selection, the loss of fast-twitch muscle, or however else you want to describe getting old. And sure, sluggers age faster than contact hitters, which could explain why Cabrera is still having success hitting the ball, just not as much success hitting the ball a freakishly long way.
I think, however, that the more subtle issue here is a break in Cabrera's routine.
Like most transcendent athletes, Cabrera relied on an overachiever's work ethic to buttress his natural gifts. He spend last fall and winter unable to work, and has been forced to use the season as he would an off-season.
Ausmus said as much, too. "He puts work in to keep (his swing) there," said the manager. "It's not like his swing is something he was born with."
Cabrera isn't such an outlier that he will beat the aging process. The odds are against him performing at 35 like he did at 29. But he's still just 31, and the drop in his slugging percentage, for example — more than 100 percentage points from a year ago — is not the beginning of a decade-long fade.
Cabrera may not reach that all-time plateau of the last two seasons — though I'm not convinced he won't. Even before his ascension that began in 2012, he was among the top few hitters in baseball, and he can certainly get back there.
The last time Cabrera put up such human — for him — numbers was in 2008. That was the first year he was away from his second home in Florida, a season in which he faced expectation as the missing piece and a slew of new pitchers in the American League.
Cabrera rebounded to take fourth in the MVP vote the following year, and hasn't been lower than fifth since. The Tigers first baseman deserves time to regain his form, and to get back the routine that put him on the path to history.
The swing is still there. Sooner or later, the did-you-see-that will be, too.