The first moment the general baseball-watching public knew Miguel Cabrera would be special might have come nearly 20 years ago, in Game 4 of the 2003 National League Division Series. Then a 20-year-old phenom for the Florida Marlins, Cabrera strode to the plate in a clutch situation: tie ballgame, bottom of the eighth inning, two outs, a series-clinching opportunity for his upstart team against the favored San Francisco Giants. The rookie was already sitting at 3-for-4 with two doubles in the game; he then shrugged off the pressure to line the first pitch he saw from hard-throwing reliever Félix Rodríguez into right field, driving home a pair of runs that ultimately proved to be the difference in the game (and series) for a Marlins team that went on to win the championship.
It was an early example of what would be many illustrious turns at bat for Cabrera. And he added another to his resume this weekend: On Saturday, Cabrera became just the 33rd member of the 3,000-hit club in baseball history, hitting another opposite-field single early in the Detroit Tigers’ 13-0 romp over the Colorado Rockies. Cabrera didn’t need to join that group to cement his status as a future Hall of Famer, having long since stamped his Cooperstown ticket with 500 home runs, a Triple Crown, multiple MVPs, four batting titles and more than a decade’s worth of All-Star nods. But his latest accomplishment is indicative of the longevity and productivity of a player whose career has spanned more distinct periods of the game than perhaps any other.
Starting out at the height of MLB’s bulked-up PED era, a young Cabrera was refreshing to watch: tall and lanky, with emerging power but also grace at multiple positions. (His natural athleticism allowed him to log time in his normal spots at third base and left field, but also shortstop and right field — where he made this diving catch against the Chicago Cubs — during the 2003 postseason.) It was immediately apparent that Cabrera was a threat to do something impressive anytime he stepped on the field, from a home run in his MLB debut in late June to a first-inning homer off Kerry Wood to jump-start the scoring in Game 7 of the NLCS, or this epic duel against Roger Clemens (a legend 20 years his senior) in the World Series:
As far as coming-out parties go, you could do a lot worse than Cabrera’s 2003 playoff line of four home runs, 12 RBIs and a .786 OPS, plus a World Series ring. But Miggy was just getting started. After posting 2.9 wins above replacement1 in 2004, his first full season as a regular, he upped his output and averaged 5.6 WAR over the next two seasons — the 12th-highest figure in all of MLB and seventh among position players, only one of whom (Cleveland’s Grady Sizemore) was as young as Cabrera. By the following season, his last in South Florida, Cabrera had established himself as arguably the best young hitter in the sport, with a career weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 138 through his age-24 season.
Like so many other bright young Marlins stars over the years, though, Cabrera was getting too expensive for the team’s notoriously penny-pinching management, and he had to be shipped elsewhere. Among a sea of other suitors, the Detroit Tigers emerged as the winners for Cabrera’s services, snagging the future Hall of Famer — plus his fellow iconic 2003 Marlin Dontrelle Willis (a once-electric pitcher whose stock had fallen sharply in 2007) — for a bushel of prospects that included Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.
Detroit’s brass was rightly ecstatic over the trade. “We were jumping up and down in the suite, high-fiving people. Absolutely pumped as could be,” Dave Dombrowski, then Detroit’s general manager, recounted to The Athletic. “It was a reaction you don’t usually get quite to that same extent just because you don’t make that type of deal too often.”
“You would never think that you were gonna get Miguel Cabrera,” said former Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
For a team that went to the World Series just a few years earlier, the Tigers were putting a lot of pressure on their new superstar to make them postseason fixtures going forward. But no matter how high Detroit’s expectations of him were at the time of his arrival, it’s fair to say Cabrera exceeded them over the decade and a half that followed.
While Detroit’s 74-88 record in 2008 was a setback, Cabrera still led the AL with 37 home runs during his first season as a Tiger. His team would bounce back in subsequent years, with both player and club soon embarking on a special run in the Motor City. From 2009 through 2016, Cabrera led the major leagues in RBIs, total bases, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS and position-player WAR. (He was also second in home runs, hits and on-base percentage.) Armed with his dangerous bat in the lineup and aces like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer on the mound, the Tigers followed suit: They had MLB’s sixth-best record over that span, playing in three league championship series as well as a World Series in 2012.
In the middle of that run (2011-13), Detroit came just about as close as a team could to winning a title without actually prevailing. With Cabrera posting a stellar .913 postseason OPS during those years, the Tigers won 17 playoff games — the eighth-most ever by any team over a three-year span in which it didn’t win the World Series:2
|Los Angeles Dodgers||2016-2018||23|
|New York Yankees||2001-2003||20|
|St. Louis Cardinals||2012-2014||20|
|Tampa Bay Rays||2019-2021||15|
|New York Yankees||2017-2019||14|
|St. Louis Cardinals||1985-1987||14|
|New York Mets||1998-2000||13|
For his efforts, Cabrera won back-to-back AL MVP awards in 2012 — when he earned MLB’s first batting Triple Crown in 45 years — and 2013. He also signed a massive contract extension worth $248 million over eight years (still the sixth-largest ever by total dollars), a term that wouldn’t even begin until his age-33 season. By just about any standard, the game belonged to Miggy in the early to mid-2010s.
But just as Cabrera had entered the league during a transitional period at the end of the steroid era, he hit his stride during another time of transition — this time as sabermetrics was beginning to fully consume the sport.
As a result, the serial MVP debates between Cabrera and WAR-darling Mike Trout became symbolic of the larger struggle within baseball between traditionalist methods of player evaluation (favoring pro-Cabrera statistics such as batting average and RBIs) and advanced analytics that attempted to more precisely measure a player’s overall contributions (favoring Trout’s metrics in defense and base running). Cabrera initially won the MVPs, but the view of the game that preferred Trout won the debate in the long run — as future award races and, even more significantly, roster construction and free-agency decisions proved. The days of monster deals for 30-something sluggers ended after contracts signed by the likes of Cabrera and Albert Pujols in the mid-2010s, with teams realizing that older players were providing substantially less value for the dollar than their younger counterparts.
Without question, Cabrera’s slowdown played a role in that realization. Since 2017, Cabrera has produced -1.0 WAR while collecting $180 million in salary, and Detroit’s record is 281-439. In a startling turn of events, Cabrera’s once-prodigious slugging ability largely disappeared over that span: His isolated power is 23 percent worse than league average and ranks 266th out of 325 qualified batters. One of the biggest reasons for that touches on another shift in eras for MLB — Cabrera’s failure to embrace the analytics-driven fly-ball revolution that drove so many power gains for other hitters in the late 2010s and early 2020s. Since 2017, Cabrera’s rate of fly balls (as a share of all batted balls) is 15 percent lower than the league average, ranking him 271st out of 325 hitters.
Because of the widespread shift to a more sabermetric mindset in evaluating teams and players, both past and present, it might be tempting to let the rough results for Cabrera and the Tigers over most of his late-career contract extension affect Cabrera’s legacy as a player. But Cabrera’s membership in the ultra-exclusive groups like the 3,000-hit/500-home run club says more than enough about his stature in the game, putting him in the same company as Pujols, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron.
Furthermore, the simple fact that the 39-year-old Cabrera is still here, still cranking out hits, still functioning as a player3 after nearly two decades is worthy of our applause. From Cabrera’s origins as a World Series-winning prodigy to his 3,000th hit on Saturday, baseball has changed in deeply profound ways. Many of those changes either directly involved Cabrera himself or significantly affected the trajectory of his career. These days, he is no longer the fresh-faced 20-year-old Florida Marlin with an entire career in front of him, nor is he even the MVP slugger of the early 2010s, at the height of his powers. But Cabrera’s gorgeous right-handed stroke remains a fixture over the past 20 years, and his latest accolade is a reminder of just how far he — and the game itself — have come during that time.
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