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Miguel Cabrera Is (Quietly) Having Another Great Year

by Wendy Thurm on August 30, 2011

Pedroia or Ellsbury? Ellsbury or Gonzalez? Gonzalez or Granderson? What about Zobrist? Who’s Zobrist? It’s all about Bautista. Bautista? He doesn’t play on a winning team. Don’t forget Verlander. Verlander? He’s a pitcher. A pitcher can’t be a league MVP. Yes he can. No he can’t. Yes he can. No he can’t.

Sound familiar? That pretty well sums up the current debate over who should win the American League MVP Award this season.

While I can find fault with the terms of the discussion, the players on everyone’s list of AL MVP candidates makes sense. Oh, and I’m delighted to see Ben Zobrist getting some ink.

One player skirting the edges of the discussion is Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. He’s not my pick for MVP, but Cabrera is having an outstanding year.

To be sure, Cabrera posted better overall numbers in 2010, when he came in second to Josh Hamilton in MVP voting. But in some offensive categories, Cabrera is at or near career bests.  His performance this season is all the more remarkable given the self-inflicted wounds Cabrera suffered early this year.

Just a few days into spring training, Cabrera was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Details of the incident were ugly (resisting arrest) and the aftermath was worse. This wasn’t the first time Cabrera had done something incredibly stupid and dangerous while drunk. After a week of tests by doctors and addition specialists, MLB recommended that Cabrera participate in a “multi-faceted, professionally-administered” alcohol treatment program. Cabrera agreed.  A month later, Tigers manager Jim Leyland seemed to be the only person still predicting a big year for Cabrera.

Leyland was right.

Here’s how Cabrera’s offensive performance so far in 2011 compares to the players on everyone’s AL MVP short list:

3rd in Batting Average at .328, behind Adrian Gonzalez (.345) and Michael Young (.336)

5th in Slugging Percentage at .554, behind Jose Bautista (.645), Curtis Granderson (.591), David Ortiz (.587) and Adrian Gonzalez (.559)

4th in BB/K at 1.14, behind Dustin Pedroia (1.25), Bautista (1.20), and Ian Kinsler (1.20)

2nd in On-Base Percentage at .432, behind Bautista (.453)

2nd in wOBA (Fangraphs) at .418, behind Bautista (.457)

2nd in wRC+ (Fangraphs) with 166, behind Bautista (194)

Even with a .554 slugging percentage, Cabrera’s power is down from last season’s high of .622 with 35 doubles, 48 home runs and 111 runs scored. On the other hand, Cabrera will set new career bests in Walk Percentage (15.2) and Strikeout Percentage (14.0) if he maintains his current levels.

When it comes to WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Cabrera takes a big hit with his sub-par defense–as he has throughout his career. Well, except for 2005, when Fangraphs rated his third base defense at 15.8 on the UZR/150 scale. As of the end of play on August 29, Fangraphs has Cabrera with an fWAR of 4.9, good for 11th in the American League. Baseball-Reference ranks Cabrera higher with a bWAR of 5.1, good for 7th in the American League. With just average defense, Cabrera would most certainly be on everyone’s short list for MVP candidates this year.

So while Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander gets most of the team buzz (with some saved for catcher Alex Avila), Cabrera has been the Tigers’ excellent and consistent workhorse. No one has played more innings for the first place Tigers so far this season. That’s why it was nice–at least for me–to see Cabrera did miss a game last week for the birth of his third child.

Miguel Cabrera won’t win the AL MVP Award this season. But if the Tigers make the playoffs (and Baseball Prospectus has their odds today at 87.3%), don’t be surprised to see Cabrera with some post-season awards hardware in his hands.

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