For all the talk about Justin Verlander not only being the front-runner for the Cy Young award, for all the discussion about the dynamic that Victor Martinez has brought to the team, for all the celebration of Alex Avila and his breakout campaign, there are precious few words being written about Cabrera. Heck, if you weren’t following the team, you might just assume he’s having a bad year.
The Tigers were a mediocre club in 2010 largely because they had almost no offensive help for Cabrera at all. They fielded a lineup that featured rookie Brennan Boesch and his .458 second-half OPS batting fifth for the majority of the campaign. The loss of key veterans to injury meant that Cabrera saw fewer and fewer pitches to hit and he drew a near-record 32 intentional walks. Despite his lack of help, Cabrera nearly took home the AL MVP award last year with a .328/.420/.622 line that included 38 home runs and a league-best 126 RBI.
This past winter, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski went about the job of filling the holes in Detroit’s attack. He added Martinez, re-signed Jhonny Peralta, and handed the regular catching duties to Avila. Boesch came back with a vengeance and put up very good numbers before injuring his thumb late last month. In-season additions Delmon Young and Wilson Betemit have added depth to a previously uneven lineup and the Tigers have been threatening to run away and hide with their now 7.5 game division lead.
There are so many new stories, so many fresh faces, so many breakthroughs this year that it’s easy to forget to big man in the heart of the order, the man that makes it all go.
A quick look at his rate stats from this year versus last show a regression, at least in terms of OPS, there’s no denying that. Cabrera’s 2010 season was so great, however, that it would be near impossible to duplicate. His power numbers have dipped a bit, but everyone who is a rational thinker should have expected Cabrera to take a step backwards, if for no other reason than it would be extremely difficult to do anything else. When you’ve reached the top of the mountain, the only thing you can do is move back down. But to say that Cabrera has been disappointing is anything but accurate.
Cabrera leads the league in games played this year, missing only one contest to witness the birth of his son. It cannot be understated how important his durability has been. The Tigers have consistently put together a lineup that is devoid of high on base guys in the top three spots. Austin Jackson, the lead-off man, has an OBP this year of just .323. The Tigers have gotten a .314 OBP from all the players they’ve used in the two-hole and just .320 from the three-spot. More often than not, Cabrera’s opportunities have been limited from the standpoint of traffic on the bases. In fact, it has been Cabrera who has been starting rallies ahead of guys like Martinez and Avila instead of being the guy to clean the bases.
Of course, that’s not to say Cabrera hasn’t been driving in runs. He still leads the Tigers in RBI with 93, good for fifth in the league, so he’s obviously been making the most of his chances there. His 26 home runs is well below his 2010 pace, but still good for eighth in the AL. The problem is that people see Cabrera’s smaller power numbers, they see the press given to VMart and Avila and it’s easy to overlook the most important cog in the order.
Last season, Cabrera ranked second in the league in batting average (.328), first in OBP (.420), second in slugging (.622) and second in OPS (1.042). His wOBA of .429 was also second-best. This season, Cabrera is third in hitting (again batting .328), second in OBP (.432), and fourth in slugging (.560). His OPS is again second in the league at .992 and his wOBA is second-best at .420. The names surrounding his on those leader boards have changed from last year, but Cabrera hasn’t budged.
Cabrera’s consistent greatness is unparalleled within the confines of the Junior Circuit and matched only by Albert Pujols among all major leaguers. Pujols has been widely-regarded as the games best hitter for some time now, yet each year Cabrera appears at the top of nearly every statistical category in the American league and he rarely is showered with accolades. When you look at all he’s accomplished in his already storied, yet still young career, it’s amazing to consider that he’s never won an MVP award. It seems unlikely, given the press given to all the other candidates, that this year will be any different.
We’ve come to expect that Cabrera will be great each year. Because he meets those expectations, he gets little in the way of applause, or even notice, from the national press. Even by fans of the team, Cabrera has been taken for granted.
The Tigers are in much better shape this year than last because of the historic season by Verlander, because of the contributions of Martinez, because of the steady play of Peralta, because of the breakthrough season of Avila and because of some shred moves by the GM. All of those factors have been necessary to the improvement of the club’s fortunes.
But the biggest reason they Tigers are headed toward the playoffs this year is because Cabrera has been the same as he ever was. Without him, none of this other stuff matters all that much. It’s his consistency that makes Cabrera the Tigers most valuable player, but it’s that same consistency that robs him of the headlines.
When Ryan Raburn tied the game with a clutch home run last Saturday, people were right to heap the praise upon him as they did. No one outside of the Raburn family could have expected he would come through in that spot. When Cabrera blasted the game winner two batters later, he was simply doing what we expected him to do, which is all he’s been doing since coming to the big leagues in the first place. How many other guys can say that?
It’s okay to fall in love with the next big thing, but make sure you don’t forget to take notice of the big fella as well.