Despite a worse batting average, Detroit Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera’s 2020 campaign is more encouraging than last season
It was a hot take to write off Miguel Cabrera for the remainder of his contract. Not a hot take in the way it is known today, though–hot in the sense that it was both stylish and sensible. I was among them; figuring there would come a point over the next couple seasons where the Detroit Tigers would have to decide on memorializing his spot on the roster through the 2023 season or cutting bait with a hitter whose chronic knee injury derailed his career.
Cabrera is doing his best to change that narrative, though. The shortened season played into Cabrera’s hand a bit–between the long lay-off for the start of the season and the shortened year, it was reasonable to envision a sneaky-strong season. The batting average is not pretty; just a .213 clip through Sunday night after a couple nice offensive performances over the weekend. Do not let the average deceive, though. There is reason to believe Miguel Cabrera will have better production in 2020 than last year despite the diluted “bad” start.
Miguel Cabrera’s Baseball Savant page makes it easy to compare various aspects of Cabrera’s offensive profile. Barrels are one of the ways to do that. Without getting too muddy into the analytics, basically, a barrel is a batted ball that has a combination of exit velocity and launch angle that would yield an expected batting average of .500 or better and an expected slugging percentage of 1.500 or better.
The barrel rate for the Detroit Tigers slugger from year-to-year has nearly doubled; going from a 6.4 percent barrel rate last season to a 12.5 barrel rate in 2020. These numbers suggest that not only is Cabrera likely to raise his average, but he is also likely to do more damage more consistently in 2020–which would be a welcomed site for a player who hit just 12 home runs across 549 plate appearances last year.
Hard Hit Percentage
The difference between a barrel and a hard hit is the hard hit percentage only takes exit velocity into account, whereas the barrel values the threat of extra bases a bit more. Hard hit percentage is still important, though, obviously because if a player hits the ball hard, it assumes both that they are finding the sweet spot of the bat consistently and thus will have a higher batting average.
In Cabrera’s case, his hard hit percentage suggests some bad luck. A hard hit ball, according to Statcast, is a ball with an exit velocity of 95 mph or better. Cabrera has raised his hard hit percentage so far in 2020 from a 44.7 percent clip to a 59.4 percent clip; which would put him in the 97th percentile of hitters in the game.
XBA is a fancy abbreviation for expected batting average. XBA looks at all the metrics associated with a particular batted ball–the exit velocity, the launch angle, and where the ball gets hit–then makes a prediction of what type of success that batted ball might have of falling in for a hit. For example, a ball hit 460-feet is likely to have a batting average of 1.000, since no ballpark could hold such a missile.
For all of 2020 thus far, Miguel Cabrera’s XBA is .294 on the entire year, speaking to the bad luck narrative I suggested earlier. He has had some hard-hit balls which were caught or some nice defensive plays that would have otherwise gone as hits. In 2019, Miguel Cabrera’s XBA was .271, despite hitting .282–suggesting Cabrera actually had some good fortune on balls falling in or defensive misplays.
There are many reasons batting average is outdated. One particular glaring fault of the statistic is it relies too much on the ability of the fielders playing their position. Take Saturday night, for example. Giants’ Johnny Cueto has a no-hitter going into the sixth inning. Dodgers’ Enrique Hernandez hits a relatively routine fly ball to left field, but Giants left fielder Hunter Pence lost the ball. The ball would fall much farther behind him and the center fielder would have to throw the ball in. This was scored as a triple and helped Hernandez’s batting average since no one was in the vicinity of where the ball landed; but in reality, he should not have been rewarded for such a mediocre fly ball in terms of evaluation.
Even if we do care about batting average, though, there is significant reason to believe Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera will find better luck; especially if he can lower his whiff percentage, which is eight points higher than last year currently. Thankfully for him, he does not need Enrique Hernandez levels of fortune to reach base as the season moves along.