By Will Burchfield
Miguel Cabrera is slumping.
He is batting .205 in July with a meager .227 slugging percentage. He has more strikeouts in that span than he has hits. He hasn’t homered in 14 games. At the plate, the two-time MVP has recently looked like anything but.
“He’s human,” said Brad Ausmus before Monday night’s game against Minnesota. “But he will come out of it and when he comes out of it he’ll start hitting the ball like he normally does.”
Ausmus is right, of course. Cabrera isn’t going to hit .205 for the rest of the season. He’ll soon return to his prodigious offensive ways and his recent struggles will be forgotten. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that this slump is part of a larger decline, one that’s seen Cabrera go from the best hitter in the game to simply one of the best.
Through 91 games this season, he is slashing .289/.366/.500, which pales in comparison to his career line of .320/.398/.559. His OPS is down by nearly 100 points. By almost any measure, he is having the worst year of his career since his 2003 rookie season.
This is where we should pause and acknowledge the standard against which Cabrera is being judged. He is only struggling in that he isn’t a Triple Crown candidate. He is only declining in that he is no longer in a league of his own. He just returned from the All-Star Game, for crying out loud, and is on pace for 30+ home runs and 90+ RBI.
“What’s he hitting? .290 with 18 homers and 50-something RBI’s? God, that’s terrible,” Ausmus joked. “I mean, c’mon.”
There is a tendency to rush to judgment in sports. In the face of all the doubting, Cabrera may turn around in the second half and set off on a 70-game crusade, unleashing an offensive torrent of such might that he enters the MVP discussion. It wouldn’t be the first time around here that a star’s demise was predicted too soon.
“They said the same thing about Verlander a couple years ago and he’s been pretty good the last year – real good the last year, actually,” Ausmus said. “I don’t get too concerned about what people are saying, I get concerned about what’s happening on the field. You take the experiences you have in baseball over the course of decades and apply them to what you see. Nobody’s getting younger, but I’m not worried about Miguel.”
But maybe he should be. For what you see from Cabrera this season is something you’ve never seen before: an offensive shortcoming. Once an unassailable hitter, he has looked overmatched on fastballs on the inner half of the plate, unable to get around on pitches he used to crush. Pitchers have seized on this sudden vulnerability, challenging him beneath the hands with the best heat they’ve got – and, more often than not, winning.
Compare the following two zone profiles, courtesy of brooksbaseball.net. Shown from the catcher’s perspective, the first one represents Cabrera’s career average against high-velocity pitches – fastballs, cutters and sinkers – entering this season. The second one represents his average against those same pitches in 2016. And the difference is startling.
Either Miggy has been the victim of some horrible luck this season, or his reflexes aren’t as sharp as they once were. At 33 years old and on the backside of his prime, one conclusion seems more likely than the other. Remember – we’re talking about pitches that reach the plate in about 0.4 seconds, leaving the batter about 0.2 seconds to decide whether or not to swing. Wait an extra twitch or two, and hits become outs.
Look, Cabrera is still an offensive force. No one’s suggesting otherwise. But he’s trending in the wrong direction, and his 2016 numbers aren’t so much a blip on the radar as they are a sign of things to come. That’s an unnerving thought for the Tigers, who have Cabrera locked up for seven more years at $30 million per season. Things could get downright ugly toward of the end of his contract.
That’s a concern for the future, though. Right now, Cabrera is simply trying to break out of a mid-season funk. He went 0 for 2 on Monday night and grounded into a double play. He is slumping. He is better than this, but he is slumping.
Still, that doesn’t insulate him against the possibility of a decline. For if he is far more than the hitter we’ve seen of late, so is he less than the hitter we saw in the past. And it’s okay to acknowledge that.