Miguel Cabrera is indisputably one of the best hitters who ever lived, one of just a small handful of players who could retire right now and be absolutely assured of induction into Cooperstown. He's an 11-time All-Star, a two-time American League Most Valuable Player Award winner; he owns both a World Series ring (2003) and an AL Triple Crown ('12). Cabrera is, by any definition of the term, great, and he has received all of the accolades that go along with such on-the-field greatness.
Now what if, despite all that, Cabrera actually has been slightly underrated? Is it possible that as great as he is, there are factors that are actually holding him back?
You wouldn't think so; after all, Cabrera's .956 OPS last year was the sixth best in the Majors, just ahead of sluggers Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson. But as we rolled out our latest Statcast™ metric, Hit Probability, earlier this month, we noticed something very interesting: Of 268 hitters who had at least 100 plate appearances last year, only one had a larger difference between what actually happened and what was estimated to happen. That is, as great as Cabrera was, his batted-ball profile -- based on exit velocity and launch angle, and not on the positioning of the defense against him -- suggested the outcomes should have been even better.
If you're a regular viewer of Tigers games, you probably know part of where this is going, because we wrote last year about just how much the deep outfield wall at Comerica Park swallowed up crushed Detroit baseballs. That being the case, you won't be surprised to learn that when looking back at the same calculation from 2015, Cabrera had the seventh-largest difference between Estimated and Actual OPS -- though we have only two years of data, this appears to be a recurring theme. (Interestingly, one of the few hitters with a larger 2015 difference was Wilson Ramos, perhaps suggesting his 2016 breakout may have been seen coming.)
With our new Hit Probability tool, we can go a bit more in-depth into all this and explain what we mean.
For example, let's take a ball from last Sept. 15 that Cabrera crushed, taking Hector Santiago deep to center at 108.8 mph and a 33-degree launch angle. Based on what we've seen over the two years of Statcast™ data, this batted ball has a Hit Probability of 95 percent, which is to say that it almost always turns into a hit -- and just about always a home run, at that. Based on the skill Cabrera showed in making contact, he more than did his job. Based on his reaction after the play, he didn't get what he deserved:
In this case, Byron Buxton managed to haul it in 409 feet away from home plate, because 95 percent Hit Probability is of course not 100 percent Hit Probability, but the point remains that Cabrera did something extremely skillful, even if the outcome wasn't in his favor. Whether or not the opposing defense happened to have a spectacular center fielder (as the Twins did in this case) or the ballpark was large enough to keep it in play (as Comerica was in this case) is out of Cabrera's control.
So if we can do that for individual plays, we can accumulate that over the course of a full season, too. As we explained in our introductory post, by taking the estimated outcome for every tracked batted ball -- and including real-world strikeout and walk totals, as well as filling in the gaps with estimates for the few untracked balls that occur -- we can come up with a hitter's estimated season line and compare it to his actual line.
For Cabrera, that looks like this: Actual 2016: .316/.393/.563 .956 OPS .399 wOBA Estimated 2016: .342/.416/.682 1.098 OPS .459 wOBA
Not only is that Estimated OPS the No. 1 mark in all of baseball, it's also a 142 point OPS difference from what actually occurred. By this measure, Cabrera's batted-ball profile was baseball's best.
So what happened? We should note first that this is just about quality (and amount) of contact and does not take foot speed into account, so Estimated Cabrera isn't hurt by inability to run out infield hits as much as Actual Cabrera is. But as we described in September, we're learning just how much Comerica Park hinders Tigers power.
MLB hits .942 when hitting the ball at least 400 feet. Look at how many of those crushed balls turn into outs in Detroit. pic.twitter.com/WjJlXvCQb6
Put another way, Major League Baseball as a whole hit .942 on batted balls that went 400 feet or farther in 2016, and as you'd expect, most of those weren't just hits, they were home runs. Only five hitters were unfortunate enough to hit a 400-foot out four or more times; Cabrera did it seven, six at home. (Tigers teammate Justin Upton was one of the five, as well; all four of his times were at home, as speedy outfielders Kevin Kiermaier, Buxton, Jarrod Dyson, and Billy Burns had plenty of room to roam.)
If you're wondering where the "missing" 120 points of slugging percentage came from, that's a pretty good start. The Buxton catch and the ball against the Rays in the video that leads this article are two of them, and here's a third, just to show how big of a blast you can put into center field in Detroit and end up with nothing -- a 95 percent Hit Probability ball that was hit at 107.7 mph for a projected 407 feet.
It's not always due to Comerica, of course, because Cabrera actually did slug for more power at home than he did on the road in 2016, believe it or not, and here he is scorching a 91 percent Hit Probability liner at 107.7 mph, only to be robbed by Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria …
… but it's difficult not to feel Cabrera's frustration when he hits a ball at 104 mph and 24 degrees that falls for a hit 87 percent of the time, and it turns into a double play:
Or that even when two outfielders collided on a ball that had a 94 percent Hit Probability, Cabrera still couldn't get fortunate enough to find a hit. (Don't worry, rookie Jason Coats was OK, and he started the next day.)
Cabrera actually had five different rockets with a Hit Probability of 90 percent turn into outs, the most in baseball, and one of only three hitters to have it happen more than twice.
That's really where this all lands. Cabrera, in reality, is a phenomenal hitter by any measure. Cabrera -- by the skills he demonstrates when he makes contact, independent of great defense or a huge ballpark -- might be even better than that. He might be underrated by circumstances outside his control. It's truly incredible to think about.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.