Torii Hunter has been around for 17 years, but he can honestly say that he's never seen anything like Miguel Cabrera.
"Seventeen years in the big leagues, and I'm still learning from that guy," Hunter said. "So that's saying a lot about him. Seventeen years, and I'm still learning how to hit from him."
Cabrera holds his lessons nightly from the third spot of the Tigers' lineup. And it's not just the numbers he puts up (a Triple Crown last year and an intriguingly good chance of another in 2013) -- it's the in-game adjustments, the swing plane, the vision.
"The consistency of the same swing, whether it's up, down, down the middle, outside, other side," Hunter said. "He has the same swing no matter what. He keeps both eyes on the ball, and he just drives it. If it's on the outside corner, he drives it to right field. If it's on the inside corner, he'll turn on it to left field. If it's down the middle, he's going to drive it to center. He's hitting the ball wherever the ball is pitched."
Hunter, to put it bluntly, knew Cabrera was good, but he didn't know he was this good. And the national conversation about Cabrera seems to have picked up a notch even above and beyond the level he reached when he attained the Triple Crown last fall.
What the general populace has come to accept is that Cabrera is, indeed, the Best Hitter on the Planet. It's a subjective term, surely, but it's also difficult to dispute. And although there might be subtle fluctuations from month to month or year to year (Jose Bautista's 2010 and '11 seasons certainly had him in the conversation), only a select few carry that distinction for a true, sustained stretch.
If you want a flow chart from the last two decades, it's pretty simple, really: Barry Bonds to Albert Pujols to Miguel Cabrera.
Now here's where it gets tricky, because Cabrera has not yet amassed the career totals of his two Best Hitter on the Planet predecessors, as Bonds was quick to remind us the other day.
"[Cabrera] doesn't have my MVPs," Bonds told USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "He doesn't have my numbers. Well, not yet, anyways."
Indeed, Bonds has the seven MVPs, the eight Gold Gloves (a distinction that made him not just the best hitter but the best player of his time), and the home run record.
Pujols also has a bit more on his résumé, as my MLB.com colleague Matthew Leach pointed out. He has three MVPs to Cabrera's one, for starters, and his ascension to the elite of the elite was instantaneous, with a rookie year for the ages in 2001.
Now, Cabrera is certainly playing a pretty darned good game of catch-up. He's entering an interesting phase of the Pujols comparison when you consider career games played. He played his 1,558th career game over the weekend, having recorded 335 home runs, 399 doubles, 1,180 RBIs and a .962 OPS in that span.
Pujols reached 1,558 games on the last day of his age-30 season, in 2010, and had 408 homers, 426 doubles, 1,230 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS by that point. Considering Pujols' production dipped in '11 and again in '12, the evolution of the 30-year-old Cabrera in the coming weeks, months and years bears monitoring. He certainly does not seem to be slowing down just yet.
"Man, this guy's good," Hunter said. "But coming here and seeing him on a day-to-day basis, how he prepares and works out, what I'm surprised by is that the Triple Crown winner is so down to earth. He smiles, he's funny. This guy is probably the best guy I've played with, not just on the field but off the field."
Yes, Hunter played with Pujols a season ago, but that was a different Pujols. Time has slowed the pace of "The Machine."
"From 2000 to 2011, Pujols was the best hitter in the game," Hunter said. "Now you look at Cabrera, and he's the best hitter in the game, and probably one of the best hitters ever. Cabrera's just so talented, he can hit a lot of pitches that a lot of players can't hit. He has all power to all fields. Pujols has lost a little power to right field. He's a pull guy now. And Cabrera is younger."
What Cabrera, Pujols, Bonds and the other past Best Hitters on the Planet share are not just the amazing numbers but the ability to see the ball quicker, to recognize its track and trajectory at a rapid rate, as well as the ability to recognize a pitcher's plan of attack in a given at-bat. These are special skills that are almost impossible to repeat day after day over the course of a 162-game schedule.
The best of the best of the best make the impossible come true, and they make even such long-tenured veterans as Hunter gasp in amazement.
"I'm shocked," Hunter said of watching Cabrera night after night. "I'm like, man, I've been playing all these years, and all I do is fight!"