The numbers behind Miguel Cabrera’s offensive decline in 2020

Detroit Free Press

Miguel Cabrera is worried.

The face of the Detroit Tigers won two American League MVP awards, tossed in a historic 2012 Triple Crown and has been one of the best in baseball throughout his 18-year MLB career.

This season, however, is unlike any other he’s had.

Cabrera, 37, won’t blame knee and back injuries that have infiltrated the tail end of his career. His teammates and coaches say he’s healthy — and his body backs up those claims. He won’t tell you he’s lost his strength. Statcast proves he’s among the top 12% of hitters in exit velocity and top 11% in hard-hit rate. And his expected batting average, based on an array of rankings, is .266.

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Yet Cabrera’s batting average is actually .176, accompanied by a .269 on-base percentage and .319 slugging percentage. He has four home runs, one double and 11 RBIs, currently riding a 15-day streak without an extra-base hit. Since Aug. 8, he is 7-for-48 with 11 strikeouts and continues to struggle as the Tigers near the halfway point of the 60-game schedule.

“Miggy is worried about himself not getting hits,” Tigers hitting coach Joe Vavra said Saturday. “He wants to contribute. He wants to be that guy. And if you saw him for about four or five games there (7-for-21 with three homers from July 30 to Aug. 8), everything was going really good. … I totally feel the numbers will fall where they need to fall.”

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That’s why Vavra isn’t concerned, even though Cabrera’s barrel percentage is down a tick — from 6.4% in 2019 to 5.8% this year. The analytics tell him Cabrera should be performing better than he is, meaning regular production should come around.

Manager Ron Gardenhire relayed the same message last week, reiterating he has bigger problems than Cabrera to deal with on a 10-15 ballclub. But the designated hitter’s lacking offense is becoming harder to ignore in the No. 3 spot in the order. 

“Right now, it’s just one of those things when he’s not seeing it great,” Gardenhire said Thursday. “He’s hit some balls right on the button, right at people. I’ve said for a long time, try not to worry about that guy. He can hit, and he’s barrelling some balls up. … He’s fine.”

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The decrease in Cabrera’s barrel percentage (15.9% in 2016) is a byproduct of trying to get the lower half of his body in sync with the upper portion. He is focusing on turning his hips early enough so he doesn’t have to rely on his hands and arms to make contact.

He wants to get back to driving the baseball with his legs.

“The ball gets on him, and he’s had a tough time getting the fastball,” Vavra said. “The numbers show it. This year he’s kind of working a little bit faster getting to fastballs and having a more difficult time on offspeed (pitches). We’ve got to find the balance there.”

The analytics prove what Vavra is saying here, as well.

Cabrera has an expected .330 batting average against the fastball (actually .227), but he is only hitting .135 against breaking balls, with an expected .237 average when those pitches come his way. Because of this, his opponents have used the breaking ball against him 37.5% of the time, more than any season in his career.

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Against offspeed pitches (most notably the changeup), he has a .100 batting average with a .102 expected average. Although Cabrera’s expected batting average against the fastball assumes he should improve, the analytics explain he is going to continue to falter if he can’t click on breaking balls and offspeed offerings.

Entering the season, Gardenhire planned to let Cabrera rest for day games following a late-night contest to avoid an injury. But Cabrera is asking to play, hence him ending up in Sunday’s lineup for a 1:10 p.m. matchup against the Cleveland Indians.

He wants to rediscover himself at the plate.

“It’s a tough challenge in a 60-game season to get a guy going as hot as he has always ever been,” Vavra said. “And then deal with some of the things that he has to deal with — the leg issues over the year and some age. But he’s in great shape. He’s in good spirits and (has a) good mind.

“Any given day he can turn it loose.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. 

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