Is Miggy the best right-handed hitter ever?

Detroit Tigers

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera is now on the precipice of 500 career home runs. And any time a player of his stature hits a big milestone, it’s only natural to wonder where he stands in history. Cabrera, a two-time MVP and the most recent Triple Crown winner (in 2012), is one of the great right-handed hitters of his time, and in the conversation among the best ever.

But where does he actually stack up against the all-time best right-handed sluggers? We asked MLB.com analysts Sarah Langs, Mike Petriello and Matt Kelly to discuss this in our latest roundtable, moderated by editor Matt Meyers.

Matt Meyers (MLB.com editor): When I make this statement — Miguel Cabrera is the best right-handed hitter ever — what is your initial reaction?

Sarah Langs (analyst): Initial reaction is that he’s in the conversation, but I’m not sure he’s my pick. A great player — zero disrespect — but another name comes to mind who I will get to later. As an aside: Comparing eras can be tough (hi, hello, plus-stats), and I admittedly may default towards longer-ago players for a question like this.

Matt Kelly (analyst): I think as soon as you remember Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were right-handed … that’s going to make it tough for Cabrera. Different eras, and Miggy likely faced much better pitching. But that’s as inner-circle as it gets with those two, no slight on Cabrera.

I think the tougher one-to-one comparison from Cabrera’s time is Albert Pujols.

Mike Petriello (analyst): Yeah, no. I mean, it implies a great deal of respect to Cabrera that this is even a question that can reasonably be asked, and he was an obvious Hall of Famer years ago; as cool as 500 homers (and at some point, 3,000 hits) will be, they won’t meaningfully enhance a case that was already a slam dunk.

But to be the best ever you have to have at least one single thing pointing towards that. It’s great that he has 18 different seasons of double-digit homers, but nine righty batters have more. It’s incredibly impressive to look at a 143 wRC+ over nearly 11,000 career PAs … except that Mays, [Frank] Thomas, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and [Mike] Schmidt did similar or better.

This is one area where I disagree with Sarah though, because I tend to lean towards more recent players since I think it’s harder to play now than it used to be. Is Cabrera that much better than Manny Ramírez, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell? Not so sure he is.

Meyers: Sarah … you mentioned how you skew toward older players in these kinds of discussions. How should we view guys from baseball’s early years in this debate? For example, Rogers Hornsby is tied for highest career OPS+ by a right-handed hitter (min. 3,000 plate appearances). Does he deserve a place in this conversation? Or are you not thinking of guys that far back?

Langs: I totally agree with you, Mike! I think it is harder now. I think I was more describing my own avoidance of recency bias, and focusing on players I’ve seen — just to be clear.

I was thinking more of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron when I said players from longer ago, but Hornsby is a great question. And the crazy part is he’s tied with a guy whose career is still in progress (and therefore, that number is always subject to change) … Mike Trout. To Mike’s point, I think that is more of a commentary on Trout than Hornsby, given current pitching and the way the game is played. But I do think Hornsby warrants a mention here, even if I’m not sure he’d be anyone’s immediate/initial answer.

Petriello: Forget guys from the early 20th century for a moment. Is Cabrera the greatest right-handed hitter of the 21st century? The last 10 years?

Langs: Of the 2012 MVP vote?

Petriello: I am legally obligated to say no, because I think Trout is the greatest player of all time.

Kelly: My original thought was that Cabrera was probably slightly overshadowed by Pujols during Miggy’s early years. Then, right as Cabrera blows up with the Tigers, here comes Mike Trout.

Here’s what I find interesting, though: If you start the clock at Cabrera’s debut 2003 season, Miggy tops Pujols in hits, doubles, batting average, OBP, OPS and is basically in a dead heat in times on base (4,206 to 4,195). Pujols got a two-year head start (and they were great years), but Cabrera has stayed pound-for-pound with him in basically everything except homers — and if Miggy hadn’t played so many home games at Pro Player Stadium and Comerica Park, I think he’d be much closer there, too.

Trout is obviously the better all-around talent, and will probably pass them both. But Miggy is closer to even Pujols than I thought.

Meyers: When debating something like this, how do you weigh peak vs. career value? Should Pujols’ insane peak put him atop this conversation? After all, even with his extended decline phase, he still hit all the major milestones. And Trout hasn’t had his “decline phase” yet.

Kelly: Pujols’ first 11 years are in the conversation for greatest first half to any career. At least worth acknowledging.

Petriello: Soft declines have to matter. We’re not just talking about “a very good player,” we’re trying to get to “literally the best right-handed hitter ever.” I do wonder how differently we’d view Cabrera if the last five years hadn’t been so dicey.

Age 20-33: 155 OPS+
Age 34-38: 100 OPS+

I guess there are worse things than “being league average into your late 30s,” but still. None of this is aiding his all-time case, especially when Willie Mays was 145+ from age 34 on and Hank Aaron was 151 OPS+ from 34 on.

Langs: I think to be the greatest of all time in any given area, career value has to be weighted more heavily. I’m not sure if that’s horribly and unexpectedly old school of me. But if I’m thinking of the singular “greatest,” the decline can’t be too steep.

Kelly: Cabrera debuted at age 20, and he won his second AL MVP Award in his age-30 season. Here’s a fun comparison with another righty who debuted at age 20.

Player A (age-20 to age-30 seasons): 6,510 AB, .320/.376/.567, 366 HR, 351 2B, 1,216 RBI, 2,085 H, 603 BB
Cabrera (age-20 to age-30 seasons): 6,218 AB, .321/.399/.568, 365 HR, 412 2B, 1,260 RBI, 1,995 H, 799 BB

Player A? Henry Aaron! Eerily close, right? But Aaron motored into his 40s better than anyone until Barry Bonds came along. And that longevity is a huge part of why we revere him.

Meyers: Speaking of Aaron … Miggy is about to become the seventh player to surpass 3,000 hits and 500 homers. And the other right-handed hitters in that group are Aaron, Mays, A-Rod and Pujols. Maybe those are the only names that belong in this “best right-handed hitter ever” conversation. Convince me otherwise.

Kelly: I’m not sure I can … especially because those four played in times after baseball was integrated and moved west of the Mississippi River. Anyone who played before that, you can acknowledge what they did, but it is hard to even visualize those times. It was a different game with a limited talent pool due to segregation.

Langs: That’s the right group, plus adding Trout as we’ve discussed above, given his trajectory. It’s going to be a while before we see these counting stat milestones all together again, but some of that has to do with how modern players are managed, which hopefully does contribute to that longevity anyway.

Petriello: Miggy and A-Rod have extremely similar career numbers. I don’t think you can have one without the other. (Remember, offense only; obviously Rodríguez was a more valuable defender.)

My big three are Mays, Aaron, Pujols.

Then Miggy, A-Rod, Manny Ramírez, Frank Robinson, etc., in the next tier.

Meyers: Any current players (other than Trout) you think might join this conversation?

Petriello: It is absolutely, obscenely too soon to say Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but you know what: Vladdy Jr.

Kelly: If only Juan Soto batted right-handed!

Just off the top of my head, Fernando Tatis Jr. is on that early A-Rod trajectory. But I’m curious if he can stay healthy, and if the strikeout totals hinder him at all from getting there.

Langs: Boy, I would LOVE for either of those names to be true. Let us hope!

Meyers: OK, last question: Who would each of you say is the greatest right-handed hitter ever? And please give a brief explainer. Have to pick one. No hedging.

Langs: Right now, this moment in time, for me it has to be Willie Mays. He has the highest offensive WAR (per Baseball Reference) of any right-handed hitter ever. All of the counting stats with 660 homers and more than 3,000 hits, plus a 155 OPS+. That’s among the tops of all righties ever, and I can’t think of a hitter I’d be more confident in when needing one hit with a season, series or championship on the line.

Petriello: Mays. You just can’t go wrong with Mays. Part of that is just that he spanned from the Negro Leagues to the first year of the DH, which is an incredible run through baseball history. Part of it is because at age 40 to 41 he was still incredible, posting a 148 OPS+ those years. And if I can quote from Sarah above: “He has the highest offensive WAR of any righty batter ever.” I don’t know how you top that.

Kelly: I think Pujols honestly had this in his sights when he signed that Angels deal, but for me it’s Aaron by a hair over Mays.

Modern enough time period? Check. All-around skill? Check. Obviously pantheon career totals. And he enjoyed both a peak and a long tail that seals the deal.

I know Trout’s recent injuries aren’t emblematic of a body breaking down, but they are a reminder that you have to keep that greatness going in your 30s. Pujols is the perfect example of that being easier said than done.

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