How Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera escaped bad start, started hitting again in final season

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers veteran Miguel Cabrera is batting .339 in 20 games since May 30.

The former two-time American League MVP and Triple Crown winner looked into his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse at Coors Field before Sunday’s series finale against the Colorado Rockies. He grabbed his neatly hung road jersey and turned the jersey around to display his last name and number.

The 40-year-old designated hitter has received more playing time because of his production, but don’t ask him about making adjustments.

“You see the number?” Cabrera said. “You see the name?”

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Cabrera, one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball history, has played 2,746 games in his 21-year MLB career. He has 3,124 hits, 616 doubles, 508 home runs and a lifetime .307 batting average, and in the future, he should be elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Indirectly, Cabrera said he doesn’t need to make adjustments.

But it was fair to ask about adjustments because Cabrera, despite his legacy, has become a shadow of his former self in recent history, in part due to chronic pain in his right knee. Usually quick to respond, he needed a few seconds to think about his answer when asked about his health.

“I don’t know,” Cabrera said. “The problem in my knee is really bad.”

At the beginning of the season, the Tigers were focused on keeping Cabrera as healthy as possible — which led to tweaking the workload of his pregame routine — and were upfront about the playing time situation.

His decline reached an all-time low at the beginning of the 2023 season.

In his first 27 games, Cabrera hit .169 with three doubles, 10 walks, 21 strikeouts and a .455 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. As a result, he played in only 27 of the Tigers’ first 50 games this season.

“The remarkable thing about Miguel is how consistent he’s been in his overall approach,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “He understands all of those considerations. He hasn’t been frustrated. He hasn’t been mad. He hasn’t checked out. He’s been completely engaged in whatever role we’ve given him.”

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The $32 million situation seemed awkward from the outside looking in. If the Tigers were going to try to compete in a weak AL Central Division, how could the aging designated hitter keep his spot on the roster?

Suddenly, Cabrera started to hit.

“My hitting, my approach is about timing,” Cabrera said. “If I got my timing, I’m going to see the ball very well and swing at better pitches. With my timing, I’m able to get better at-bats, and that’s really important. When you get better at-bats, the results are going to come with timing.”

Cabrera hasn’t stopped hitting.

“When I play more, I can hit better because my swing is about timing,” he said.

In his last 20 games, Cabrera hit .339 with six doubles, one home run, nine walks, 13 strikeouts and an .895 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. The Tigers, as promised, rewarded him with more playing time, using him in 20 of 33 games.

Locking in the timing of his swing — if that counts as an adjustment — turned him into a serviceable player again. His .441 on-base percentage since May 30 ranks 15th among 257 players with at least 70 plate appearances.

“You have to always be ready,” Cabrera said. “Your mind has to prepare for everything.”

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Amid the ups and downs, Cabrera has taken a mentorship role with first baseman Spencer Torkelson. Recently, advice from Cabrera in the batting cage — “just trust your hands, and go to the big part of the field” — helped Torkelson launch two home runs in a single game for the first time in his career.

Cabrera has always seen greatness in Torkelson.

“It’s easy to give advice to Tork,” Cabrera said. “He’s really good, and he’s really smart. He wants to do it, so go out there every day, play hard and get good at-bats. … I always tell people that we have an opportunity to be good for a long time.”

Cabrera, despite a measly 12 RBIs, is hitting .238 with 19 walks (11.1% walk rate) and 34 strikeouts (19.8% strikeout rate) through 47 games, spanning 172 plate appearances, in the final season of his career.

His .638 OPS is better than sluggers Javier Báez (.589 in 79 games), Eric Haase (.571 in 64 games) and Jonathan Schoop (.539 in 52 games). His walk and strikeout rates resemble his walk and strikeout rates from the late 2010s.

After a bad start, Cabrera is providing positive production to the Tigers.

“His at-bats have been consistent, which is key,” Hinch said. “His contributions have been noteworthy, and I think he’s reestablished himself in what his game plan is and what his goal is for the at-bat. Overall, he just wants to move the ball forward and get on base, and that’s been happening more and more often.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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