Miguel Cabrera blasted his 42nd home run of 2013 off Mets starter Dillon Gee on Sunday. He took a high and inside fastball — significantly off the plate — and deposited it well behind Citi Field’s left field fence.
That this is no longer an event worthy of any surprise says more about Cabrera’s season than any statistic can. Cabrera’s hitting ability — from power to patience and back again — has improved to the point where even Triple Crown Winner 2012 Miguel Cabrera looks like a chump.
It’s a season begging for an acceptable comparison. Cabrera, right now, is putting up the best batting season since the end of Barry Bonds‘s four-year rampage through the major leagues in 2004. What Cabrera has done can’t quite touch Bonds — Cabrera’s 200 OPS+ is still 38 points shy of Bonds’s 2003, the worst of his quartet. Still, if Cabrera can maintain his production through the end of the season, he’ll post the first 200 OPS+ since Bonds in 2004.
Since Bonds is left-handed, much of the Cabrera discussion has conveniently pivoted towards Cabrera’s place amongst right-handed hitters. Although calling Cabrera the best right-handed hitter of all time is clearly jumping the gun — how quickly we forget how good Albert Pujols was, and for longer than Cabrera has been. But in terms of a single season, Cabrera is on pace for something sparsely seen since integration. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 and Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas in strike-shortened 1994 are the only other right-handed hitters to post a 200 OPS+ since 1947.
Of those four, Thomas strikes me as the best comparison to Cabrera. Both combine incredible physical power with a refined, methodical approach. They could hit any pitch — including those well out of the zone — with authority, and yet they developed an intimate knowledge of the strike zone and rarely got themselves out, as so many with elite power do.
It’s imperfect, of course, as all comparisons are. Thomas’s discipline was on another level, especially for a player of his era. Thomas hit .353/.487/.729 with 38 home runs in 113 games in 1994 before the strike, just adding to the exhausting list of what-ifs from that unfortunate season. Amazingly, Thomas walked 109 times to lead the league and struck out just 65 times — 12.6 percent of plate appearances. Cabrera, in 34 extra plate appearances, has 15 more strikeouts and 34 fewer walks.
Regardless, comparisons are meant to add context. For me, a baseball child of the 90s (remember them?), the Thomas comparison is successful both ways. I remember the name Frank Thomas, but as little more than a few highlights and a crazy musclebound sprite in Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball on the Super Nintendo. To learn that he was basically this year’s Miguel Cabrera in 1994 at least gives me some idea of what it must have been like to watch him dominate in Chicago.
In my mind, Frank Thomas is a clear Hall of Famer. Over his first 12 seasons, Thomas posted a 168 OPS+. Since integration, only Mickey Mantle (175) and Albert Pujols (169) have begun their careers in grander fashion. Thomas declined in the 2000s, of course, but he played at a high level when healthy for nearly the whole decade — it’s an unassailable body of work.
What Cabrera is doing this year is on the level of peak Thomas. Cabrera has now been at that level for the last 4 years — he owns a 180 OPS+ and 154 home runs since 2009 — and has only improved in recent seasons. But it’s still not enough to be the best right-handed hitter ever; he likely needs to maintain this level for two more years and remain great for even longer to give the discussion any legitimacy.
It’s staggering to think this Cabrera we’ve marvelled over still needs to do more under any standards, even those like “best ever.” He’s getting there, and this year is as big a step as he could take. But to begin the discussion prematurely distracts the work and achievements of the greats to come before, and the accomplishments Cabrera has yet to achieve. So for now, let’s just enjoy Cabrera’s year-long performance for what it is: a once-in-a-decade quality show, and, depending on the next few years, possibly part of something even bigger.