There was a cool presentation this past year at the SABR Analytics Conference breaking down ground balls. The idea (assuming I understood) was to figure out how hard — and to what precise location — ground balls needed to be hit in order to get through the infield and become hits. At the time, I sensed that the data was still raw, nobody was entirely sure what to do with it, and so on. But there’s one thing I remember clearly: Miguel Cabrera hit the hardest ground balls of anybody.
That’s no surprise, of course, considering that Cabrera has led the American League in batting average each of the last three years … but it’s still fun to get some confirmation on that sort of thing. There are players throughout baseball history who were famous for hitting baseballs HARD. The aforementioned Paul Waner was like that. Musial of course. Ted Williams. Tony Oliva hit baseballs so hard that first baseman would inch back nervously. I remember Will Clark hitting savage line drives and ground balls. Vlad Guerrero, whew, he hit the ball hard. Gary Sheffield. Cabrera hits the hardest ball right now.
Lately, it seems like, we’ve had a series of hitters who, for a few years anyway, made a viable case as the Greatest Right-Handed Hitter Ever (GRHE). The reigning GRHE is probably one of these five players:
— Henry Aaron
— Jimmie Foxx
— Rogers Hornsby
— Willie Mays
— Honus Wagner
You might throw Frank Robinson in there too, some would want to talk about Roberto Clemente, but let’s stick with those five. I’m not going to rank those five extraordinary players, but you can see just the slightest drawbacks in each. Wagner played in a completely different time and so is tough to judge agains a modern prism. Hornsby also started during Deadball and was mostly done by 1930. Foxx is just a little bit closer to our time, but his career was very short. Aaron and Mays, there is nothing but great things to say about either, but it is true that Aaron’s on-base percentage was .374, Mays’ .384, and while those are high, they are not legendarily high. These are the slightest of things, but there’s always been a sense that there’s a small opening here, a slight chance for the perfect right-handed hitter to come along and take top spot.
The Greatest Left-Handed Hitter — with Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Barry Bonds wearing the yellow jerseys — is not really an open competition.
Frank Thomas seemed on pace to become the GRHE. Thomas, in his first 11 seasons (10 of them full seasons) hit .321/.440/.579, led the league in on-base percentage four times, slugging once, OPS+ three times and so on. But then, as we know, Thomas’ career fell off the way careers generally do after age 33. He battled injuries and inconsistency, he got a lot bigger, he only flashed his hitting brilliance occasionally. He was an all-time great, but he didn’t quite make it to the top floor.
Meanwhile Manny Ramirez was making his case. He was flaky and erratic and not always the world’s best teammate, but he really was a hitting genius, Legendary stories popped up about his hitting all the time — stories about how he would set up pitchers by swinging through their so-so curveballs during spring training or purposely work into a 3-2 count so the runner on first would be on the move when he crushed a double. Through age 34 he was slugging .600 with a 157 OPS+. But, Manny was a bit too dodgy to be the best right-handed hitter ever and then there was the positive PED tests and that was that.
Albert Pujols all but had the title when he was 31. At that point, he was hitting .328/.320/.617 with a 170 career OPS+ and three MVP awards (he probably deserved four or five). Pujols was ahead of the place of just about every meaningful record holder, lefty or righty. There seemed nothing that could slow him down. And then … he left St. Louis. He moved into a dreadful hitters ballpark and played for a wildly underachieving team. His body started to break down. Albert Pujols would have declined in St. Louis too .– maybe even at the same rate — but you do wonder if the story would have been a little bit different. All you can say for sure is that his pursuit of GRHE has slowed to a crawl.
And the man of the hour is Cabrera. The thing that blows you mind about Miggy as a hitter is that there is no concrete way to get him out. He crushes fastballs — two and four seamers — and you can’t throw a pitch hard enough to bother him. But he also crushes curveballs. He crushes sliders. He crushes change-ups. He crushes sinkers and he crushes cutters. Last year, by Fangraphs Pitch Values, he had positive values on EVERY ONE OF THOSE KINDS OF PITCHES. That just doesn’t happen. You could always at least try to change speeds against Pujols.
Look at this:
Values for Cabrera against each pitch:
Fastball: 2nd in American League behind Mike Trout.
Slider: 9th in American League.
Cutter: 1st in American League.
Curveball: 28th in American League.
Change-up: 6th in American League.
Split-finger: 26th in American League.
He was on the first page for every pitch they chart (except knuckleballs). And do you know why he ranked relatively low in curveball and split-finger? Because almost nobody throws those pitches to him. Nobody’s wants to throw soft stuff to Miguel Cabrera. He crushes that stuff. In 2010 and 2011, he finished Top 10 against the curveball.
They keep looking but just can’t find a consistent weakness in that swing. When Cabrera first came up with the Marlins, he was a bit of a free swinger and a high-strikeout guy. He struck out 148 times in his first full season, 125 times in his second. Now? Cabrera has not struck out even 100 times the last four years.
The last four years for Cabrera: .337/.425/.612 with a Triple Crown, two MVPs and a 177 OPS+.
The best four consecutive years for Pujols (2006-09): .335/.441/.637 with two MVPs and 179 OPS+.
The best four consecutive years for Foxx (1932-35): .350/.457/.687 with three home run titles and 195 OPS+.
The best four consecutive years for Mays (1962-65): .308/.386/.612 with three home run titles and 174 OPS+.
The best four consecutive years for Aaron (1959-962): .324/.381/.604 with battling title and 168 OPS+.
Yes, Miggy is in the race (we’ll leave Hornsby and Wagner out for now). Of course, what made Aaron and Mays so special was how long they performed at that extraordinary level. Aaron hit .300 with 40 homers at age 39, Mays was still hitting at 40. The recent contenders for GRHE all tended to drop off in their early 30s. We’ll see how Miggy ages. For now, he’s the best hitter in baseball.