August 19, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Kurt Mensching

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera's numbers on pace with all-time greats

It’s hard to say what’s more amazing about Miguel Cabrera — that during the first 1,620 games of his career he’s keeping pace with Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and very nearly Willie Mays, or that while battling nagging injuries Cabrera is having a season that makes the rest of his career pale in comparison.

Either way, with six weeks left in the season it’s hard to see anyone but Cabrera winning the American League’s MVP trophy at the end of the year, and the funny thing about Cabrera is you really wouldn’t find yourself that surprised if he earned a second straight Triple Crown as well.

Timeless performance

First the historical comparisons. Through his first 1,620 games, or 10 full seasons, Cabrera hit .321 with a .399 on-base percentage and a .569 slugging percentage. He averaged about 36 home runs and 123 run batted in per 162 games.

First-ballot hall of famer Hank Aaron hit .319/.375/.566 with an average 36 home runs and 119 RBIs during his first 1,620 games. Fellow first-ballot hall of famer Frank Robinson batted .304/.390/.560 during his first 1,620 games, averaging 36 home runs and 110 RBIs.

Your gut might say you can’t easily compare eras, right? Baseball goes through cycles. A 50-homer season sounds like a lot this year but was commonplace during the game’s steroid-enhanced era.

Knowing that, some find it useful to compare players against their peers using a statistic called OPS+. That is, how does a player’s on-base-plus-slugging compare to other hitters that year, adjusting for a batter’s home ballpark.

Cabrera’s career OPS+ through 1,620 games was 155. Another way of saying it is he produces 55 percent more runs than an average player. Aaron and Robinson had an OPS+ of about 157 and 154, respectively, through their first 1,620 games.

It is fair to note Cabrera didn’t steal bases like either of those players, nor like Mays, whose OPS+ during his first 1,620 games was 162.

So, Cabrera has been good — really good.

What about this year?

Rarefied air

Entering Sunday, Cabrera was hitting .358 with a .450 OBP and .677 slugging. With 47 games left in the year, he’s already at 39 home runs and 116 RBIs. In other words, he’s way better than his averages.

He’s also way better than the average batter. Last year, while winning the Triple Crown, Cabera’s OPS+ was 165.

This year, it’s an amazing 201.

That would rank as the 43rd-best OPS+ season since 1900, tying fellow Tiger Norm Cash’s 1961 year. Among right-handed batters, it would be the 12th-best season since 1900.

Eliminate the “enhanced” seasons by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that rank above him, and Cabrera looks even better.

No other modern player, not even Albert Pujols, has had a better year.

Detroit fans have the fortune of watching one of the best batters of modern times ply his trade.

You could peruse a thesaurus all day and the superlatives would fall short of describing the year that has unfolded at Comerica Park.

Finally, we could talk about the MVP debate, but it’s not much of a debate.

Baltimore’s Chris Davis is having a great season. Any other year, numbers like a 1.052 OPS (179 OPS+) to go along with 44 home runs and 112 RBIs up to this point would almost guarantee an MVP award. Davis picked a bad year to have a great season.

Los Angeles’ Mike Trout has actually improved upon his historic rookie year. With a 1.000 OPS himself (his 183 OPS+ is higher than Davis’ because he plays in a pitcher’s park in Anaheim, Calif.) and 27 stolen bases, Trout could be considered to be having an MVP year, too.

But not this year.

Cabrera’s season is a trump card — it’s the best season in the career of the best batter on one of the best teams in baseball.

It may be August, but you can write it in ink: Miguel Cabrera, 2013 AL MVP.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com

Detroit fans have the fortune of watching Miguel Cabera, one of the best batters of modern times, ply his trade. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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