Cause of Miguel Cabrera's slump a mystery to Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera

Detroit – He was not interested in conversation. About any topic.

Miguel Cabrera waved off an invitation Monday to talk, anywhere in the vicinity of his corner clubhouse locker at Comerica Park, about a 2017 season that does not seem to make sense.

When he made clear there would be no answers, and no interview, Cabrera was beginning to dress for Monday night’s Tigers game against the Royals. Others were left to delve into possible reasons for why he was batting .256 after 83 games. His latest hitting spinout came during the Tigers’ road trip at Kansas City and Minnesota in which Cabrera was 3-for-23.

His numbers for July are another, stark glimpse into a 34-year-old man’s baffling year: 18 games, a .212 batting average, a .587 OPS.

Comparing his 2017 categories to career numbers are like studying two different players, realms apart.

Cabrera’s 15-season batting average Monday was .318, his on-base percentage .397, his OPS .954. He has averaged 34 home runs.

Monday’s season numbers were, apart from his .256 batting average, an on-base percentage of .346 and a lukewarm OPS of .768. He has hit 12 home runs.

It is bewildering data, not only because Cabrera has been considered for more than a decade as one of the game’s best all-time hitters, but because he is only three months past 34.

Such a decline would be out of the norm when there was no previous sign of deterioration. Nothing remotely close to a fade.

Playoff run would be tough hurdle for Tigers

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus parked in the Tigers dugout Monday afternoon talking about various team matters as his team got ready for a six-game homestand.

It was mentioned to Ausmus that a dramatic falloff, in a megastar’s hitting timeline, was so rare as to seem inexplicable.

“I think there’s unquestionably superstars that have had down years, I really do,” he said, recalling that Jeff Bagwell, a Hall of Fame slugger for the Astros when Ausmus played there, had a “down year in the mid- to late ‘90s when he was awful.”

In fact, Bagwell dropped from .368 in 1994, when he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player, to .290 in 1995, although his 1995 OPS was still a robust .891.

Bagwell had other, subsequent years hitting beneath .300. But his OPS remained .900-plus.

Cabrera’s 2017 season is not remotely close to those Bagwell off-seasons.

Ausmus agreed this summer is not to be confused with Cabrera’s past.

“It’s definitely not,” the Tigers skipper said. “Sometimes he’s chasing pitches out of the zone. Sometimes he’s fighting himself. And like any hitter who’s not performing the way they’d like to, he gets frustrated at times.”

Miguel Cabrera

One theory about Cabrera: his health. It is suspected something must be crimping his swing, perhaps related to a back strain he acknowledges happened in March during the World Baseball Classic.

If he has a back issue, that could easily explain why Cabrera’s power has slipped noticeably, particularly to left and to center field, where he once regularly bombed sky-scraping homers.

Ausmus says medical reports are consistent. Cabrera is not visiting the trainers. There are no reported issues.

“There are no injuries he’s told me about,” Ausmus said, adding: “Now, Miggy may keep it to himself.”

His words were meant not as doubt but as accepting possibilities Cabrera, who during past seasons has played with groin and ankle issues he often minimized, could, conceivably, be toughing out another season.

But there simply is no evidence of anything deep or debilitating affecting a first baseman whose hitting skills have for so long been so extraordinary.

Cabrera’s pure and obvious love for playing baseball can be seen in the way he kibitzes and kids with baserunners, fans, with anyone he encounters, spontaneously, during a game.

But his at-bats have not been pleasant. For him, or for those accustomed to a certain Hall of Fame hitter’s particular brand of annual batting prowess.

Cabrera, though, is not talking. The Tigers are not questioning. And so a season out of kilter and difficult to comprehend continues, with answers as elusive as those crushed home runs and doubles in which a superstar once specialized.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning