It may feel inevitable that Miguel Cabrera got here, and with a single to right field in his first at-bat on Saturday afternoon, he became the 33rd member of the 3,000-hit club and just the seventh major leaguer with both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. After all, when he first signed with the Marlins in 1999, his $1.9 million bonus was a record for a Venezuelan player. At age 20, he hit cleanup in the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, who beat the Yankees in six games. In his first full season, he hit .294 with 33 home runs, and in the following season, he hit .323, the first of his 11 seasons over .300.
Of course, you don’t project this kind of career for any player, no matter the talent, no matter the numbers he puts up at 21 years old. On the verge of joining Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez in the 3,000/500 club, Cabrera has combined the artistry of a singles hitter with the imposing persona of a slugger while adding enough longevity to still be playing at age 39.
At his best, he was the best hitter in the world, winning four batting titles in a five-year span from 2011 to 2015 while twice hitting 44 home runs. He won the Triple Crown in 2012 despite playing the final seven weeks on a sprained ankle that would have sent most players to the injured list. “You don’t hit good pitches,” he once said. “You hit mistakes.” That hitting philosophy undersells his ability to constantly adjust to how pitches were trying to get him out; he always seemed one step ahead of them.
He hasn’t been the Miguel Cabrera of his prime for a long time now — he last hit .300 in 2016 — and he’s limped his way to both milestones. Still, he’s now a member of one of the rarest, coolest groups in major league history. Let’s compare the seven players in a few different hitting categories.
Hitting for average
Miguel Cabrera, .310
Henry Aaron, .305
Willie Mays, .302
Albert Pujols, .297
Alex Rodriguez, .295
Rafael Palmeiro, .288
Eddie Murray, .287
Cabrera’s four batting titles are a remarkable achievement for any right-handed batter, since right-handed batters in general don’t win as many batting championships as left-handers. Cabrera won his while carrying a piano and two violin players on his back, making that run even more amazing (consider that similar, slow righty hitters Manny Ramirez, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez combined for just four batting titles). Cabrera’s titles also came at the beginning of the big velocity era, a time when league-wide averages began to drop; the American League average was below .260 in all four of Cabrera’s batting crown seasons.
Here’s another way to look at this. Baseball-Reference tracks a player’s batting average compared to what an average non-pitcher would have hit in the same park. We can compare the seven players over their careers using this methodology to see how many points above the league average they were:
Cabrera: +50 points
Five of the seven players won at least one batting title, but only Aaron joined Cabrera with more than one (he won two). Palmeiro came up as a high-average, moderate power hitter with the Cubs and Rangers, finishing second and third in the batting races in 1988 and 1990, before he, umm, transformed his game and started swinging for the fences. Pujols has two of the three highest individual seasons on the list, hitting .359 in 2003 and .357 in 2008, and he owned a .331 career average through his first 10 seasons, but has hit just .261 since and the second half of his career counts as well. So Cabrera, despite the swoon in recent years, still ranks No. 1 overall in this category.
A-Rod is the player who looked like he would win a trophy case full of batting titles after he hit .358 in his first full season to lead the American League. While he did top .300 eight more times, he had just two more top-10 finishes in the batting race (seventh in 2001, second in 2005). Rodriguez made the calculated decision to sacrifice contact for power as his three best seasons in contact rate were his first three full seasons from 1996 to 1998, and it was probably the correct one, but that 1996 season remains my favorite Rodriguez season.
Hitting for power
Rodriguez (696 HRs, .255 isolated power)
Mays (660 HRs, .255 isolated power)
Aaron (755 HRs, .250 isolated power)
Pujols (681 HRs, .247 isolated power)
Palmeiro (569 HRs, .226 isolated power)
Cabrera (502 HRs, .222 isolated power)
Murray (504 HRs, .189 isolated power)
How to measure power? Aaron leads the group in career home runs, although it should be pointed out that Mays missed nearly two full seasons while in the Army. He did hit 92 home runs his first two seasons back, so he might have been right up there with Aaron’s 755 otherwise. Aaron certainly wasn’t known for his Titanic blasts, and while he never hit 50 in a season, he did top 40 eight times — a total matched by Rodriguez and (and Barry Bonds and Harmon Killebrew) and exceeded only by Babe Ruth’s 11.
Isolated power is a good way to measure this category — it’s simply slugging percentage minus batting average, so subtracts singles from the equation and looks only at extra-base hits. Rodriguez and Mays end up tied with Aaron close behind. Cabrera ranks just sixth here, maybe not a surprise since he has just two 40-homer seasons. Even Palmeiro had four. But that tells more about the kind of hitter Cabrera was than any lack of raw power — he really was a high-average hitter who sprayed the ball all over the field. If he came up today, he’d probably be taught to focus more on launch angle.
We can measure his all-fields power approach by looking at the percentage of career home runs he hit to center field or the opposite field. Let’s compare to the others with whom we have complete data:
Cabrera: 59% pull, 41% to center/opposite
Rodriguez: 58% pull, 42% to center/opposite
Pujols: 73% pull, 27% to center/opposite
Palmeiro: 80% pull, 20% to center/opposite
Certainly, a much different approach than the more pull-heavy Pujols. Cabrera has also spent his entire career in tough home run parks in Miami and then Detroit — although Comerica isn’t necessarily a poor hitter’s park, as the big gap in right-center makes it a good doubles and triples park. The raw numbers say Cabrera hasn’t been hurt much in the home run department though: 249 home runs at home, 253 on the road. I checked his prime years with the Tigers, 2008 to 2016, and the numbers are again pretty even, with 155 home runs at home and 153 on the road.
Short-term Peak: Three Best Seasons
As ranked by the average of wRC+ (weighted runs created) over three seasons:
Pujols: 182.3 (184, 184, 180)
Aaron: 182.0 (191, 178, 177)
Cabrera: 180.3 (193, 177, 171)
Mays: 177.7 (186, 174, 173)
Rodriguez: 169.3 (175, 174, 159)
Murray: 153.7 (155, 153, 153)
Palmeiro: 150.7 (156, 152, 144)
This is where context comes into play. Cabrera’s 2013 season ranks as the best in the entire group. He hit .348/.442/.636 that season — all three figures actually topped his Triple Crown slash line from 2012. The American League averaged a relatively moderate 4.33 runs per game that season. Compare to say, Rodriguez’s 2007 season, when he hit .314/.422/.645 with 54 home runs — his 1.067 OPS nearly matching Cabrera’s 1.078. But the AL averaged 4.90 runs per game that season, so even before factoring in ballparks, Cabrera played in a much lower run environment, making his wRC+ higher.
Pujols stands out here not just in terms of the sabermetric numbers, but in raw numbers as well: He’s the only player with a 1.100 OPS season — and he had four of them in 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2009. Those latter two were his second and third MVP seasons. One big difference between Pujols and Cabrera: Pujols never struck out 100 times in a season; Cabrera has 11 100-strikeout seasons.
Long-term Peak: 12 Best Seasons
I’m cherry-picking using 12 seasons because it coincides with Cabrera’s 12-season run from 2005 to 2016, when he hit .326/.405/.571 and averaged 33 home runs and 115 RBIs. We’ll rank via OPS+ from Baseball-Reference:
Pujols, 2001-11: 40 HR, 120 RBI, 168 OPS+
Mays, 1954-1965: 40 HR, 109 RBI, 167 OPS+
Aaron, 1962-73: 38 HR, 106 RBI, 164 OPS+
Cabrera, 2005-2016: 33 HR, 115 RBI, 159 OPS+
Rodriguez, 1996-07: 43 HR, 124 RBI, 150 OPS+
Murray, 1979-90: 27 HR, 99 RBI, 142 OPS+
Palmeiro, 1992-03: 38 HR, 113 RBI, 137 OPS+
Pujols’ 12-year run conveniently includes his entire stint in St. Louis before leaving for the Angels, a remarkable journey in which he hit .329/.421/.617 with 447 home runs. I’m comfortable with him in the top spot, just a hair above Mays, whose 12-year peak actually ends with what was probably his best offensive season in 1965, when he won MVP honors after hitting .317/.398/.645 with 52 home runs.
A word about Aaron. A 12-year peak doesn’t do him justice. Get this: His 17-year peak, from 1957 to 1973, produces the same OPS+ of 164. That’s how absurdly great his career was; his 17-year-peak is as good as his best 12-year peak! In fact, that 1962-to-1973 run doesn’t even include his 1957 MVP season when he hit .322 with 44 home runs, or either of his two batting titles in 1956 and 1959.
Cabrera was devastatingly consistent during his run, reaching a 150 OPS+ in 10 of the 12 seasons. In his “worst” season in the run in 2008, he still led the AL with 37 home runs and drove in 127 runs.
Rodriguez’s power numbers are off the charts, including three 50-homer seasons, but his run coincides with one of the highest-scoring eras in history. Indeed, the AL averaged more than five runs per game in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2004, and even in the post-steroids era seasons of 2006 and 2007, averaged more than 4.90 runs per game.
Who was the best hitter overall? It’s hard to overlook Aaron’s longevity and consistency, even more so than Mays, who tailed off a little earlier in his career than Aaron did. Cabrera likewise was unable to keep his run going in his mid-to-late 30s, but he’s still out there playing. His dad was a professional baseball player in Venezuela, and his mom was a softball legend for the national team. No doubt, he was born to hit: 3,000 hits and 500 home runs will be his lasting legacy as one of the best ever.