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10 Degrees: Miguel Cabrera's brilliance taking a backseat to baseball's pariahs

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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Miguel Cabrera hit a ninth-inning walk off home run against the Royals on Saturday. (Getty)


The greatness of Miguel Cabrera will get its due. In five years, or 10, or 25, or 100, when we’ve rid our minds of the telenovela that is Alex Rodriguez’s life and forgotten that Ryan Braun, who wasn’t even raised Jewish, used anti-Semitic charges to smear an innocent man, Cabrera's amazing 2013 season will be appreciated for what it is, which is potentially one of the best hitting seasons ever.

This is not an exaggeration. Today, Cabrera is hitting .360/.452/.689. Only eight players in history have finished seasons with numbers that high in each triple-slash category. He has 40 home runs and 120 RBIs. In a ludicrous strikeout environment, he has almost as many walks as strikeouts. He is batting .437/.552/.881 with runners in scoring position. That is not a misprint. Neither is this: With runners in scoring position and two outs, those numbers jump to .451/.594/.941.

Cabrera won the Triple Crown last year. He is leaps-and-bounds better this year. His OPS by month (.995, 1.222, 1.196, 1.028 and 1.265 thus far in August) dwarfs last season’s in all but July (.939, .839, .991, 1.086, 1.092). Since the All-Star break, Cabrera has 10 home runs and 11 strikeouts.

[Related: Miguel Cabrera gives Tigers walkoff win]

His numbers are so good, so unparalleled, it’s easy to drown in them, so perhaps it’s better to explain the joy in watching Cabrera hit. It is a privilege to watch any master of craft at his or her peak. A talented painter makes watching paint dry seem fascinating. A winemaker expounding on tannins turns science into deep narrative. The single, simple act of a player hitting a baseball takes on added meaning when he hits it this hard and this often and with this much success. Cabrera at-bats are events, even if more than half the time they end with a whimper. The other half, when they don’t, lifts people to a special place only a handful of athletes in any sport reach. It is sports’ pinnacle, and Cabrera may well be at his, too.

It is why plenty are asking the question whether ...

1. Miguel Cabrera is the greatest right-handed hitter of all time, a fair question only because we tend to inflate the accomplishments of the present. In truth, the answer is a resounding no*, with the asterisk allowing that, sure, someday maybe he will be, but first he has to become the best right-handed hitter of his own generation, and he’s not even close.

Cabrera is 30. Here are his career numbers through his age-30 season compared to fellow right-handed hitter Albert Pujols.

 ABRHHRRBIBAOBPSLGOPS+BBK
MC6,1071,0501,9623611,243.321.399.5701557811,182
AP5,7331,1861,9004081,230.331.426.624165914646

If Miguel Cabrera retired today, he would be a Hall of Famer. He won last year’s MVP award and likely will run away with this season’s. He’s on the way to his third consecutive batting title. He is a batting freak, that much more talented than everyone else in the game today.

That said, after the last three years, the three worst of Pujols’ career, his OPS+ – on-base-plus-slugging adjusted to the league average, with 100 being average – is still 165, a full 10 points higher than Cabrera’s. So let’s not go crowning Cabrera quite yet ahead of Pujols or Rogers Hornsby or Jimmie Foxx or Henry Aaron or Willie Mays. He and ...

2. Clayton Kershaw can wait for the all-time-great plaudits and stick with MVP awards for this season. And, yes, at this juncture the case is building for Kershaw to become the second starting pitcher in a three-year span to lock down an MVP award. Assuming Kershaw stays on schedule, he likely will make eight more starts during the regular season. Extrapolating out his numbers, this would be his final line compared to Justin Verlander’s 2011 AL MVP season.

 GSIPWLHBBKHRERAERA+
JV3425124517457250242.40172
CK34253.216916353243121.80198

A lot of the important numbers are nearly identical. Both average nearly eight innings a start, a strikeout an inning and two walks per nine. Kershaw does a better job of keeping the ball in the stadium, likely accounting for the difference in ERA. Verlander, of course, had the gaudy win total, and if that happens to be a differentiating factor for voters – that and Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig’s cases for MVP votes potentially stealing heat from Kershaw’s, too – then ... 

[Related: Phillies snap Dodgers' 10-game winning streak]

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Andrew McCutchen does a little bit of everything for the Pirates. (AP)

3. Andrew McCutchen becomes the favorite in the NL. He was lurking in MVP contention before the All-Star break, and all he’s done since is hit .355/.438/.618 while keeping the Pirates on top of the National League Central division and, absent an epic collapse, primed to make the postseason for the first time since Barry Bonds roamed the Pittsburgh outfield.

McCutchen doesn’t look the typical MVP. He is not tall. He is not strapping. He is not the best at any one thing. He’s just a really, really, really good baseball player. He patrols an important position (center field) efficiently. He’s good for a .300-or-better average. He walks enough and doesn’t strike out much. He’ll launch 25-or-so home runs a year. He should steal 30-plus bases a year. McCutchen does everything well, and in a season where there are no monster hitters and the best player is a pitcher, he could be the prohibitive favorite, particularly if Pittsburgh wins the Central. It’s team, after all, that’s keeping ...

4. Paul Goldschmidt from being right there with McCutchen. One could argue he’s got a better case than McCutchen. Almost twice as many home runs. About 40 points more in slugging percentage. Exact same on-base percentage. And his penchant for the dramatic – in the ninth inning this season, Goldschmidt is batting .486/.525/.973 with a home run every six at-bats – bolsters his candidacy.

Still, Goldschmidt is a first baseman, a position with inherently less value, and more than that he plays for a team that at the moment sits six games back in the playoff race. If one of the three teams in the Central falters, suddenly the Diamondbacks’ chances, as well as those of Goldschmidt, are bolstered significantly. Until then, he is a guy primed to grab a lot of third- and fourth-place votes, no small achievement for a 25-year-old who went in the eighth round with minimal fanfare.

It’s much easier to lurk under the radar than live in the spotlight like ...

5. Jason Heyward did upon his arrival in the big leagues. He was going to be a baseball demigod, hitting for average and power and leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He was great in his first season, then mediocre in his second, then pretty good again last year, and dreadful for most of this season.

Then the Atlanta Braves moved him to the top of the batting order, and voila: Over 21 games, he’s hitting .370/.433/.630. He had six straight multihit games and two more of the previous three. He does not look like your prototypical leadoff hitter in that Heyward is a giant human being, but his skillset certainly suits the job – get on base, get on base, get on base – and it’s damn sure better than using B.J. Upton there.

[Related: Braves fan who fell to his death was Turner Field regular]

It’s easy to forget Heyward is still just 24. He seems like he’s been around forever, and that’s not a bad thing when it comes to his development. His swing can get all catawampus, and that may send him into spirals but enough potential greatness exists in him still to be the sort of player who finds himself alongside McCutchen and Goldschmidt in future awards votings. It’s more likely Kershaw ends up next to ... 

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Craig Kimbrel continues to baffle opponents in the ninth inning for the Braves. (USA Today)

6. Craig Kimbrel in future Cy Young voting. One of these years, so long as his arm cooperates, Kimbrel is bound to find himself there. Voters in the past have rewarded dominant relief seasons, and Kimbrel, 25, is pretty much the most dominant reliever in history.

Really, take a look at what he’s done in his first four seasons. Among relievers with at least 150 innings pitched in their first four seasons (Kimbrel came up for 21 games in 2010), here are Kimbrel’s ranks.

ERA: 1st (1.37)
ERA+: 1st (287)
K/9: 1st (15.38)
H/9: 1st (4.87)
Saves: 2nd (128, and five away from going into first)
K/BB: 5th (4.56)

This is ever. And while it’s fair to note the modern relief pitcher is really an invention of the last 30 years, that’s a large enough sample to represent how much better Kimbrel has been. Though Aroldis Chapman’s numbers are similar, Kimbrel beats him in almost every category. He is an absolute marvel, a paragon of his position and the rightful heir to Mariano Rivera. Only he’s more powerful, like Mo evolved into a strikeout machine, the relief version of ...

7. Yu Darvish and his sparkling strikeout rate. Speaking of history: Only eight times has a starter finished a full season by striking out more than 12 hitters per nine innings. Randy Johnson did six of them, Pedro Martinez once and Kerry Wood the other. Darvish is at 11.96, an absurd rate for anyone and a particularly impressive one seeing as his best effort in Japan was his final season at 10.71.

To come to Major League Baseball, a markedly more difficult league, and not just maintain but grow into this beast of a No. 1 starter, makes Darvish’s arrival a watershed moment for baseball. This is Hideo Nomo but better. And lest you think it’s just Darvish pummeling the Houston Astros: take out his four games against them and he’s still striking out 11.72 per nine, which would be the 10th best in history rather than the ninth.

[Related: Did umpire cost Yu Darvish shot at a perfect game?]

The Texas Rangers spent more than $100 million to secure six years of Darvish, and this season alone, during which they’ve weathered an inordinate amount of pitching injuries, has made that investment look savvy. Perhaps at some point the wear and tear of Japanese baseball will catch up with his arm, but in the meantime, this is a nine-figure player, same as ...

8. Jayson Werth has looked for the last two seasons when he’s been on the field, and particularly the second half this year. One player this year has a better second-half OPS than Miguel Cabrera. Who? The $126 million man in Washington.

Werth’s much-maligned contract got off to a bad start with a rough 2011, and a broken wrist last season and hamstring strain limited his playing time this season. Since the All-Star break, Werth has been unstoppable, hitting .426/.501/.691.

Repeating it going forward is the challenge. Werth has always hit when he’s healthy, and turning 35 next May doesn’t make that task any easier. Why, just ask ... 

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A-Rod's line for this year: .319 BA, two HRs, six runs, six RBI.

9. Alex Rodriguez what the body can do to a player. Or, better yet, query Joe Tacopina. He’s more than happy to tell you, and Matt Lauer, and his next-door neighbor, and anybody willing to listen to the aural assault he delivers day after lawyering day.

A-Rod makes this 10 Degrees because he’s playing well – no, really, he’s hitting for average and a little power and looks the best he has in the field in years – but to ignore the circus around him would be like not talking about the pink elephant in the room.

We are in the middle of one of the all-time hitting seasons from a man at his absolute apex, and instead it’s impossible to ignore the antics of a 38-year-old man who broke rules by using performance-enhancing drugs for years and has of his own volition turned the entire thing into the Woodstock of crapshows. He hired a blustery lawyer, then hired an even bigger windbag, and all so they could blow crosswinds meant to bring everyone away from, you know, the actual point, which is and should be: Did Alex Rodriguez use performance-enhancing drugs? A question he hasn’t answered, by the way, because there’s no point in confirming what everybody already knows.

[Related: Boston’s Ryan Dempster hits Alex Rodriguez but fails to get vengeance]

All the things intersecting at this disaster – A-Rod trying to get his money and unleash vengeance on the Yankees and be a martyr for future players – take away from what should be the dominant story in baseball, which is …

10. Miguel Cabrera and the amazing things he does. Funny thing is, Alex Rodriguez used to do these things. He was the best hitter in baseball, and he has all of the counting numbers that Miggy is barreling toward, the MVP awards and honors and, at least at one time, love.

What people are saying about Cabrera now – is he the greatest right-handed hitter ever – they were also saying about A-Rod. Because through age 30, he was more than 100 home runs ahead of Cabrera, had a better slugging percentage, 200-plus more stolen bases. Miguel Cabrera is fighting for best-hitter titles. A-Rod was in the best-player-ever discussion.

That is gone, vanished amid questions over just how much of what he did wasn’t with PEDs coursing through his system. None of those same suspicions have arisen with Cabrera, perhaps because of his body, which is far from an Adonis, and maybe because deep down no one wants them to be true. He has tested clean, though the Biogenesis case proved how ineffectual the current testing system can be.

Ultimately, the clean superstar is baseball’s great hope. The Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez a $275 million contract because they thought he was. Now it’s Miguel Cabrera’s turn, and as all of the extracurricular activities around baseball threaten to bury his accomplishments, all the sport can do is wish that this is all legit. Because what he’s doing is marvelous, and nothing ruining it would make it that much better.

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