Ask Alex: Can Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera combine for 80 homers?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year progresses.

The Situation: After three months of waiting, the second-best free agent on the market signed the second-biggest deal of the offseason. Everyone knew that Prince Fielder would get paid, but few guessed that he would wind up with the Detroit Tigers, where his father became the highest-paid player in baseball. Few also guessed that he'd get nine years and $214 million, which struck most outside observers as a premium the Tigers might come to regret paying.

For now, though, every other team in the AL Central is quaking in its shoes. Fielder can mash, and Cabrera is as devastating a hitter as there is in baseball. (Since 2009, Cabrera actually has a higher wOBA than Albert Pujols, .422 to .418.) Over their combined 16 years in baseball, they have combined for 507 homers.

The Question: Can Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera combine for 80 homers in 2012?

The Analysis: Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are two of the best hitters in baseball, and both have hit a lot of home runs in their career, so it's understandable to think that the sky's the limit for their combined offensive potential. Cabrera is one of the few hitters in baseball who might actually be better than Ryan Braun, and the two are probably the best offensive one-two punch in the game. Fielder's career high in homers is 50 (from 2007), and Cabrera's is 38 (from 2010).

But I don't think that they can even approach 80 homers together this year. Here's why.

First of all, Miguel Cabrera has never hit 40 homers. In 2011, while he led the majors in batting average (.344) and doubles (48), he had his lowest homer total in six years, hitting just 30 — despite setting a career high with 161 games played. Fielder hit 50 in 2007 and 46 in 2009, but last year he hit 38 and in 2010 he hit 32. Considering their recent efforts, Fielder and Cabrera's best hope for 80 would not be for both of them to hit 40, but for Fielder to hit 45 and Cabrera to hit 35.

Even still, that's going to be hard for Prince to do. Forty-homer seasons are just a lot rarer than they used to be, now that we're in the post-steroid era. Over the past 10 seasons, there were 63 different 40-homer seasons. Only four of them occurred in the last two years. So there is just less offense these days.

For example, in 2007, NL hitters bashed 2,705 homers in 100,796 plate appearances: hitters homered in 2.7 percent of their plate appearances. In 2011, NL hitters poked 2,281 dingers in 99,774 plate appearances, just a 2.3 percent home run rate. To put that in perspective, that would mean that Prince's 38 homers in 2011 were worth about 45 homers in 2007. Worse, Comerica Park in Detroit is simply a worse place to hit a home run than Miller Park in Milwaukee. In each of the last three years, by ESPN's Park Factors, Miller Park has tended to increase numbers from homerun hitters while Comerica has tended to decrease them.

The major projection systems agree that Fielder and Cabrera will pull up short. CAIRO sees 34 from Fielder and 32 from Cabrera, while ZiPS projects 37 from Fielder and 31 from Cabrera. (The ZiPS Fielder projection was made before he signed in Detroit, so it might be slightly lower now, due to the park factor.) The Bill James Handbook, which is almost always the most optimistic projection, forecasts 38 from Fielder and 35 from Cabrera.

Also, many people seem to think that having Cabrera in the lineup will increase Fielder's homer totals, or that having Fielder in the lineup will increase Cabrera's homer totals. Don't believe it. Numerous baseball researchers have attempted to find systematic evidence that hitter protection actually increases production — that having an amazing cleanup hitter actually improves the No. 3 hitter's results, or vice versa — and have failed. JC Bradbury and Will Carroll are two of the most recent. Being next to one another in the lineup may decrease intentional walk totals, but it won't hugely affect their offense.

The Forecast for 2012: The projection systems believe that Cabrera and Fielder's combined homers will top out around 70, and that's my prediction, too. (I'll say that they'll hit about 35 and 34, respectively.) They'll still have a smashing offense, and the Tigers are clearly the team to beat in the AL Central. But as gifted as Fielder and Cabrera are, they still have their limits. And 80 combined home runs is almost certainly above that limit.

Other Ask Alex questions for 2012
Can Jose Reyes repeat as NL batting champ?
• Will Julio Teheran or Matt Moore win rookie of the year?
• Will Alex Avila be an All-Star again?
• Can Michael Pineda keep his ERA under 4 in the AL East?
• Can Adam Dunn return to 30 home run territory?
• Can Jason Heyward return to his rookie form?
• Can Matt Kemp go 50/50?

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