Having gone 4-for-5 with a home run on Monday night, Miguel Cabrera now stands alone as the leader in all three Triple Crown categories with just two games left in the regular season. He has a four-point lead in batting average over Mike Trout (who also went 4-for-5 on Monday night), .329 to .325. His home run Monday night broke a tie with Josh Hamilton, putting Cabrera up by one in that category, 44 to 43, and he holds a comfortable 10-RBI lead over Hamilton, 137 to 127. Those home run and RBI totals are career highs for Cabrera, who has also set career highs in hits (203) and total bases (375) this season. Yet, despite all of that and the increasing likelihood that he will win the first Triple Crown since 1967, 2012 has not been Cabrera's best season at the plate, which tells you just how great a hitter Miguel Cabrera is.
There are many ways to evaluate a player's performance. Per the career highs listed above, 2012 has been Cabrera's best season in terms of accumulation, but by almost any other measure it falls short of his best. In fact, Cabrera has had three seasons that rival his current one for that distinction: 2006, when he was still with the Marlins and a mere 23 years old, and the last two, 2010 and 2011, both with the Tigers.
Start with his rate stats. Cabrera enters Tuesday's action with a slash line of .329/.393/.608, but in 2010 he hit .328/.420/.622, a point shy of this season in batting average, but well ahead of this season in the other two, far more important categories of on-base percentage and slugging percentage. That .622 slugging percentage was Cabrera's career high, but he posted even better on-base percentages in 2006 (.430) and 2011 (.448). He also hit .339 and .344, respectively, in those seasons, leading the majors in both batting average and on-base percentage last year. As a result, those two seasons also edge this year in two of the three rate stats.
On-base Plus Slugging (OPS) was devised to make it easier to compare slash lines, and Cabrera's best OPS was 2010 (1.042) followed by 2011 (1.033), while his 1.001 mark this year is just three points ahead of his .998 mark from 2006. Using an OPS alternative that I prefer, Gross Production Average, which gives extra weight to the more-important on-base percentage and places the result on the same scale as batting average, Cabrera's best seasons have been 2011 (.348), 2010 (.345), and 2006 (.336) with this season's .329 coming in fourth. However, when you use OPS+, which adjusts OPS figures to account for his home ballpark and the league's scoring levels, the current season pulls back ahead of 2006 due to the higher scoring levels in the earlier campaign. The tally there: 179 OPS+ in 2011, 178 in 2010, 166 this year, and 159 in 2006.
So if Cabrera was so good in those other seasons, why is he setting all of those career highs in this one? Well, in 2006 he just didn't hit for as much power, which isn't surprising given that, again, he was just 23 years old. Cabrera's Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) in 2006 was .229, the third-lowest of his nine full major league seasons. His career ISO is .243 and over the past three seasons it has been .271. Cabrera hit just 26 home runs in 2006, his lowest full-season total, though he still drove in 116 runs, collected 195 hits and accumulated 344 total bases.
In 2010, the season in which Cabrera probably should have won the Most Valuable Player award over Josh Hamilton, he missed 10 games due to a variety of short-term ailments, most significantly a high ankle sprain that ended his season six days early. Cabrera hit 38 home runs that year, his career high prior to this season, drove in a major league best 126 runs, one shy of his previous career best from 2008, and accumulated 341 total bases, though he had just 180 hits. He also set a career high with a .294 ISO and led the majors in OPS+.
Last year, Cabrera set a career high with 108 walks, which limited his opportunities to put up big counting stats. By comparison, he has walked just 66 times this season, the third-lowest total of his nine full big league seasons. A large part of that is the difference between hitting ahead of Victor Martinez, as he did last year, and Price Fielder, as he has this year. Martinez is a very good hitter who had an outstanding season in 2011, but he hit just 12 home runs last year and has a career high of 25.
That doesn't represent the same threat as Fielder, who has gone deep 30 times this year and averaged 40 home runs a year over the last five. Opponents were simply more willing to pitch around Cabrera last year. As a result of all of those walks, Cabrera had just 572 at-bats in 161 games last year compared to the career-high 617 he has had in 159 games this season. In addition to that, his power was down (.241 ISO, a tick below his career rate). The result was a "mere" 30 home runs and 105 RBIs, though he did still collect 197 hits and 335 total bases.
So which of Cabrera's seasons has been the best? Let's go to the big guns. If we limit our conversation to his hitting, the best available statistic is Baseball Prospectus's True Average, which combines all aspects of hitting into a rate stat on the batting average scale that is adjusted for league and ballpark, but leaves baserunning and defense out of the picture entirely. According to True Average, Cabrera's best seasons look like this:
Last year wins out thanks largely to that .448 on-base percentage, which was a whopping 55 points higher than his current mark this season. Second place goes to 2010, which saw Cabrera post better rate stats across the board (save for that one point of batting average) and hit for more power than in any other year of his career but miss 10 games. The current season is a distant third, though .332 is still an outstanding (remember, the statistic uses the batting average scale, so .300 is very good).
None of this is meant to diminish Cabrera's performance this season. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that he does this sort of thing every year. Over the past three seasons, Cabrera has hit .334/.420/.605 while averaging 37 home runs and 123 RBIs. In his nine full major league seasons, he's hitting .321 and averaging 34 home runs and 118 RBIs. Those are his average Triple Crown stats from the age of 21 to the present. He might win the Triple Crown this year because he's swinging the bat more often, but he's not doing any more damage when he swings than he usually does.