Venezuela’s Tigres gunner, Miguel Cabrera, is about to hit 500 career home runs. When a player of his stature reaches a milestone, it is normal to wonder where he stands in history. Cabrera, who has been recognized as the MVP of the American League twice and is the last player to achieve the Triple Crown batting (in 2012), is considered one of the best right-handed hitters of all time and is in the conversation about the best in history.
But how exactly does Cabrera compare to the best right-handers in history? We asked MLB.com analysts Sarah Langs, Mike Petriello and Matt Kelly in our most recent panel discussion, moderated by editor Matt Meyers.
Matt Meyers (MLB.com editor): When I say this: Miguel Cabrera is the best right-hander of all time. What is your initial reaction?
Sarah Langs (analyst): The initial reaction is that it deserves to be part of the conversation, but I’m not sure if I would choose it. A great player – no disrespect – but another name comes to mind that I will mention later. Point aside: Comparing eras can be difficult and I admit that my first impulse with a question like this is the players of yesteryear.
Matt Kelly (analyst): I think when you remember that Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were straight … that makes things difficult for Cabrera. Different eras and Miggy probably faced superior pitching. But without detracting from Cabrera, there is no more select group than those two.
I think the most difficult comparison from Cabrera’s time is that of the Dominican Albert Pujols.
Mike Petriello (analyst): I mean, it shows enormous respect for Cabrera that we can ask this question, and he obviously sealed his Hall of Fame pass years ago. As cool as the 500 home runs (and, at some point, 3,000 hits) are, they’re not going to give a huge boost to an already-up-to-date bid.
But to be _the best of all time _you must have at least something to indicate that. It’s unbelievable that he has 18 double-figure home runs, but nine right-handed hitters have more. It is very impressive to see a wRC + of 143 in almost 11,000 visits to the plate in a lifetime … but Mays, [Frank] Thomas, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and [Mike] Schmidt did something similar or better.
This is an area that I do not agree with Sarah, because I tend to lean towards newer players, as I think it is more difficult to play now than before. Is Cabrera better than Manny Ramírez, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell? I’m not sure.
Meyers: Sarah… you mentioned that you tend to lean towards older players in these kinds of conversations. How should we evaluate players from the early years of baseball in this debate? For example, Roger Horsby is tied for the highest OPS + of a right hitter (with a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances). Does it deserve to be included in this conversation? Or do players from such a distant time not cross your mind?
Langs: I totally agree with you, Mike! I think it is more difficult now. I think I was more describing my own refusal to value anything else for being recent, and focusing on players that I have seen, just to be clear.
I was thinking more of players like Willie Mays or Hank Aaron when I referred to players from the past, but Hornsby is a great question. And the craziest thing is that he’s tied with a player whose career is still in progress (and therefore that number is always subject to change)… Mike Trout. In favor of Mike’s point, I think it’s something that says more about Trout than Hornsby, given the level of pitching today and the way it’s played. But I do think Hornsby deserves to be mentioned here, although I’m not sure if he would be someone’s immediate response.
Petriello: But let’s forget about the early 20th century ones for a moment. Is Cabrera the best right-hander of the 21st century? From the last 20 years?
Langs: From the MVP vote in 2012?
Kelly: I used to think that Cabrera was a bit overshadowed by Pujols during Miggy’s early years. Then, just as Cabrera explodes on the Tigers, Mike Trout appears.
Here’s what I find interesting, though: If you start the clock on Cabrera’s debut season, 2003, Miguel outscores Pujols in hits, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, and they’re basically tied. in times they reached base (4,206-4,195). Pujols started two years early (and they were great seasons), but Cabrera has fought head-to-head with him in basically everything except home runs. And if Miguel hadn’t played so many home games at Pro Player Stadium and Comerica Park, I think they would be much closer in that category as well.
Trout is obviously a more well-rounded talent and probably outperforms both of them. But Miggy is closer to Pujols than I imagined.
Meyers: When one debates these kinds of things, what value do we place on the peak of a player’s career vs. the total numbers? Should those great Pujols years, which were insane, put him on top of this conversation? After all, even including this extended phase of decline, it still reached all the important milestones. And Trout hasn’t started that stage of decline yet.
Kelly: Pujols’ first 11 years are in the conversation around the best first half of any player’s career in the history of the game. At least it is something to consider.
Petriello: Suffering a slump has to matter. We are not just talking about a “very good player”, but trying to get to “literally the best right hitter in history.” I wonder how differently we would look at Cabrera if these last five years had not been what they were.
From 20 to 33 years: OPS + of 155
From 34 to 38 years old: OPS + than 100
I guess there are worse things than “being an average hitter in your late 30s,” but still. None of this is going to help his all-time best case, especially when Mays had an OPS + of 145 from age 34 through the end of his career and Aaron had an OPS + of 151 from age 34.
Langs: I think that to be the best of all time in any area, the value of your total numbers has to carry more weight. I don’t know if it’s something awful and surprisingly “old school” on my part. But when I think of “the biggest”, that downturn can’t be that pronounced.
Kelly: Cabrera debuted at age 20 and won his second AL MVP in the season he played at age 30. This is a fun comparison to another right-hander who made his debut at 20.
Player A (20-year-old season to 30-year-old season): 6.510 VB, .320 / .376 / .567, 366 HR, 351 2B, 1.216 CI, 2.085 H, 603 BB **
Cabrera (20-year-old season to 30-year-old season): ** 6,218 VB, .321 / .399 / .568, 365 HR, 412 2B, 1,260 CI, 1,995 H, 799 BB
Player A? Henry Aaron! Very similar, right? But he managed to reach 40 better than any other player until Barry Bonds appeared. And that longevity is a huge part of why we have Aaron on a pedestal.
Meyers: Speaking of Aaron … Miguel is about to become the seventh player to surpass 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. The other right-handed hitters in that group are Aaron, Mays, A-Rod and Pujols. Perhaps those are the only names that belong in the conversation of the “best right-handed hitter ever.” They have to convince me otherwise.
Kelly: I’m not sure about power … especially since those four played in the days of integrated baseball. Anyone who has played before, you can recognize what they did, but it is difficult to visualize those times. It was a different game with diminished talent, due to segregation.
Langs: It is the ideal group, plus Trout, as we mentioned above, given its background. It will be a while for us to see so many individual achievements together again, but some of it has to do with how today’s players are managed, a strategy that we hope will help with longevity.
Petriello: Miguel and A-Rod have similar numbers. I don’t think you can have one without the other. (Remember, only on offense; Rodriguez was obviously a much more valuable defender.)
My best three are Mays, Aaron and Pujols.
Then comes Miguel, A-Rod, Manny Ramírez, Frank Robinson, etc.
Meyers: Any other active players (besides Trout) who might get into this conversation?
Kelly: If Juan Soto were straight!
Among those I can remember the fastest, Fernando Tatis Jr. is on the A-Rod trajectory. But there is the question of whether he will be able to stay healthy and if strikeout totals will affect him.
Langs: Wow, I hope one of those two names comes true. I wish.
Meyers: Well, last question: For each of you, who is the best right-handed hitter in history? They have to choose one.
Langs: Right now, right now, it has to be Willie Mays. He has the highest WAR (calculated by Baseball Reference) among all right-handed hitters in history. A total of home runs, more than 3,000 hits and an OPS + of 155. I can’t think of another player with whom I feel more comfortable when I need a hit with the season, series or championship at stake.
Kelly: I think Pujols was on his way before he signed the Angels deal, but to me he’s Aaron with a slight lead over Mays.
I know that Trout’s recent injuries are not a reflection of a decline in his body, but they are a reminder of what it takes to maintain that level of greatness as you approach your 30s. Pujols is the perfect example.