Miguel Cabrera stays positive in 2021, and the Detroit Tigers outperform expectations

Before the 2021 season began, we, along with everyone else, predicted that it would be a historic season for Miguel Cabrera. The team’s veteran anchor had within range two of baseball’s all-time career benchmarks: 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. On August 22, Cabrera knocked his 500th career homer over the right-center fence in Toronto, becoming just the twenty-eighth player in MLB history to accomplish that feat. And, even in the face of declining batting average and power production, Cabrera came within a baker’s dozen of 3,000 hits. He finished the year with a career total of 2,987, teeing up another exciting celebration for early in the 2022 season.

Also significant: according to WARP, Cabrera was a positive-value contributor to the Tigers in 2021. While not remotely glamorous, his 0.7 WARP represented his best seasonal performance by that metric since 2016. It also marks his nineteenth-consecutive year as a positive WARP contributor, keeping alive the possibility he finishes his career among the elite, selective group of players who played at least twenty-one seasons without tallying a negative in the wins-above-replacement column. Among active players, only Yadier Molina (eighteen seasons of positive WARP); Robinson Cano (sixteen seasons of non-negative WARP); and Joey Votto (fifteen seasons of non-negative WARP) even are candidates to join this group in the next six years, and the best bet probably is that none of them will make it. As much as anything, Cabrera’s contract, under which he’s signed through his twenty-first season (with extremely unlikely to vest options for more beyond that), makes this achievement a possibility.

As for the rest of the team, there were some other things to like in 2021 too. Other outlets have covered player and prospect development more comprehensively, so I’ll just add a note that the team as a whole outperformed the major projection systems’ preseason expectations (PECOTA: sixty-six wins; FanGraphs: seventy-one wins) by notching a lofty seventy-seven wins. There were some nice winning stretches this season, including a hot start to the second half, which afforded them, with five games to go, mathematical possibilities of finishing with a .500 record and second place in the division (alas, neither of those things occurred).

Finally, on the subject of projections and expectations, had 2021 played out the way PECOTA saw it before the season started, we would have seen some special oddities:

Cabrera didn’t hit a triple, and Buck Farmer did not earn his first career save, the latter a big miss for our readers, especially since the Tigers released Farmer in mid-August after just 35.1 innings pitched. Jeimer Candelario was not caught stealing all year, though, and Matthew Boyd at last notched a sub-4.00 ERA season. Not bad!

As nice as those small accomplishments appear, their respective contexts provide additional color. For Candelario, it was a nothing-ventured-nothing-lost situation. While he wasn’t caught stealing for the first time since 2017, nor did he successfully steal a base, something that also last occurred in 2017. Candelario, it appears, was not part of A.J. Hinch’s base-stealing revolution in Detroit. For Boyd, his 3.89 ERA made for a career-best mark, but it wasn’t a career-best season for him, as the Opening Day starter appeared in just fifteen games and pitched fewer than eighty innings, missing all of July and nearly all of August and September due to soreness in his throwing elbow. Boyd, who may be headed to free agency, likely would’ve traded a slightly worse ERA for a full season of healthy starts in 2021. A difficult reminder that PECOTA may be able to tell us the what (at least fifty percent of the time, anyway), but not the how or why.

Now it’s onto the postseason (the AL wild card round begins tonight) and, hopefully, an exciting and active offseason for the Tigers, who appear ripe to move aggressively back into contention for the division in 2022.

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