The last time a player wearing a Tigers uniform did it was on a Tuesday night in September 1974, at Baltimore, where a crowd that might or might not have been as large as the 11,492 listed watched a game between Detroit and the Baltimore Orioles.
Leading off the Tigers’ fourth, Al Kaline stroked a right-field-line bullet against Dave McNally for a double. It was, for Kaline, hit No. 3,000 in his 22-year Hall of Fame career.
As for 500 home runs, no Detroit player has ever reached it — not while dressed in Tigers togs. Which makes Miguel Cabrera’s dual goals and milestones in 2021 so compelling, and captivating.
It figures to be a kind of docudrama that plays out, probably filled with suspense, during this six-month, 2021 Tigers season. Cabrera for 14 seasons has been a Tigers giant of varying proportions. He is an all-but-certain Hall of Famer. He is a man who a decade ago was considered to be, perhaps, one of the five best right-handed hitters in big-league history.
Now, after a four-year slide, he needs 13 homers to reach that dreamy 500-mark. He needs 134 hits to join the 32 maestros who have collected 3,000 hits.
Doing both is unfathomably rare. Only six men in 120-plus years of big-league baseball have pulled off the 500/3,000 combo: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Eddie Murray, Albert Pujols and Rafael Palmeiro. Reaching both plateaus in the same season? That figures to be double-drama coming Cabrera’s and Tigers’ fans way in 2021. Not one of the above six grabbed both prizes in the same year.
Any such quest for Cabrera happens only if one condition cooperates: health.
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Cabrera, at least as baseball’s performance projections go, must play something closer to the 134 games he played during MLB’s last full season, in 2019.
Nothing is guaranteed there, especially when you are turning 38 on April 18 and when your last four seasons feature these game totals: 130, 38, 136 — and 57 as COVID crimped the 2020 schedule.
Still, it should – as much as that word can be used in sports — be achievable. Cabrera’s spring camp suggested as much. He was in streamlined condition, as he has been the past two years. He hit two home runs. He rolled up overall puny numbers — .225 batting average, .650 OPS. But as his manager, AJ Hinch, noted earlier this week, Cabrera has been working almost exclusively on his opposite-field swing, a form of discipline Cabrera views as mandatory during spring camp.
Also true is that the ball does not rocket from his bat with the frequency and pyrotechnics for which Cabrera once was known, all after he first arrived in the big leagues, with the Miami Marlins in 2003.
He no longer is the fearsome hitter who won a Triple Crown with the Tigers in 2012 when he hit .330, with 44 homers and 139 RBIs. In fact, because of various ills, ranging from a bad knee, to a damaged ankle, as well as to a torn biceps muscle that wiped out most of his 2018 season, Cabrera has become a low-profile version of his old, majestic self. His cumulative WAR (wins above replacement) from the past four seasons is minus-0.4. This, from a man who was running up plus-7 WAR seasons during his prime.
Still, he is under contract through 2023. And, still, he is Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers will use him regularly, with ample time off, as their designated hitter and occasional choice at first base.
His hunting of those 500 and 3,000 marks in 2021 will, national analysts say, be touch-and-go in terms of reaching both heights, particularly with respect to 3,000 hits.
“I’ve got Miggy at 24% to get hit 3,000 and 62% to get to 500 (homers) this year,” said Dan Szymborski, a senior writer for FanGraphs, ESPN contributor and inventor of the ZIPS system that projects future MLB player-performance.
With the 500-homer height more achievable for 2021, Szymborski pegs Cabrera’s grand power prize to arrive on Aug. 31, an evening when the Tigers are scheduled to play the A’s at Comerica Park.
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Szymborski’s cohort at FanGraphs, Jay Jaffe, has a slightly different Cabrera calculation for both 500 and 3,000. Jaffe submits that Cabrera will hit both bull’s eyes. This year.
Jaffe’s forecast, which he says is more of a FanGraphs measurement than his, solely, is for Cabrera to slug 22 homers in 2021 and finish with 144 hits.
“If I’m guessing,” Jaffe said, “let’s say July 23 for home-run 500, and Sept. 24 for hit-3,000.”
Mike Petriello, a columnist for MLB.com, and host of the Statcast podcast, takes an adventuresome path in plotting Cabrera’s dual pursuits.
Cabrera is expected to hit one home run every 30.9 plate-appearances, based on Petriello’s research, which means Cabrera will require 402 plate-appearances in 2021.
“That’s 71 percent of a projection-averaged 568 plate-appearances,” Petriello said. “Which sounds like a lot for him to actually get.
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“But I was also surprised to find that 2018 was his only really (non-pandemic) injury-ruined season. If he played every day, 71-percent of the way through the season would be Game 115, Aug. 7 at Cleveland.
“But who really believes he’s playing every day?” Petriello asked, acknowledging that Cabrera and injuries have had a certain duality the past eight years.
Petriello traipses deeper into the weeds with his calendar and probabilities.
“I’ll say he gets one day off every seven game, which would put him (at 500 homers) more like Game 130, which is Aug. 25, Tigers at the Cardinals.”
Petriello can’t help himself. This is an exercise designed for a certain amount of playfulness.
“Because these are made-up rules and nothing matters,” he said, likely with a grin, “I’ll also say that they (the Tigers) would rather that he get 500 at home than in the final game of a road trip — so he’ll get that day off.”
Therefore, Petriello says, the magic date is Aug. 27, at Comerica Park, against the Blue Jays.
Petriello isn’t finished with his Magellan-grade journey. Applying those same conditions, dates, and hunches to Cabrera’s quest for 3,000 hits, Petriello says all the suspense could be extended.
“It would put him at, or near, the last day of the season,” Petriello said. “So, I’ll say he will not get to 3,000 in 2021.”
With respect to another career summit Cabrera is approaching — Hall of Fame induction — the analysts all agree: He’ll be in Cooperstown, probably on that first crack, five years after he retires, with 2028 a strong possibility.
“I actually think at this point he’s an easy Hall of Famer,” Szymborksi said.
Jaffe is author of “The Cooperstown Casebook,” a studious look at all Hall of Fame players and their careers, as well as an analysis of present-day players and the trajectory their Hall of Fame numbers are following.
“It’s been arduous watching his glacial progress in recent years through the injuries,” Jaffe said of Cabrera, “but I don’t think that will affect how he’s viewed by Hall of Fame voters.”
Petriello’s view on Cabrera and Cooperstown is, in contrast to his venturesome thoughts on Cabrera’s quest for 500 and 3,000, simply summarized.
“He’s an absolute slam-dunk,” Petriello said, “no matter what he does.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sportswriter.
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