Cabrera taking his place among greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history

Rogers Hornsby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Miguel Cabrera are among the best right-handed hitters in baseball history.

Rogers Hornsby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Miguel Cabrera are among the best right-handed hitters in baseball history.

You’ll forgive us Tiger followers if we find ourselves at a loss for adjectives. Amazing, unbelievable, incredible, awesome: none of those words seem to be enough when trying to describe Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in baseball. What Miggy is doing this season really does leave you speechless.

On Saturday, Cabrera hit a line drive home run into the right field corner in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Tigers a walk-off home run against the pesky Kansas City Royals. It was just the latest in a long string of key hits for the Tigers All-Star third baseman. Here’s a quick review of recent history:

On August 7 in Cleveland, Miggy belted a two-run homer in the 8th to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. The Tigs won the game in extra-innings, part of a four-game sweep that spanked the Indians firmly into second place. Two nights later, on August 9, the Tigers were trailing the Yankees by two in the 9th when Cabrera came up to face Mariano Rivera, universally acclaimed as the greatest closer in history. After fouling not one – but two – pitches off his leg, and hobbling around like your Aunt Harriet after stepping in a mole hole, Miggy sent a Rivera pitch deep (and I mean DEEP) to straightaway center for a home run. As Rivera watched it sail out, he mouthed the word, “Wow.” The next day, Cabrera homered again, off Phil Hughes, giving the Tigs a 2-0 lead in a game they eventually won. On Sunday, in the finale against the Yankees, Cabrera met Rivera again in the 9th with the Tigers trailing, with the same result – a home run. It was the first time a batter had ever homered in consecutive at-bats against the heralded Yankee pitcher. In his very next at-bat, Cabrera homered again, off Chris Sale in Chicago, which gave him homers in four straight games. Two days later, with his team in a 3-0 hole, Cabrera blasted a three-run dinger off John Danks in the third inning to tie the game. Detroit went on to win the contest. He hit the walk-off on Saturday against the Royals, another in his first at-bat on Sunday, and followed that with a line drive RBI-single in the third inning as Detroit took three of five from the Royals, holding them at arm’s length in the AL Central.

After all of that (coming in just a 12-day stretch in August) have you thought of any appropriate adjectives? Don’t worry if you can’t, because we’re witnessing one of the greatest hitters and greatest seasons in baseball history. Amazingly, after winning a triple crown in 2012, Cabrera is topping it with an even better season. He’s going to easily win his third straight batting title, lead the league in RBIs too, and has a chance to reach 50 homers. Only Chris Davis of the Orioles stands in his way of an unprecedented second straight triple crown. It’s to the point now where we can start asking ourselves where Cabrera rates among the greatest hitters in the history of baseball.

Many of the very best hitters in baseball history were left-handed: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, and Stan Musial at the top of the list from that side of the plate. As great as Cabrera is, he will never reach the heights of The Bambino, The Kid, The Peach, The Iron Horse, or Stan the Man. But that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. But when we look at the greatest right-handed hitters in history, Miggy has vaulted himself into a very select group at the top of the heap.

Here’s a quick look at the 10 best right-handed hitters ever and how Cabrera compares:

Frank Thomas
A lumbering behemoth, Thomas had a lightning quick bat and great strike zone recognition. He was more of a pull hitter than Miggy, and he also was more selective, allowing borderline pitches to go by. But like Cabrera, Thomas could hit for average (he won a batting title), while also hitting home runs. “The Big Hurt” fell off dramatically in his 30s, so it will be interesting to see if Cabrera does the same. Overall, with Cabrera’s ability to go the opposite way, he has the edge over Thomas.

Joe DiMaggio
Cabrera’s home run on Sunday tied him with DiMaggio on the all-time home run list. Though the Yankee Clipper was a much better all around ballplayer, one who could roam center field, throw, and run the bases, Cabrera is still statistically very comparable as a hitter. DiMaggio never won a triple crown, but he did win all three categories (batting, home runs, RBI) in his career. Given that he missed three prime seasons to serve in World War II, I’ll give DiMaggio an edge over Cabrera.

Dick Allen
Probably one of the most forgotten and underrated sluggers in baseball history. Allen played during the 1960s and early 1970s, when offensive numbers were way down, so his career .292 average and .534 slugging look modest compared to other eras. But Allen was a monster, and in many ways he was similar to Cabrera in his ability to hit for average while still showing great power. Allen nearly won the triple crown in 1972 when he led the AL in homers and RBI and finished third in batting for the White Sox. Allen only had 11 prime seasons though and was pretty much done as a threat by the age of 33. Edge to Miggy.

Jimmie Foxx
One of the greatest hitters ever – period. Foxx won a triple crown and he led the league in lots of categories in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a real beast (that was his nickname). His career OPS+ (on base percentage plus slugging adjusted for the league and ballparks) is 163, the third highest among right-handed hitters. Cabrera isn’t quite in his class, unless he maintains his current pace for a few more seasons.

Frank Robinson
A really good all-around player who often gets forgotten, Robinson ranks among the top 20 players to ever play the game. His career OPS+ is 154, just a tick below Cabrera’s 155. Too early to tell if Cabby rates ahead of Robby.

Hank Greenberg
The big difference between Cabrera and Greenberg is the batting average. Greenberg hit .313 for his short career, while Cabrera is over .32o in an era where averages are lower than in Hammerin’ Hank’s time. Overall, given his ability to go to all fields, I give a slight edge to Cabrera.

Albert Pujols
For a decade, Pujols put up numbers that were eye-popping – 40 homers, 120 RBI, .320 average, 1.000 OPS year after year. For whatever reason, his numbers have dropped off a lot in his 30s, and it doesn’t look like Albert will ever be as Phat as he once was. His career OPS+ is at 165 in 2013, but that will dip a lot more the longer he plays. We’ll need to see more from Cabrera before we know if he can surpass what Pujols did.

Rogers Hornsby
About eight decades after he played his final game, Hornsby is still considered by many to be the greatest right-handed hitter in history. For good reason: he hit .358 for his career, won two triple crowns, captured a pair of home run titles, and was twice league MVP. Over a five year stretch he hit /402 while averaging 42 homers and 29 home runs a season. At the age of 30 he took on the role of player/manager and led the Cardinals to their first World Series title. He has a case for the title of greatest right-handed hitter ever.

Willie Mays
Mays at 156 and Aaron at 155 (in OPS+) are comparable numbers-wise to Cabrera. But style points also count, and Mays did everything with a flare. He won a batting title, won home run titles, hit 50+ homers, and he was great for a loooong time. Cabrera will need to put together 7-8 more years of  great production to be in the same class, but it’s possible. But that says more about how great Mays was than anything missing from Cabrera.

Hank Aaron
Is it possible that Cabrera is as good as Hank Aaron? Yes it is. The two share many traits. Both could pull the inside pitch as well as anyone. Both had very strong wrists. Both batters could cover the outside of the plate and go the other way with power. Both Aaron and Cabrera were overshadowed by other players for part of their careers (Aaron by Mays, and Cabrera by Pujols). Both players were also heroes in midwestern cities that were crazy about baseball. Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record almost as a postscript to his career – he was just so excellent for so long at hitting for power, but he was never considered a pure home run hitter, not like Mays or Mantle or McCovey. Cabrera hits his share of homers, but he scares the hell out of opposing pitchers not because he’s a slugger, but because he can hit almost any pitch somewhere for a base hit.

Once his career is done, Cabrera will rate somewhere in the middle or near the top of these 10 other great right-handed batters. Should he continue at his pace of 2012-13, there’s no reason he can’t challenge Aaron, DiMaggio, Foxx, Hornsby, Mays, and possibly Pujols among the very best.

Where do you think Miguel Cabrera rates among right-handed hitters all-time?

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.