Cabrera knocking 'em in at record pace
DETROIT -- Home-run sluggers make headlines, and batting averages have defined hitters dating all the way back to Detroit Tigers immortal Ty Cobb.
The Triple Crown statistic that musters the least attention and acclaim is runs batted in -- the RBI or “ribbie,” in the vernacular of the game.
Most of the game’s outstanding hitters, however, will tell you that the RBI is the most important offensive statistic in baseball.
“Knocking in runs means more than anything else you can do,” said Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who in 2012 became baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years. “To win games, you have got to score enough runs to support your pitchers.
"Look at what we did yesterday. (Justin) Verlander gave up two runs, and we lost 2-1. Then we scored nothing in the next game and lose 3-0.”
Cabrera was describing the doubleheader loss to the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park on Aug. 16. He didn’t knock in one run in either game after registering 16 RBI in the previous 10 games.
The first of those ribbies was a go-ahead double in a 5-1 win at Cleveland on Aug. 6 that put him at 100 RBI with 51 games remaining.
One hundred RBI is the standard for excellence, and Cabrera’s now reaching the number with ease. Beginning in his first full season with Florida Marlins in 2004, he started a run of 10 consecutive seasons with 100 or more.
That's a historically significant accomplishment. Only five other players have matched or exceeded Cabrera’s streak, and each of them is either in the Hall of Fame or has statistics worthy of Cooperstown.
Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Alex Rodriguez share the record with 13 consecutive 100-RBI seasons. Al Simmons did it 11 straight seasons, and Albert Pujols had his 10-year streak end in 2010, the same year A-Rod’s concluded.
“That means a lot to me,” Cabrera said. “It means I’ve been consistent every year, and that’s my goal -- consistency.”
Nobody has achieved 10 consecutive 100-RBI seasons at a younger age than Cabrera, who turned 30 on April 18. Rodriguez was 35 when he did it. Gehrig and Simmons both were 32, Foxx was 31, while Pujols also was 30, but three months older than Cabrera.
That Cabrera, who turned 30 on April 18, is knocking in runs at this rate, at his age positions him to challenge and perhaps surpass Hank Aaron’s career RBI record.
Aaron, in 23 seasons from 1954 to 1976, knocked in a staggering 2,297 runs. He’s best known for eclipsing Ruth’s 714 home runs and finishing with 755, but Aaron also passed Ruth's 2,220 RBI.
If you take the 1,123 RBI Cabrera accumulated in his first 10 seasons, 2003-2012, and project him to duplicate that over his next 10 seasons, he would have 2,246 at age 39. That would put him 51 behind Aaron, making Cabrera capable of setting the mark the year he turns 40.
Aaron was 42 when he retired, and had 164 RBI after turning 40.
Does Cabrera, who intends to have a long career, believe he can catch Aaron a decade from now?
“That is a long way to look ahead,” Cabrera said. “That would be something, but I have to focus on this year, this next game.”
Cabrera played only 87 games as a rookie in 2003 and had 62 RBI. At age 21, he then reached 112 in his first full season (2004).
That shortened first season allows for him to miss half of one season somewhere over the next decade and still keep pace.
“On this pace that he’s on, he can do it,” said Willie Horton, who drove in 1,163 runs in 18 seasons and led the Tigers in RBI in four seasons. “If he stays with a team like this, anything is reachable.”
Horton, now a special assistant to Tigers president and general manager David Dombrowski, once managed in Venezuela and has known Cabrera and his father for many years.
“Having Prince Fielder batting behind him has been a night-and-day difference for him (Cabrera),” Horton said. “And Prince is going to be here a long time (signed through 2020).”
Cabrera is signed through 2015.
Through Thursday, Aug. 22, Fielder has 88 RBI, is on pace to surpass 100 RBI for the sixth time in seven seasons and provides uncommon protection for a batter most opponents would prefer to walk with the game on the line.
Cabrera batted .330 with 44 homers and 139 RBI (the latter two being career-high totals) in 2012 with Fielder batting cleanup behind him for the first time. Cabrera’s walks dropped from 108 to 66, providing about another 10 games worth of at-bats for the reigning American League MVP.
“Your team really matters in RBI and (Cabrera’s) got a great team,” Horton added. “Baseball’s a funny game. You stay healthy, and you never know what you can do.”
Cabrera has dealt with an abdominal strain that causes hip problems and painful knee and shin bruises this season. He still could reach 150 games played for the 10th consecutive year.
Staying healthy is critical to chasing any of the game’s career records. So is playing over injuries -- something Cabrera excels at.
Tigers head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Cabrera is one of the toughest players he’s ever encountered.
This season, Cabrera has passed 11 Hall of Famers on the career RBI list: Gary Carter, Bill Dickey, Chuck Klein, Frankie Frisch, Tony Lazzeri, Tigers outfielder Heinie Manush, Gabby Hartnett, George Sisler of the University of Michigan, Tony Gwynn, Roberto Alomar and Joe Morgan.
Cabrera will pass two more already in Cooperstown -- Bobby Doerr and Zack Wheat -- by knocking in another three runs.
Cabrera's on pace for 51 homers and 157 RBI. If he reaches that RBI total, he'll pass Hall of Famers Pie Traynor, Gil Hodges and Hank Greenberg -- the most prolific RBI-man in Tigers history.
Cabrera had 1,246 RBI through Thursday, good for No. 132 on the all-time list. He's batting .354 with 40 homers and 123 RBI with 35 games remaining.
He's a virtual lock to lead the Tigers in RBI for his sixth consecutive season. That would tie him for the most years ina row as the club’s RBI leader with Bobby Veach (1915-20), Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann (1923-28) and Cecil Fielder (1990-95), the father of Cabrera's current middle-of-the-order partner.
The hitters Cabrera is joining and passing are amazing for a player so young. The sky’s the limit for what he might do -- and that includes surpassing Aaron as the best to ever hang runs on a scoreboard.