The Tigers are getting less Miguel Cabrera this spring.
The reigning American League batting champion has reported to Lakeland for spring training having shed more than 20 pounds. Detroit’s babyfaced slugger looks a little leaner, apparently ready to dive into his new role as the third baseman.
This should be great news for the team and fans. Last season, Cabrera reported to camp weighing in excess of 270 pounds. That’s 270 pounds on a 6’4 frame. Most media guides still list Cabrera at 6’4 and 240, but the Tiger slugger hasn’t seen 240 in a while. Perhaps until now.
Cabrera is wise to shed the weight, it makes sense. But someone still needs to tell him that he’s too big. Cabrera reportedly told a team official that he doesn’t want to lose too much weight because he doesn’t want to lose the power behind his swing. That logic is flawed, and it flies in the face of years of evidence.
A baseball player doesn’t have to be big to be able to hit the longball. Heck, he doesn’t even have to be that strong. I know that probably sounds counter-intuitive in this era of supplements, PEDs, weight lifting, and protein shakes, but it’s true.
Hank Aaron was six-feet tall and weight about 165 pounds when he started wowing baseball scouts with his batting skills. Even later in his career, when his posterior looked like a caboose at the end of a long string of railway cars, Aaron never topped 200 pounds.
Babe Ruth, the famous fat man who was once portrayed by John Goodman (!) on film, was a great physical specimen for much of his career. Only at the very end, in his last days with the Yankees and his brief stint with the Boston Braves, did the Babe have a huge gut. When the Bambino was rewriting the baseball record books in the 1920s, he carried about 195 pounds on his 6’2 frame.
There was a fella named Mel Ott, maybe you heard of him. “Master Melvin” spent his entire career with the New York Giants, and he hit 511 home runs, about 33 per season. Ott weighed about 165 pounds at his peak and he stood all of 5’9, or about the same size as your author. He probably never lifted a weight in his life. His strenuous off-season workout regiment consisted of hunting. Ott is in the Hall of Fame.
Willie Mays was only slightly larger than Ott. Mays was about 5’10 with 170-180 pounds on him in his peak. Mays could hit the ball as far as anyone ever has.
How about Reggie Jackson? I’ve stood next to “Mr. October,” and trust me, he’s no “Mr. Universe.” Reggie was a muscular six-footer, a former football star, but he never topped 202 pounds. He belted 563 home runs.
One doesn’t have to go that far back in baseball history to find examples. Gary Sheffield was a mid-sized slugger of recent times. Chipper Jones is about the same height as Detroit’s Cabrera, but has usually weighed in about 210 pounds, or about 50-60 pounds lighter. He’s hit for power and stayed pretty healthy too.
And that’s what this is really about – staying healthy. Someone should explain to Miggy that at his size (even his reduced size of 240-245 pounds), it’s unlikely that he’ll be a productive player into his mid-to-late 30s. It just doesn’t happen (absent steroids, which are hard to get away with now). If he carries that much weight on his frame, tries to play third base, and play between 150-162 games pr season, he’ll be a crippled ballplayer by the time he’s 34-35.
There isn’t any other example of a man that big staying at the top of the game into his mid-30s (cheaters don’t count).
One of the best comps to Cabrera is Frank Thomas, the longtime White Sox slugger. Thomas was just a shade taller than Miggy, but he weighed in about 35-40 pounds lighter for most of his career. Thomas was the best hitter in baseball until he was 33, when he started to fall apart. His knees failed him, his legs started to fall apart, and he had arm and back problems. He had a few more powerful seasons after the age of 33, but for the most part he was hurt or playing part-time. A look back at “big guys” in baseball history shows that they usually burned out by age 31-33. Today, with better conditioning, players can last longer.
Cabrera is a special player. He will probably buck some of the trends, staying productive longer than most big guys. But, he’d help himself immensely by getting down to 230 and adding muscle. This would help him endure the grueling lengths of the MLB schedule. This would allow him to be strong and still be agile enough to play the field. It would help him withstand the injuries that often strike bigger guys later in their careers: the backs and knees and obliques, the shoulder injuries and fractures.
No, Aaron and Ruth and Ott were not big guys. Not by today’s standards, and they all played for a long time and were productive in an historic scale. They had baseball instincts and they had great reflexes. Cabrera has both to a great degree. Aaron had amazingly quick wrists, and he realized that power didn’t come from raw brute strength, it came from reflexes and bat speed.
Cabrera has those same gifts, and he should recognize that extra pounds, muscle or not, do not make him a power hitter. Talent and bat speed are the key to his success. If he’s not healthy, he won;t be able to put those on display, he’ll just be lining up in a buffet while he’s on the disabled list.