Who is the Greatest Right-Handed Hitter Ever?
Miguel Cabrera is amazing. His 1.139 OPS, 37 home runs, and 111 RBI entering play on Wednesday are incredible end-season totals, but the 30-year-old slugger has 44 games remaining this season. After winning the 2012 AL MVP and winning the first Triple Crown since 1967, Cabrera is ranked 1st or 2nd in all three Triple Crown categories again this season.
Does the last eleven years of dominance make Miguel Cabrera a Hall of Famer, or, bigger yet, the best right-handed hitter to ever play the game?
Taking a look at the record books and the history of the game, who would qualify as a competitor in this argument?
Hank Aaron: The non-asterisk version of the all-time home run king, “Hammerin’ Hank” also holds the all-time record for RBI (2,297) and total bases (6,856). His career .305 average and .928 OPS show his skills were not limited to mashing and there will never be a power hitter like him again, as his 1,383 strikeouts in 13,941 plate appearances (9.9 percent strikeout rate) exceeds the contact rate of any masher in today’s strikeout-heavy era.
Frank Robinson: Over a 16-year span, Robinson hit .302/.393/.550 while averaging 31 home runs and 97 RBI per season. He didn’t age all that well, earning one All-Star appearance and 21 points in MVP voting over his last seven seasons, but he was a two-time MVP, a Triple Crown winner in 1966, and a 12-time All-Star over his 21-year career.
Manny Ramirez: It may have been an ugly ending to his career with the female hormones and the steroid accusations, but Manny Ramirez was an incredible baseball player. For 14 years (1995-2008), Ramirez averaged 36 home runs, 119 RBI, and a .317/.414/.598 triple-slash, which led to 508 home runs and 1,660 RBI over that time. While his legacy is tarnished by the use of performance-enhancing drugs or illegal supplements, he hit the baseball better than nearly anyone in his generation during his prime.
Albert Pujols: Recently outed by former Major-Leager Jack Clark for steroid use, Pujols is still considered clean due to no documented steroid use and no publicly acknowledged failed drug test. Some thought that he was sliding in 2012 when he posted an OPS of .859, but he still hit 30 homers and drove in over 100 runs. The true decline started with his plantar fasciitis injury in 2013. Over Pujols’ first 12 seasons, though, he was a monster, averaging 40 home runs, 120 RBI, and a triple-slash of .325/.414/.608. Three MVP awards and nine All-Star appearances later, the 33-year-old first baseman has another eight years remaining on his contract in Los Angeles, so he will continue to add to those numbers, decline or not.
Alex Rodriguez: ARod is taking the fall for the entire steroid era right now, as he hasn’t failed a drug test but is being demonized for his admission of mistakes, the same thing that Jason Giambi and Mark McGwire did, but, in his prime, he was, arguably, the greatest player ever. Over 15 seasons (1996-2010), Rodriguez hit 608 home runs, drove in 1,810 runs, stole 294 bases, and posted a .305/.390/.576 triple-slash while averaging 41 home runs and 121 RBI per season. He may not be clean, just like Ramirez, but he still had to hit the ball and he always did.
Roberto Clemente: His first five seasons weren’t fantastic but the next 13 were pretty incredible, as Clemente won an MVP, 12 straight Gold Gloves, and made 12 All-Star appearances while earning MVP votes in 12 seasons. Clemente averaged a .329/.375/.503 line and, while he didn’t have light tower power like others on this list, he averaged 25 doubles, 10 triples, 16 home runs, and 82 RBI over his 13 best seasons. With his death at the age of 38 while on a humanitarian mission, Clemente ended his career with exactly 3,000 hits, and one could wonder how many more he could have had after he posted a .312/.356/.479 line in his final season.
Hank Greenberg: What could Greenberg have done without losing nearly a full season to a broken wrist and four seasons due to serving in World War II? If you take out Greenberg’s 1936 season (wrist injury), from 1934 through 1940, he hit .329/.435/.645 with 273 doubles (45 per season), 234 home runs (39 per season), and 900 RBI (150 per season). When he returned for his first full season after the war, 1946, Greenberg hit 44 home runs and 127 RBI while posting a .977 OPS. He was one of the greatest players in history, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956, despite missing so much time during his prime.
Nap Lajoie: Say what you want about the dead ball era because LaJoie was still producing. A career OPS+ of 150 to go with his .338/.380/.466 triple-slash shows that it wasn’t all infield singles and slap-hitting during his time. LaJoie averaged 35 doubles, eight triples, four home runs, 82 RBI, and 20 stolen bases with his .351/.395/.488 triple-slash from 1897 to 1913 (17 seasons), including his 1901 Triple Crown season when he led the AL in home runs (14), hits (232), runs (145), doubles (48), RBI (125), total bases (350), batting average (.426), on-base percentage (.463), slugging percentage (.643), and OPS (1.106).
Joe DiMaggio: Like Greenberg, DiMaggio missed time while serving in the military including all of the 1943, 1944, and 1945 seasons. In DiMaggio’s first 10 seasons, he averaged 32 doubles, 11 triples, 30 home runs, 128 RBI, and a triple-slash of .330/.398/.589. Considering DiMaggio missed his age-28 through age-30 seasons while being a hero and was done playing by the age of 36, the fact that he had 3 MVP awards, 13 All-Star appearances (every season he played), and over 2,200 hits speaks volumes to his overall ability.
Willie Mays: Over a 13-year span (1954-1966), Mays hit .315/.390/.615 with 380 doubles (29 per season), 113 triples (9 per season), 518 home runs (40 per season), 1414 RBI (109 RBI per season), and 270 stolen bases (21 per season). Possibly the greatest all-around player to ever step foot on a diamond, Mays’ abilities are evident by his overall numbers, two MVP awards, 20 All-Star appearances, and 12 Gold Gloves. It’s possible that his 1972 and 1973 seasons take a little off of what people remember him to be, as his time in a New York Mets’ uniform were nothing short of ghastly.
Honus Wagner: Like LaJoie, Wagner was a “victim” of the dead ball era. The man with the most valuable baseball card ever managed a .340/.404/.489 line over 16 seasons while averaging 35 doubles, 13 triples, six home runs, 94 RBI, and 40 stolen bases per season from 1898 through 1913. He won eight batting titles, led the league in OPS eight times, and had a career OPS+ of 151.
Jimmie Foxx: For 13 seasons (1929-1941) Foxx abused opposing pitchers to the tune of 30 doubles, eight triples, 39 home runs, 139 RBI, and a triple-slash of .332/.438/.634, while reaching 500 home runs by the age of 32. By the age of 34, Foxx was basically finished, as he hit .237/.320/.366 with just 15 home runs and 73 RBI over his final 618 plate appearances, but he was one of the most dangerous hitters of all-time prior to that point.
Rogers Hornsby: From 1919 through 1929, Hornsby had a triple-slash of .377/.453/.619 while hitting over .400 three times, winning two MVP awards, and winning seven batting titles. Hornsby could do it all from the right side of the plate in an era that was dominated by Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig.
So, with the aforementioned players above, where would Cabrera rank?
Considering that Cabrera is likely headed towards a slight decline as he gets into his 30’s, his physique leaves much to be desired, and he is currently stuck playing third base, when he should probably be playing first base or designated hitter, due to the presence of Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder in Detroit, what will the next ten seasons for Cabrera look like?
While no one will likely age like Barry Bonds, who hit 470 home runs after turning 31 years old, or Babe Ruth, who hit 405 home runs after turning 31, there are others that Cabrera could equal from age 31-on to post pretty dramatic numbers. For example, Raul Ibanez has managed to post a .278/.340/.473 triple-slash with 244 home runs and 959 RBI since turning 31. Even Carlton Fisk hit .261/.329/.441 with 242 home runs and 866 RBI in his post-30’s. You would think that make the probability of Cabrera reaching 600 home runs at over 90 percent.
However, after looking at the declines and disappearances of some of the greatest players of all-time, nothing can be certain. Miguel Cabrera has several years remaining in his career but he certainly ranks among the top 10 right-handed hitters of all time based on his production to this point. Due to his connection to Mike Trout in the 2012 AL MVP voting, you could wonder if the remainder of Cabrera’s career could be overshadowed by the statistics that are produced by Trout, Bryce Harper, or other yet-to-be-named superstars.
When all is said and done, though, who will be the greatest right-handed hitter of all time? Cabrera, one of the players mentioned above, or the field?