They don’t make them like Miguel Cabrera anymore.
On Sunday, Cabrera, the 38-year-old slugger for the Detroit Tigers, blasted the 500th home run of his stellar career, taking a 1-1 changeup from the Blue Jays’ Steven Matz and depositing it 400 feet over the center field wall at Rogers Centre in Toronto. He is the 28th player to reach the milestone, and as he lumbered around the bases during the top of the sixth inning it was fair to wonder how long it would be until there is a 29th.
Pondering a long wait for the next member of the 500-homer club seems absurd considering baseball’s power surge over the last 20 years. The club’s membership has swelled so much that it has watered down a feat that once came with automatic entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yet a look at the active players behind Cabrera offers surprisingly few candidates who can do it in the next five years.
Cabrera provided some drama by having 31 at-bats pass between his 499th and 500th homers. The nine-game wait may have seemed eternal, but the according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it fell well short of the record for a wait for the milestone hit, as Jimmie Foxx waited 61 at-bats.
The Tigers (60-66) made sure Cabrera’s day ended in a smile by beating the Blue Jays, 5-3, in 11 innings.
For Cabrera, 500 homers is hardly the only thing that makes him stand out from his peers. A two-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award, he has a Hall of Fame résumé that includes a triple crown in 2012, which broke a 44-season streak without one; three other batting titles; and a World Series ring. Soon enough he will become the 33rd player with 3,000 career hits. He had 2,955 after Sunday’s game.
Cabrera has done all of this as a player seemingly out of step with his generation.
Debates raged in 2012 whether Cabrera, who was pursuing the triple crown, should take a back seat in M.V.P. voting to Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels star who far outpaced him in wins above replacement thanks to huge advantages in base running and defense. But even if it did not come with Trout’s all-around skills, Cabrera’s feat of hitting brilliance proved irresistible for voters, and he repeated as M.V.P. the next year in a season that was perhaps even more impressive, regardless of where he landed on leaderboards, and regardless of the belief by many that Trout was the game’s best player.
Cabrera is a throwback in many ways. While it is hard to pick out the best statistics to highlight from a career in which he has gone from a baby-faced wunderkind for the World Series-winning Florida Marlins in 2003 to the enduring force we see today, the most striking number may be his .311 career batting average. It is the highest mark among active players, and unlike Albert Pujols, his closest active peer in terms of career accomplishments, Cabrera built up enough of a cushion at his peak that he won’t have to watch his average trickle to below .300 before retirement.
At a time when the leaguewide batting average is the lowest it has been since 1968, Cabrera’s seven-season stretch from 2009 to 2015, when he hit .332 in just under 4,000 at-bats, seems like a work of fiction.
Those days, sadly, are long behind him.
Even with a mild resurgence for Cabrera and Pujols this season, baseball is girding itself for a time without them. Predicting how long they have left is difficult, as both players have stuck around despite having little left to offer beyond some occasional right-handed pop. But it is easy to say that we won’t see players reaching similar milestones for quite a while.
As for 500 home runs, a five-year wait (or longer) seems likely.
Nelson Cruz of the Tampa Bay Rays was 57 homers short of 500 through Saturday, but he turned 41 on July 1 and is likely to fade at some point despite no evidence of that process having started. The next highest player on the active list, Robinson Cano, turns 39 in October, and after being suspended for the 2021 season, it is hard to see him hitting 166 more homers.
Giancarlo Stanton needed 168 through Saturday, an attainable number for a 31-year-old who once hit 59 in a single season. But he has only 27 over the last three seasons combined, and his complicated health history makes him a wild card.
Justin Upton, Joey Votto and Evan Longoria — Nos. 6, 7 and 8 on the active list — seem too old and far away to make a run at the total, even if Votto is doing his best Henry Aaron impression in recent days.
That leaves the most likely candidate, beyond Stanton, to be Trout, who turned 30 this month. He is 190 away and, with decent health, could get there in five or six seasons.
That wait seems extraordinary when you consider the 500-homer club’s membership has swelled to 28 from 16 over the last 20 seasons. It added three members in just 81 days in 2007. But in the club’s history, it would not be that notable of a gap.
Babe Ruth founded the club with his 500th homer on Aug. 11, 1929. It would be another 11 years until Jimmie Foxx joined him on Sept. 24, 1940. Mel Ott was third in 1945, and then there was a 15-year wait until Ted Williams did it in 1960. More recently, there was a nine-year gap between Mike Schmidt’s 500th on April 18, 1987, and Eddie Murray’s on Sept. 6, 1996.
Those gaps came before performance enhancing drugs swept the sport. The surge of 12 new members in a 17-year period ending in 2015 included seven players (Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield) who seem unlikely to be enshrined in Cooperstown any time soon.
But that can be chalked up as one more way in which Cabrera is different. Barring a dramatic change in circumstances, he and Pujols should sail into the Hall of Fame in the first year they’re eligible. The only real question is whether their induction will be in 2027 — which would require retirement after this season — or if it will wait until 2028.