On Sept. 8, 2012, Josh Hamilton led Major League Baseball with 40 home runs, and Miguel Cabrera trailed behind him with 35.
The season would end, of course, with the final tally Hamilton 43, Cabrera 44 -- making Miguel Cabrera the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. And the only thing standing between Cabrera and another Triple Crown this year is another former Ranger slugger who, as play ends on Sept. 8, is also five homeruns up on the Detroit third baseman with 22 days left until October: Chris Davis 48, Miguel Cabrera 43.
The first hurdle to Cabrera repeating the same feat -- gaining 5 home runs on the MLB home run leader in just over three weeks -- is a simple fact of scheduling. After the Sept. 8 game last year for Detroit, Cabrera had 24 games left to make up the difference in home run total -- since the season started about four days earlier this year, the 2013 Tigers have only 19 games remaining instead, a difference of nearly a full week of baseball. That's a minimum of around 20 fewer plate appearances assuming no extra innings and no long innings. For a guy who's hitting a homerun every 13.5 plate appearances or so this season, that's at least one and perhaps two more dingers Cabrera won't be able to squeeze in before the end of the season.
The good news, perhaps, is that at least Chris Davis also has about 5 fewer games than Hamilton did in 2012 to continue hitting. Josh Hamilton did the vast majority of his damage on the homerun leaderboard early in the season, OPSing 1.184 in the first two months of the season and accounting for a full 21 of his 43 on the year during April and May. He fell off pretty heavily as the season went on in all aspects of the game, but what killed Hamilton in the homerun chase wasn't the end of the season -- he hit 14 of them in his last two months -- it was that he only managed to slug eight in the middle two months of the season. That said, "only" hitting 43 homeruns is still an eminently respectable feat in the current run environment -- but 2013 Chris Davis is doing him one better. Outside of a poor July, Davis has put up an OPS over 1 in every full month so far this season. And, by all accounts, he's a better hitter than last year's Josh Hamilton. Though the two men share a pronounced weakness for striking out, Davis's plate approach has never been the feast-or-famine first pitch swinging nightmare that Hamilton's flirted with over the past 18 months or so .From this point of the season through the end last year, Hamilton hit 3 HR in 17 games while Cabrera hit 9 HR in 24 games (Hamilton missed a number of games in late September last year during that bizarre drama about his vision). Chris Davis hasn't had a single 17 game stretch this season with fewer than 4 HR, and all of those require some pretty careful cherry-picking.
There would be something to be said about the difference between Cabrera competing in a homerun chase in the upper thirties/low forties range of homeruns and the current state of affairs, which has him trying to play catch up in Chris Davis's race to 50, if not for the fact that Cabrera is a far better hitter this year than he was last year. He leads Major League Baseball in all three components of the triple slash line -- batting average, on base percentage and slugging -- and has seen those numbers all tick up by around 30 points at the absolute least. By the end of the year he's going to blow by his career single-season RBI record, but may also set a new single-season homerun record for himself. He has not actually been as good a doubles hitter as he has been in years past -- this will probably be the first year since 2009 that Cabrera doesn't post at least 40 doubles, though anything is possible -- but the additional homeruns have benefitted both his counting and his rate stats immensely.
Even so, I tend to think that Cabrera won't catch Davis; it's too short a timeframe, Davis has been too consistent a power threat this season and Cabrera himself has been missing time recently due to abdominal injuries that may or may not be fully sorted out at this point. The way the Tigers third baseman has moved around the basepaths all year, it's clear he's dealing with more than one nagging injury (and this is as much to blame for the doubles drop off as anything else that's happened to Cabrera this season), though it's just as clear how good he is as a hitter that he's a heavy favorite for the AL MVP while not being able to make any solid, positive defensive or base running contributions to his team.
It's hard to say that a chase like this will come down to pitching matchups because guys like Davis and Cabrera get their homeruns off everyone regardless if the team's pitching is good or bad. But in the limited sense that it will factor into things, Cabrera has the definite edge: 6 games left against the White Sox, 4 against the Mariners and 3 each against the Twins and Marlins. Except for the upcoming series where the Tigers will host the Royals for the last time this year, the Tigers will be facing mostly decimated and unimpressive pitching staffs top to bottom while the Orioles will be playing teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and New York (with a respectable dose of Toronto).
Is that sort of lightweight schedule enough to get Cabrera the homeruns he needs to catch Davis? It will be diffcult. Assuming Davis hits another 3-4 homeruns minimum to round out the season, Cabrera would have to hit more than one home run every other game for the rest of the year to conclusively put Davis away. He still has the batting average and RBI titles locked down, but this year the homerun leaderboard may prove insurmountable. But then, if someone was going to give you a scenario where you might expect a player to start hitting a home run every other game like clockwork, Cabrera against terrible pitching down the stretch would probably be the safest bet there is. It just remains to be seen whether he can deliver that kind of performance a second year in a row.