Last year, Miguel Cabrera won the American League Triple Crown and the American League Most Valuable Player Award. You might’ve heard about that. This year, Miguel Cabrera has been even better. His wRC+ is up dozens of points. His WAR is almost even despite it still being the beginning of August. Offensively, Cabrera’s been having one of the very greatest seasons ever, helping to make up for Prince Fielder‘s extended slump. Cabrera’s been the kind of good we take for granted — we eventually take all kinds of good for granted — but in those fleeting moments of clarity and appreciation, Cabrera knocks us on our asses. It’s absurd, basically, what Miguel Cabrera has done, and can do.
The in-contention Indians were dealt a difficult blow when Corey Kluber landed on the disabled list with a finger injury. Kluber’s a good pitcher, see, and in-contention teams need good pitchers, and the Indians had to turn to prospect Danny Salazar on Wednesday night. Wednesday, Salazar made his second big-league appearance and start, facing the Tigers for the first time. Meaning he was facing Miguel Cabrera for the first time. Interesting things happened.
For our purposes, we’re going to ignore the game around the specific Salazar/Cabrera at-bats. The game had a lot of meaning to a lot of people, but FanGraphs isn’t in the business of issuing game recaps, and more importantly, the game isn’t actually over yet as I’m writing this. Salazar is a FanGraphs favorite, having appeared numerous times within Carson Cistulli’s Fringe Five. Cabrera is a FanGraphs favorite, having continued to be an amazing baseball player. Wednesday, they faced off for the first four times. It all began in the top of the first.
AB No. 1
Cabrera batted with two out and none on, the first two batters having been retired on six fastballs. Cabrera had never seen Salazar before, so he took a pitch, a fastball outside. Then he took another pitch, a fastball that hit the low-away corner. Then he took another pitch, then he took another pitch, then he took another pitch. After five fastballs, the count was full, and twice Salazar had missed up with two strikes. Cabrera still hadn’t seen Salazar break a pitch off. Salazar had Cabrera set up for a split-change, his eye level at the top of the zone. Salazar threw something new.
Cabrera couldn’t pull the trigger, and in their first-ever showdown, Danny Salazar walked off with a six-pitch strikeout. Cabrera issued no protest.
AB No. 2
Cabrera batted with two out and none on, the first two batters having whiffed. By this point he’d seen Salazar, and he’d seen Salazar start most hitters off with fastballs. So Cabrera aggressively went after a first-pitch fastball up in the zone, fouling it off. The pitch checked in at exactly 100.0 miles per hour. Then Cabrera went after a second-pitch fastball in, off the plate. The pitch would’ve been a ball, and it was in on the hands, but Cabrera excels against pitches in off the plate, so I’ll extend to him the decision-making benefit of the doubt. He fouled it off, falling behind 0-and-2. Cabrera had seen, first-hand, Salazar throw a two-strike change. He’d also seen, in other at-bats, Salazar fold in a slider. He had to protect against an offspeed pitch up, and Salazar took advantage of that.
Cabrera appeared to be late. Two plate appearances, two strikeouts, between a rookie and maybe the greatest hitter in the world.
AB No. 3
Cabrera batted with one out and none on, the first batter having gone deep and the second batter having grounded out. Again, Cabrera aggressively went after a first-pitch fastball, because he’d observed Salazar’s pattern. He fouled it off. That’s when Salazar decided to let Cabrera see the slider for the first time for himself.
Another slider just barely missed, with Cabrera checking his swing and appealing to first. The count, then, was 1-and-2, and in two-strike counts, Cabrera had seen Salazar throw a slider, a change, and a fastball. He’d just seen two good sliders in a row, but he’d also struck out twice on pitches up, one fast and one a little less fast. Salazar decided to reach back for triple digits.
That’s Danny Salazar blowing a two-strike, 100 mile-per-hour fastball right by Miguel Cabrera. That’s Miguel Cabrera almost losing his balance after taking a hack. Three plate appearances, three strikeouts. Here’s the complete record of starting pitchers who have struck out Miguel Cabrera three times in the same game:
- Danny Salazar, 2013
- Ervin Santana, 2012
- David Price, 2010
- Jason Hirsh, 2007
- Jake Peavy, 2007
- Erik Bedard, 2006
- John Smoltz, 2006
- John Patterson, 2006
- Eric Milton, 2004
- Brandon Webb, 2004
- Ben Sheets, 2003
That’s 11 instances, but only three instances since the beginning of 2008. See, a funny thing has happened to Miguel Cabrera’s strikeouts.
What Salazar did isn’t unprecedented. Throwing a perfect game isn’t unprecedented. Something doesn’t have to be unprecedented in order to be amazing, and Salazar shut down the probable repeat league MVP. Through three showdowns. There would be a fourth.
AB No. 4
Cabrera batted with two out and one on, the first batter having popped out, the second batter having struck out, and the third batter having singled. All three times before, Salazar started Cabrera with a fastball. Twice in a row, Cabrera went after those first-pitch fastballs. Cabrera, also, was Salazar’s 30th batter of the game, and of the first 29, 26 saw first-pitch fastballs. Cabrera decided he’d be aggressive again. Salazar tried to stick with what worked. The crowd actually rose to its feet, understanding the circumstances.
Like that, the Tigers took the lead. Like that, Salazar’s evening was over, and though he left to an ovation, it wasn’t quite as raucous as it could’ve been. The fastball Cabrera hit out was 95.9 miles per hour. It was Salazar’s 103rd pitch. This is the first time all year Salazar has worked into the triple digits. In fairness to Terry Francona, Salazar’s previous two fastballs, to Torii Hunter, came in at 99. In fairness to Terry Francona, Salazar had those three strikeouts in three at-bats. But, over time, starters get worse. Over time, hitters figure starters out. Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter, and against Cabrera you want to take the least number of chances. Against Cabrera late, you’d probably want a fresher arm, even if the arm on the mound is still blazing the baseball.
Miguel Cabrera learned some lessons about Danny Salazar on Wednesday night. He learned that Salazar has an unbelievable fastball, and he learned he’s aggressive with it, but he also learned Salazar’s not afraid to throw a world-class hitter his changeup or slider. Cabrera, surely, won’t soon forget these plate appearances. Meanwhile, Danny Salazar learned some lessons about Miguel Cabrera on Wednesday night. Most importantly, one lesson: eventually, Miguel Cabrera is going to get you. Salazar knows, now, that Cabrera can be defeated, but he also knows, now, how swiftly and decisively Cabrera can end up with the last laugh. All hitters make outs most of the time, against pretty much all pitchers. Cabrera’s are the outs you most have to earn.
Salazar isn’t going to forget these plate appearances, either. Especially not the first three. Especially not the fourth. Every successive showdown is built upon prior lessons. Between these two, I’m looking forward to the fifth.
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