Speaking literally, Miguel Cabrera is still the same guy. He still responds to the same name, he still has the same identification. He still drives the same car, or cars. He’s still got the same family, he still eats the same breakfast, he still has the same genetic makeup, and while he might have an extra new scrape or three, scrapes are experience and experience is wisdom. Cabrera’s even basically himself in the ballpark. He’s got the same inside jokes, he’s got the same uniform and locker, he’s got the same glove and he’s got the same stance. If someone were to point at Miguel Cabrera, and ask you “is that Miguel Cabrera?” there would be only one reasonable answer, and that answer would be “yes, yes of course, this is a very dumb question.”
But it’s plain as day Miguel Cabrera is not still the same player. Which isn’t to suggest he’s in the throes of decline — he’s in the throes of short-term physical agony. Come next season, Cabrera should resemble himself, but right now, he’s playing hurt, meaning he’s playing less effectively, and people know. It’s kind of been talked about. Never was this more apparent than Tuesday, when, in a big spot in a one-run game, the best hitter in baseball was made to look helpless by a good Red Sox reliever Red Sox fans still don’t trust. With runners on the corners and one out, Junichi Tazawa blew Cabrera away with outside heat, and the Tigers felt just about finished. It was a dark moment for Cabrera, and it was a moment in which he also tried something different.
We don’t know the full extent of Cabrera’s current injuries, but we have a sense they’ve all but destroyed his lower body. He never moved well, but now he moves worse. When swinging, he doesn’t get the same kind of leg drive. It’s temporary, in that he’ll be treated in the offseason, but it’s not the offseason yet, and these games are the most important of all. The last time Cabrera felt healthy enough to be awesome was August. Here is an example of a home-run swing, from August 26:
The focus is going to be on Cabrera’s hands. Look here at Cabrera’s hands. He pulls his right hand off the bat right as he’s making contact. His left arm does a lot of the work, and this is healthy Cabrera’s norm. When right, he finishes with one hand on the bat. His right hand comes off in signature style.
Recently, Cabrera made a change. From CBS Detroit:
Detroit right fielder Torii Hunter attributes Cabrera’s recent resurgence at the plate to his adjustments to what his own body has thrown at him.
“He’s swinging with two hands now,” Hunter said. “You usually see him with one, but I think with two he has more bat control, and I think that’s what he’s feeling right now – not power. It’s more of a bat control with two hands. He looks good. He’s doing whatever he can to help this ball club win. You’ve got to commend Miggy on that. That’s awesome.
“He’s making adjustments with the injury and altering his swing,” Hunter said. “It’s awesome.”
This isn’t actually the first time Cabrera has tried this. Here’s his lone September home run, from the 17th:
Two hands in the follow-through, just like Hunter says. But now here’s Cabrera from Game 3 of the ALDS:
Somewhere in there, he returned to the one-handed follow-through. Then he subsequently returned to the two-handed follow-through. Cabrera’s critical Game 5 home run against Sonny Gray:
His ALCS Game 2 home run against Clay Buchholz:
The swing carried into Game 3, because why wouldn’t it? Here’s Cabrera in his first plate appearance:
Two hands. His second plate appearance:
Two hands. His third plate appearance:
Two hands. Then came the eighth-inning plate appearance against Tazawa with the pressure on and the score hanging in the balance. Buster Olney had earlier also written about Cabrera’s swing, and he noticed something right away in the eighth:
Miguel Cabrera went back to his old mechanics, letting the swing go w/ one-handed follow-through on outside fastballs. Strikes out.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 15, 2013
Olney was right, and here are Cabrera’s three swings against Tazawa, just to serve as visual proof:
There are, I think, two main possibilities:
- Cabrera intended to go back to his old swing mechanics against Tazawa, maybe because he didn’t like how the adjustment felt, maybe because he’d been unsuccessful in the game, maybe because his body felt somewhat pain-free. In other words, this was intentional.
- This wasn’t intentional. In a high-leverage situation, Cabrera reverted to his familiar muscle memory, swinging like he’d swung as a healthy player. No longer a healthy player, Cabrera was exposed by outside heat with which he couldn’t catch up.
I don’t know what the answer is, and we’ll see what Cabrera swings like in Game 4. One of the things that makes mechanical tweaks so difficult to implement is the reality of that muscle memory, the tendency to slip up when the pressure is on, but then Cabrera is a hell of a talent who’s made countless adjustments before. Even without an explanation, however, it’s interesting that Cabrera changed his swing in the bottom of the eighth. It’s enough to make you wonder, and the showdown was lopsided. Said Tazawa:
Tazawa had been preparing for this confrontation. Bullpen coach Dana Levangie had made clear that, once in the game, he’d face Cabrera. Still, the situation was imposing — until Tazawa blew a first-pitch 94 mph fastball down and away, over the outer third of the plate, past the slugger.
“I was thinking that the worst-case scenario, walking him wasn’t the worst thing to do. So, I was using outside fastballs a lot,” said Tazawa. “When he swung at the first pitch and missed, I felt that he was a little bit late.”
Tazawa and Saltalamacchia were going to stick with fastballs, though Tazawa changed his hold times and his time to the plate in an effort to disrupt Cabrera’s timing. The approach seemed to pay immediate dividends, as Cabrera swung and missed at a 95 mph fastball up and outside, took a 94 mph fastball away and then, finally, saw a fairly feeble swing on another 94 mph fastball come up empty for the pivotal punchout.
What seems evident is that Cabrera can’t make much use of his lower half. What follows is that his swing is going to be almost all arms, and what follows from that is that he shouldn’t be able to swing with much power at pitches away. It makes sense that he would be late to get around, and he was certainly late against Tazawa. Cabrera right now isn’t as bad as he just looked, but as has been written about before, Cabrera isn’t close to being his normal threat. We don’t know what kind of threat he actually is.
On Tuesday, Miguel Cabrera swung and missed more times in one game than he ever had before in his entire career. That tells you he’s not right. Tuesday, he also changed his swing between the sixth inning and the eighth, and that also tells you he’s not right. Miguel Cabrera, right now, is searching for a swing that works. He’s also the last Tigers player you’d expect to be lost.
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