The Temporary Solution to Miguel Cabrera

During their time together, much was written about Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and the idea of lineup protection. In theory, by having Fielder right behind him, Cabrera would get more hittable pitches and hittable fastballs. Certainly, Cabrera’s offensive game didn’t suffer, and when Fielder went away, much more was written about the idea of losing lineup protection. Would Cabrera be pitched around, with an inferior threat behind him? In the very early going in 2014, there were half-humorous observations that Cabrera’s rate of pitches in the strike zone actually went up. That is, by losing his protection, Cabrera wound up in a better spot, and therefore the idea of protection is nonsense.

But there’s something interesting there. Pitch patterns, given a good-enough sample, can reveal something about opposing scouting reports. If Cabrera had seen more strikes with Fielder on deck, perhaps that would suggest that Fielder was serving as protection. Josh Hamilton doesn’t get a lot of pitches in the strike zone, because teams know to make him chase. Marco Scutaro gets a lot of pitches in the strike zone, because teams know not to be too afraid. What if — what if — teams pitched to Miguel Cabrera as if they weren’t that afraid of him? That would be crazy, right? Wouldn’t that be crazy?

Cabrera’s zone rate, right now, is 51%. His average during the PITCHf/x era has been 46%, and last year it was 44%. Pitchers, therefore, have been a bit more aggressive with Cabrera so far in 2014. But what kind of aggressive? Using Baseball Savant, let’s check out Cabrera’s rates of in-zone fastballs:

2008: 23% of all pitches are fastballs in the zone
2009: 23%
2010: 21%
2011: 21%
2012: 25%
2013: 23%
2014: 34%

The league average has hovered right around 26% the whole time. Used to be, Cabrera was pretty steady, around 23%. Year in, year out, he’d see one of the lower rates in the league. So far this year he’s up more than ten percentage points, and he has one of baseball’s top-ten highest rates, seeing even more in-zone fastballs than the so-far helpless Billy Hamilton. Pitchers have worked with Miguel Cabrera like he’s not Miguel Cabrera. One notices his 94 wRC+, down almost a hundred points from a season ago.

If pitching aggressively to Miguel Cabrera sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what pitchers were doing last year in the playoffs, when Cabrera was hurt and nowhere near 100%. Cabrera had to change his swing to compensate, and he wound up vulnerable to heat. The Red Sox made a point of exploiting Cabrera’s sudden flaws, and though Cabrera said he was healthy this spring, and though he signed a monster contract extension, he since admitted he wasn’t quite back to himself. Parts of him are still recovering from offseason hernia surgery, and as a result, we’ve only inconsistently seen the classic, one-handed Cabrera swing follow-through. His swing mechanics have been different because his body has been different, and pitchers took little time to notice.

Here, you can see Tyson Ross tying Cabrera up with good, aggressive heat:

CabreraRoss1.gif.opt

CabreraRoss2.gif.opt

Above, a two-handed follow-through. Below, a one-handed follow-through. Those swings were just a few pitches apart, evidence that Cabrera’s been trying to find himself. He’s still getting stronger, and so he’s still getting used to what he is when he’s not him.

When Cabrera was playing hurt in October, pitchers took advantage by trying to blow him away, something they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. Out of the gate in 2014, with Cabrera recovering, pitchers kept it up and then some, figuring Cabrera had something more like breaking-ball bat speed. So I’d say the slump was more than just bad luck — pitchers had a different approach, because Cabrera was different, and that’s a thing with actual substance.

But if pitchers had a Miguel Cabrera solution, it stands to reason it would be only temporary, and now there’s evidence that Cabrera’s just about back to being the MVP candidate he’s been for so much of his career. He’s got nine hits in five games, three for extra bases, and he’s struck out just once. Eight of those hits have come against fastballs, and six have come against fastballs greater than 90 miles per hour. Here’s Cabrera catching up to speed from Maikel Cleto:

CabreraCleto1.gif.opt

Right on it, line drive, up the middle, one-handed follow-through. The Tigers announcers responded by declaring that Cabrera was back, and though announcers are always optimistic and easily convinced, it’s hard to blame them, given that swing and given other recent swings. Lately, pitchers haven’t stopped throwing Cabrera fastballs, but Cabrera has started to hit, meaning opposing pitchers probably need to think about adjusting their adjustment, given that Cabrera has made adjustments.

I’m not saying Miguel Cabrera’s all fixed, but he’s going to be sooner or later. And then it’s going to be interesting to see the pitcher response, and it’s going to be interesting to see how quickly it’s implemented, how closely it follows Cabrera heating up. Because in the past, when he’s been himself, he didn’t get a lot of hittable fastballs. There was a reason for that. There’s going to be a reason for the same thing, down the road. To the pitchers’ credit, they solved Miguel Cabrera for a little stretch. It’s my sincere hope that they all appreciated it in the moment.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Mike
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Mike
2 years 3 months ago

Its an aspect of baseball that I have always found fascinating. More so than the other major North American Team sports, in Baseball even minor injuries can render a star player less effective than his back-up. Finger Blisters are an annoyance to an NFL quarterback but will absolutely destroy an MLB pitcher. A strained thumb on a NBA Shooting Guard’s off hand might slow him down but it would kill a slugging first baseman’s power. On that note, it is good to see Miggy getting back to his old self. The sport is better for it.

tz
Guest
tz
2 years 3 months ago

Is it just me, or are his shoulders more “closed” in the first two GIFs than the last one?

Looks like he’s been trying to compensate for a sore core by making his upper torso generate more of the power. Probably cost him those all-important milliseconds to get out in front of the inside fastball. That last GIF looks a lot more like the 2013 Miggy.

dmm
Guest
dmm
2 years 3 months ago

Good point. However, if you watch Miggy his stance alters throughout the year. He goes from closed to more open. Also, his leg lift will alter depending on pitcher and count. He is a pure hitter. He just is over coming some bad habits from last year. Once weather heats up so will Miggy.

David
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David
2 years 3 months ago

What happened to the man on second in that gif and how did they call an error so fast?

tz
Guest
tz
2 years 3 months ago

The “ERROR” is actually from the White Sox’ new pitcher training system. Applies a small jolt of electricity to the pitcher’s neck if they throw an inside fastball to Cabrera.

Don’t know about the man on second though.

dang
Guest
dang
2 years 3 months ago

Something to note – Cabrera hasn’t just been awesome through his career, he’s been consistently awesome. Looking at his monthly splits from 2003-2013, there are only 4 months where he’s posted a wRC+ below 100. 2 of those months are in 2003, so since his first full year in 2004, only 2 months has he ever had a month stretch where he was below average. That’s 4 out of 64 or 2 out of 60, based on how awesome you want to make him look. He has two days to get his wRC+ for this month above 100 (Currently sitting at 95, was at 64 only a week ago).

Gabriel
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Gabriel
2 years 3 months ago

Ended the month at exactly 100. (Don’t expect this comment to ever be seen though.)

Hansel
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Hansel
2 years 3 months ago

Considering his age, I think the triple crown days are over. He’ll still be a productive player, but I think anyone expecting what he’s done over the last two years will be disappointed.

adohaj
Guest
adohaj
2 years 3 months ago

He really isn’t that old.

bobabaloo
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bobabaloo
2 years 3 months ago

I mean, pretty much everyone is baseball’s triple crown days are over, it’s pretty rare…

But lets hold off on the age decline thing for one second, he is coming off his best season to date. Sure he probably won’t match it again, but he could repeat 2012 I think.

MikeS
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MikeS
2 years 3 months ago

He’s about to face the White Sox. He won’t be seeing many strikes.

Tony the Pony
Guest
Tony the Pony
2 years 3 months ago

Is that because you trust there pitching staff to be able to throw them?

John Elway
Member
2 years 3 months ago

NEIGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

georgmi
Guest
georgmi
2 years 3 months ago

The fact that modern data mining advance scouting was able to identify a temporary hole in Cabrera’s swing that quickly is pretty fascinating, and I would think it bodes pretty poorly for the merely-human hitters who make up most of the rest of the league.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
2 years 3 months ago

At the same time, a lot more effort probably goes into trying to identify something to exploit with Cabrera than the merely human guys.

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