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
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:
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:
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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