Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/20/13
Sunday night, the Rangers hosted the Tigers in a matchup between two of the American League’s better teams. You’d think the big story would be that the Rangers rallied from a deficit to beat the Tigers 11-8. But then, it’s May, and the Rangers are going to win a lot, and the Tigers are going to lose a lot (albeit, presumably, a smaller lot than the first lot). Sure seems to me the big story is that Miguel Cabrera clubbed three dingers. That sort of game for Cabrera shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s a bigger surprise than the Rangers beating the Tigers. Cabrera’s individual effort has people re-analyzing his game, in the exact same way everyone did last November. And Cabrera didn’t just club three ordinary dingers. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, there were 22 homers on Sunday. The longest was hit by Miguel Cabrera. The second-longest was hit by Miguel Cabrera. The third-longest was hit by Miguel Cabrera. The fourth-longest wasn’t hit by Miguel Cabrera, but now you’re being greedy. All of the homers were similar, and all of the homers were significantly different. Cabrera homered in the third off Derek Holland, he homered in the fifth off Holland again, and he homered in the eighth off Tanner Scheppers. The balls wound up in similar places — the first went to the right side of center field, the second went to just about dead center field, and the third went to the left side of center field. But then, the first was hit off a changeup out over the plate: The third was hit off a two-strike fastball inside, off the plate: That’s Cabrera pulling his hands in to knock a 97 mile-per-hour inside fastball more than 420 feet. I don’t think there’s anyone in baseball better at turning unusually inside pitches into dingers than Miguel Cabrera. The second homer was also hit off an inside fastball, over the edge and thrown by a lefty. Let’s touch on something before we get to that. A lot of players hit home runs. Some players hit a lot of similar home runs. Some players hit a variety of home runs, and I think implied by the latter is greater ability on the hitter’s part. One chart I’ll never be able to forget is Jose Lopez‘s dinger chart from 2009: All of Jose Lopez’s homers were the same. Now, he is bad. Lopez wasn’t a one-trick pony, but he was exploitable, and he’s since been exploited. Now here’s Miguel Cabrera’s homer chart for 2013 to date: All fields, varying lengths. What’s evident is that Cabrera has a more disciplined approach and a more complete swing that covers the entire zone. Just by looking at these images, you’d come away thinking that there’s maybe one or two pitches that Lopez could’ve hit out. You’d also come away thinking that Cabrera is a constant threat, which he is. Miguel Cabrera finds a way to hit the baseball out of the yard, no matter what’s pitched or by whom. Back to that second home run. Here’s a video highlight. Here’s a .gif: You can tell, even without thinking about it, that this is a real line drive. This ball got out of the yard in a hurry, and according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker again, it’s the second-fastest homer off the bat of the season, at 117.6 miles per hour. The ball was gone in just under 3.7 seconds. For the sake of confusing reference, let’s cut off this Mark Trumbo homer from earlier in the year at just under 3.7 seconds: Among the Tracker’s other measurements are elevation angle and apex. The former measures the angle above horizontal at which a homer left the bat. The latter measures the highest point, in feet, of a homer’s path. The two are closely related, and here’s a graph of the 2013 data so far: That guy all the way to the left is Miguel Cabrera’s second home run on Sunday. It’s estimated to have gotten 47 feet above the surface of the field. And it’s estimated to have left the bat with an elevation angle of 15.9 degrees. That’s the lowest angle of the year. And that’s tied for the lowest angle for any standard home run since at least 2006, which is as far back as the Tracker data extends. In 2008, it’s alleged that Corey Hart also hit a homer with the same elevation angle, but video confirmation isn’t available that I can find. The only homers with lower elevation angles have been inside-the-parkers. And for whatever it’s worth, Cabrera’s missile left the bat a little faster than Hart’s, according to the numbers. In a sense, Sunday night Miguel Cabrera drilled the ultimate line drive. Buster Olney pointed out on Twitter that Derek Holland briefly reacted as if he thought the ball was coming back at him. Here’s what he means: You can see Holland flinch before he turns around to watch the rest of the ball’s flight. He tries to get his hands in front of his face before he realizes the ball has long since passed by. As a former pitcher who has been drilled in the head by a comebacker, I feel like I can speak with some authority on this. It can be terrifying. The instinct is to flinch, when the batter makes contact and the ball is coming back up the middle. The ball doesn’t even have to come that close — the contact just needs to be solid, and it needs to look like it could be in the vicinity right off the bat. A ball hit to either side, or a fly, or a grounder — those don’t make a guy flinch. But any liner can be a momentary nightmare. Cabrera hit a ball close enough to Holland to make him ever-so-briefly afraid. It ended up a home run. Holland didn’t quite understand: I don’t know who could understand, to be honest. Those hits aren’t supposed to be home runs. They’re supposed to be singles or doubles or line-outs. The only explanation is that Miguel Cabrera can do things that other hitters just can’t, or don’t. The quality of his contact is such that normal rules don’t apply. Think back to how all three of Cabrera’s homers wound up in similar places. They were all hit to center, one off an inside fastball from a righty, one off a less-inside fastball from a lefty, and one off a changeup over the plate from a lefty. That says everything you need to know about Cabrera’s timing and his ability to square the baseball up when it’s anywhere hittable. There will be times that a pitcher makes Miguel Cabrera look bad, and each of those times is incredible. Miguel Cabrera is a mediocre runner who bats from the right side and who has a .347 career BABIP. This year it’s up to .400, to go neatly with his 200 wRC+. Cabrera is capable of making a lot of contact, and on contact he’s capable of doing some extraordinary things. This was readily on display Sunday night, when Cabrera made a meaningful baseball game feel somewhat irrelevant. Against Derek Holland, Cabrera reached a new low, all in the process of exploring new heights.
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