You think of the Tigers and first and foremost you think of Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera. You think of the Tigers on a day that Verlander isn’t pitching and you think of Fielder and Cabrera. There are other guys on the roster — lots of them! — and some of them are good, but Fielder and Cabrera are the big offensive guns. They’re the players the Tigers most want in the spotlight in important situations.
The Tigers lost Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday, and now they have to win four in a row if they want to take the title. They lost not because the Giants lit them up, but rather because they very much didn’t light the Giants up. The story right now, depending on your perspective, is either the Giants’ run prevention or the Tigers’ miserable run production, and Saturday saw the Tigers blow what opportunities they generated. Worse, opportunities were blown by both Fielder and Cabrera. The Tigers got the bats they wanted up in the situations they wanted, and still they got shut out by Ryan Vogelsong and the San Francisco bullpen.
Let’s acknowledge first that all of Ryan Vogelsong’s pitches won the game. Let’s acknowledge second that, outside of Fielder and Cabrera, Quintin Berry also contributed to two blown opportunities. But nobody expects that Quintin Berry will be a good hitter and indeed one should expect him to make outs often. Given everything, Vogelsong’s two most crucial at-bats came in the bottom of the first and the bottom of the fifth.
There was no score in the first when Vogelsong faced Fielder with one out and two on. Cabrera had just hit a single on the ground. The Tigers had a chance to take their first lead of the series, and Fielder took a first-pitch change down low for a ball. He fouled off a high fastball, then he took an inside slider to get ahead in the count 2-and-1. So the Tigers had not only Prince Fielder batting with men on, but they had Prince Fielder batting with men on in a hitter-friendly count. In such situations this season, Vogelsong threw 56-percent fastballs, 23-percent changeups, and 21-percent breaking balls. Buster Posey called for a changeup over the outer edge.
Vogelsong actually missed a little bit, away off the plate. But he got Fielder to roll over on the ball and hit a grounder to second that turned into an inning-ending double play. As a result the Giants’ odds of winning improved by 8.5 percent. Ahead in the count, Fielder went after the equivalent of a pitcher’s pitch.
It’s interesting that Fielder tried to pull the ball, given its location. Going back to 2009, and sorting by wOBA, Fielder has been the eight-best opposite-field hitter in baseball. That’s a pitch he would’ve been better off taking or trying to drive to left. It’s also interesting to look at a Prince Fielder 2009-2012 run value heat map:
That’s Fielder against right-handed pitchers, compared to the league average. It’s pretty easy to identify the lethal spots. The little pixelated baseball represents the approximate location of the 2-and-1 changeup that Vogelsong threw. It wasn’t in any of Fielder’s hot zones. Of course, it isn’t that easy, because we don’t know what Fielder’s hot zones would’ve been in that exact situation, but Vogelsong put a pitch in a good spot considering he was behind in the count. Fielder did the rest.
Now we’ll skip ahead to the fifth, when it was 2-0 Giants. The Tigers loaded the bases with one out, then Berry whiffed. Some matter, because the Tigers could’ve used at least a sacrifice fly. But, no matter, because after Berry was Cabrera. With “M-V-P” chants cascading down from the stands, Cabrera had an opportunity to turn things completely around with one swing. Posey called for a first-pitch inside fastball, and Vogelsong threw a first-pitch inside fastball, that Cabrera fouled off. Then Posey called for an 0-and-1 inside fastball in the same spot. Vogelsong threw a much higher fastball instead, and Cabrera popped it up.
You can see the target being set up around Cabrera’s thigh level, and you can see the pitch ending up north of Cabrera’s belt. Vogelsong missed, but he didn’t miss to a bad place. It would’ve been a borderline strike, and obviously the result was terrific. One has to note that the first two targets were literally identical:
Buster Posey wanted the second pitch to be the same pitch as the first pitch. The second pitch was higher, and it was 0.3 miles per hour faster out of Vogelsong’s hand. We should again look at a run value heat map. This is Miguel Cabrera against right-handed pitchers between 2009-2012, and the baseball still represents the baseball.
Considering where the pitch could’ve gone, this was a good location. But look down in the heat map, closer to where Buster Posey would’ve been setting the target. Posey called for consecutive fastballs on the inner edge around the thigh. Miguel Cabrera might be the greatest inside-pitch hitter in the world. He’s the best on pitches out over the plate, like anyone, but he can turn on an inside pitch like few others, and so one has to question the wisdom of Posey’s targets. Maybe he saw something about Cabrera that was exploitable. Maybe he figured Cabrera wouldn’t be so dangerous on inside pitches on such a cold night. Maybe something else. But I can’t help but think that, while Vogelsong missed his location, the ultimate location was better than the apparently intended location. Cabrera has hurt too many pitchers on inside pitches above the knee.
The pop out improved the Giants’ chances of winning by 10.6 percent. When the bases were loaded with one out, the game was close to being a coin flip; minutes later, the Giants again had things well under control, and the Tigers couldn’t get much of anything going the rest of the way. Yes, Quintin Berry finished having stranded six runners. But Miguel Cabrera stranded three and Prince Fielder stranded two, and those are guys the Tigers aren’t paying to strand runners. The Tigers had their chances, and I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.