One of the weird things you just get used to when you’re a hockey fan is the vague, non-informative reportage of injuries, especially around playoff time. If a guy has a broken foot, it’s a lower-body injury. If a guy sustained a concussion, it’s an upper-body injury. No one ever goes into specifics until a playoff run is over, nominally so as not to give the other team some kind of advantage. If a guy’s playing through pain, you don’t want the other team targeting his sore spots, after all. Once a team is eliminated, or wins the Stanley Cup, everything comes out, and everyone admits what they’ve been dealing with. By the end, nobody’s healthy.
Tony Paul’s suspicion is that, whenever the Tigers are done playing baseball, everyone will come clean about what’s going on with Miguel Cabrera. It’s no secret that Cabrera’s playing hurt, and we’ve all heard about his litany of aches and pains, but we might not have a true understanding of how bad things have gotten. I don’t know, that’s speculation, but Cabrera most certainly doesn’t look like himself. He most certainly didn’t look like himself — or perform like himself — in September, as nagging pains mounted. The Tigers, like everyone, are more than just one player, and they’ve still got a shot at a title, but they’d have a better shot with a healthy Cabrera, a Cabrera who doesn’t presently exist.
Sam Miller posed a question on Twitter the other day just as I was thinking about the same question to myself. Cabrera’s a superstar, a probable MVP, and he was just worth a career-high 7.6 WAR. He’s the most important player on the Tigers, not that they’re hurting for star-level talent. But what would Cabrera’s WAR be now? That is, if Cabrera played a full season like this, how would his numbers turn out? It’s almost inconceivable that this version of Cabrera would play a full season and stay at third base, but consider it as a thought exercise. Cabrera’s obviously limited in the field, even more than before. He can’t run, such that doubles are singles and certain singles are outs. I can’t speak to the degree to which his power is sapped, but his power is sapped at least some, so basically, Cabrera’s worse everywhere.
How much worse? Two wins worse? Five wins worse? 7.6 wins worse? More than that worse? Is Miguel Cabrera, right now, an average player? Is he a replacement-level player, or a below-replacement-level player? Would the Tigers genuinely be better off sitting Cabrera, shifting Jhonny Peralta back to the infield, and playing an extra like Andy Dirks? We can’t know the answer, and the Tigers won’t sit Cabrera as long as he’s ambulatory, but I think this is fascinating to think about. Miguel Cabrera is ordinarily terrifying, but right now he’s Miguel Cabrera in name only. He is not the American League’s most valuable player. He is not the Tigers’ most valuable player. More than anything, he might be an un-sittable burden.
Let’s just say, for the sake of simplicity, Game 5 between Detroit and Oakland is a perfect coin flip. 50/50, between Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray on Oakland’s own turf. If Cabrera were, say, five wins worse, Detroit’s odds of winning would drop from about 50% to a hair under 47%. Replacement-level Cabrera? 45%. It’s evident that Cabrera isn’t everything; it’s evident that Cabrera is important.
This season, the Tigers posted a team 113 wRC+, while Cabrera himself came in at 192. Here’s a small table of what the Tigers’ offense would be with inferior versions of Cabrera in the middle:
With a worse Cabrera, the Tigers remain a good offense, but they fall short of being a great offense, to say nothing about Cabrera’s inhibited running and defense. He is, right now, the very definition of a base-clogger, at least when he’s able to get on base, and I don’t know why the A’s haven’t attempted to bunt the ball right at him a handful of times. It seems like there’s an opportunity there to be exploited. Maybe they’re saving it.
Cabrera’s worse right now, and more, the A’s know it. They’ve treated him like it, at least when he’s been hitting. Here’s Cabrera’s longest pulled ball in play of the series:
Here are his two overall longest balls in play of the series:
It’s been a continuation of a September in which Cabrera went deep only once, slugging .333. It’s incredibly, underratedly easy to overreact to what’s happened over just four games in October, but you do get the sense Cabrera has mis-hit pitches he used to be able to drive. Or he hit them square, and hitting balls square doesn’t mean the same thing right now as it did two or three months ago.
The A’s, as a staff, have thrown a lot of fastballs in this series. Cabrera, during the season, saw just about as many fastballs as his teammates did. His teammates, in the ALDS, have seen 78% fastballs. Cabrera himself has seen 87% fastballs. It’s been 45 out of 52 pitches, as the A’s evidently don’t believe that he’s able to catch up and impart the usual force. Cabrera’s done nothing to prove them wrong — he has four hits in four games, but they’ve all been singles, and they’ve been spread over 16 at-bats. He hit one potential groundball double, but he doesn’t have the legs to take the second 90 feet.
And beyond the pitch types, the A’s have taken another step to customize their Cabrera-specific approach. Here are all of the pitch locations, separating out those from tonight’s starter:
During the regular season, 33% of pitches to Cabrera were over or within the inner third, and 46% of pitches to Cabrera were over or beyond the outer third. During this series, 27% of pitches to Cabrera have been over or within the inner third, and 63% of pitches to Cabrera have been over or beyond the other third. The A’s have tried to pitch Cabrera away, and if those numbers aren’t telling enough, consider that Cabrera has seen 14 inside pitches so far. Here are the intended locations of nine of those:
Nine of those 14 inside pitches were supposed to be outside pitches. Five of them, therefore, were supposed to be inside pitches, but you obviously have to keep a hitter honest, and Cabrera likes to swing at pitches inside. Stay appropriately low and in, and you can get a foul ball or a weak ball in play. The TBS broadcasters speculated initially that the A’s would try to pound a hurting Cabrera inside, believing he wouldn’t be able to catch up. They might believe, instead, that inside is where Cabrera could maximize his bat speed, and by staying away, they’ll force him to right and up the middle, where he doesn’t have the strength to punish them these days. Everyone can pull the ball harder than they can shoot the ball to the opposite field. The A’s have tried to keep Cabrera to the opposite field, and it’s worked, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll do differently Thursday night. You still have to respect a hitter like Cabrera because his natural talent is virtually unparalleled, but when he’s right, he’s a hitter without weaknesses. He’s a hitter with weaknesses today.
For all I and the A’s know, Cabrera’s doing better than he’s looked, and tonight he’ll go yard and win a ballgame. It’s easy to pile on a guy when he’s struggling, and sometimes those struggles don’t represent how good a player actually still is. Cabrera’s wrists are fine. His mind is fine. His approach is fine. It’s Cabrera’s lower body that’s letting him down, and maybe for a swing or two or three, he’ll manage to feel well enough. But for more than a month, there’s been little indication that Miguel Cabrera is still a special player. There’s been the value of his name, there’ve been the ovations in Detroit, but these are acknowledgments of what Cabrera’s done in the past. He’s not doing much in the present, and the A’s seem to have a plan to get him out. For once, it’s the pitchers against Cabrera who have the advantage. For once, it’s Miguel Cabrera who has to prove his own ability.