The San Francisco Giants have a lot of priorities on their World Series checklist.
I'm guessing that scoring runs against Detroit's starting pitchers is at the very top of the list, as the Giants know as well as anyone that the Tigers starters compiled a 5-1 record and a sparkly 1.02 ERA in the ALDS and the ALCS. They'll have to succeed where the Oakland A's and New York Yankees failed miserably.
Up next on San Francisco's list of priorities in the World Series: contain Miguel Cabrera. To which all of us say, "Good luck."
Cabrera is not so easily contained. He achieved MLB's first Triple Crown season in 45 years by hitting .330 with 44 homers and 139 RBI during the regular season, and he also led the league in various newfangled sabermetic statistics.
Even when Cabrera's not at his best, he's still dangerous. Such is the case this postseason, as Cabrera managed to compile an .810 OPS in Detroit's first nine postseason games despite being held in check relative to his usual production.
Since the Tigers have proven that they can win even with merely decent production from their star slugger, the pressure is on the Giants to find a way to make sure Cabrera doesn't achieve even decent production in the World Series. They're going to have to shut him down.
A fool's errand, perhaps, but there are ways for every hitter to be beaten. Even Cabrera. For starters...
Make Him Expand the Zone
Everyone loves hits, but the mark of a truly great hitter is patience. The best hitters know when to take a walk.
Cabrera has definitely taken his walks in the past. He led the American League in on-base percentage in both 2010 and 2011, and has finished with an OBP over .400 four times in his career. He did not, however, finish with an OBP over .400 in 2012.
Though he led the league in batting average, Cabrera was actually on base significantly less this year. He has a low walk rate to thank for that, as Cabrera's BB% dipped from 15.7 percent in 2011 to 9.5 percent in 2012, according to FanGraphs.
It makes sense if you think about it. With Prince Fielder hitting behind him, pitchers had more incentive to challenge Cabrera. He saw more pitches to hit, and thus, more strikes.
He also saw more third strikes, as Cabrera's K% jumped from 12.9 percent last year to 14.1 percent in 2012. He didn't help his cause by chasing an increased amount of pitches out of the zone, upping his O-Swing percentage from 32.5 percent to 33.9 percent.
We're tossing around a lot of weird statistics here, but the point is simple: It's not easy, but one can get Cabrera to expand the zone and chase after pitches he can do nothing with. And that, of course, is precisely what the Giants want.
This is not to say that the Giants want Cabrera to swing and miss at balls in the dirt every time he comes to the plate, mind you. That would be nice, but the Giants can't even begin to think that Cabrera will be stupid enough to swing at junk in the dirt time after time. He's not Hunter Pence, for crying out loud.
Pitches just a little bit outside of Cabrera's strike zone would be good enough. The Triple Crown king may have gone chasing pitches out of the zone more often, but he actually slightly increased his contact rate over last year. It's no surprise, then, that both Cabrera's batting average and BABIP took a tumble. He hit a ton of balls hard, as he always does, but he didn't have as many balls fall for hits.
If the Giants can get Cabrera to expand his zone even a little bit on a consistent basis in the World Series, they could find some nice, easy outs coming their way.
Now, all of this may sound good in theory, but I'll reiterate that there's a limit to how many outside sliders and curveballs in the dirt Cabrera will chase before he wises up. Giants pitchers are going to need to pinpoint a weakness that they can attack when they know Cabrera isn't going to chase their pitches.
Does the best hitter in baseball actually have any weaknesses, though? Yeah, actually. He does.
When In Doubt, Aim High
Conventional baseball wisdom says that left-handed hitters are low-ball hitters and that right-handed hitters are high-ball hitters.
There's a slight exception to be made in Cabrera's case. Before the American League Division Series, Mark Simon of ESPN.com broke down how the Oakland A's could attack Cabrera, and one of the things Simon pointed out was that Cabrera did the least amount of damage on pitches that were thrown up and out of the strike zone.
When Cabrera made contact with a pitch in the upper-third of the strike zone and above, he made 46 outs and got 16 hits. That’s a ratio of nearly three outs for every hit.
Cabrera’s ratio of outs to hits when he makes contact with pitches thrown to other spots is about 1.4-to-1.
The downside is that, naturally, there's a limit to how often pounding Cabrera up in the zone is going to work. He only went after pitches in the upper third of the zone and above about a third of the time. He needs a little incentive to go after these pitches.
Standard pitching theory tells us that Giants pitchers are going to have to get Cabrera looking for something else in order to effectively set him up. In this case, breaking balls that start their break at the top of the strike zone could do the trick. Cabrera could go looking for a hanger only to find a fastball zipping toward the top of the zone.
If that doesn't work, pitchers could always try changing Cabrera's eye line. They could do that by setting Cabrera up for something at his knees before surprising him with a high hard one.
This could actually be a job for Tim Lincecum, who had success against the Reds in Game 4 of the NLDS with a mixture of low changeups and high fastballs. I wouldn't recommend starting Lincecum against the Tigers due to the Detroit lineup's collective patience, but he could be a weapon out of the 'pen.
Expanding the zone and going after Cabrera with high pitches are a good start, but let's say the Giants find themselves in a situation where not just any out will do with Cabrera at the plate. What if they need a strikeout?
There's one pitcher in particular who they can emulate.
When In Need of a Strikeout, Remember the Teachings of...Ervin Santana?
Strikeouts were a bigger issue for Cabrera this year, but do you want to know how many times he struck out three times in a single game this season? Exactly once, and all three K's came against the same pitcher on September 7.
The pitcher who did the honors was none other than Los Angeles Angels right-hander Ervin Santana, who finished the season with a 5.16 ERA. Go figure.
You can watch highlights of Santana's domination of the Tigers slugger over at MLB.com. What you'll see is that Santana got Cabrera to go fishing at three sliders for his three strikeouts. The first was off the outside corner, the second was over the plate and low, and the third was a slider that broke just enough to stay within the strike zone on the outside corner.
The three pitches Santana got Cabrera on were pretty nasty in their own right, but what's even more significant is how he set them up.
For the sequences Santana used to punch Cabrera out, you have to head on over to BrooksBaseball.net to summon the PitchFX data. Or you could just take my word for it and dig these summaries.
AB No. 1: Santana busted Miguel Cabrera with an inside fastball on the sixth pitch of the at-bat before dropping a slider on the inside part of the plate for a strike. Then came the slider outside for the third strike. Thus: hard inside, soft inside, soft outside.
AB No. 2: Pitch No. 8 was a slider off the outside corner. Santana followed that up with a high fastball, and then followed that up with the low slider for the punch-out. Thus: soft outside, hard up, soft low.
AB No. 3: The fifth pitch of the at-bat was a slider inside. The sixth was a fastball on the outside corner. The seventh and final pitch was a slider that ended up in pretty much the exact same spot as the previous fastball. Soft inside, hard outside, soft outside.
Put it in perspective, and you can see that Santana never succeeded with the same trick twice against Cabrera. He got Cabrera looking in when he punched him out in his first at-bat. In his second at-bat, Santana got Cabrera looking up before finishing him down.
Santana thus broke the pattern with his third punch-out of Cabrera, getting him with a pitch that was thrown in the same place as the previous pitch. All he did was change his pitch selection.
What Santana did is something that any pitcher with good command and good stuff can do. He was thinking one step ahead the whole time, and then he hit his spots. Easier said than done, but not impossible.
San Francisco has one of the smartest pitching staffs in the league, so they can succeed where Santana succeeded. All they have to do is use their noggins and hit their spots—the very first lesson of Pitching 101.
Not that the Giants always want to adhere to Pitching 101 guidelines when dealing with Cabrera. They'll help themselves if they shake things up a bit by going against conventional baseball wisdom.
Don't Be Afraid to Use Lefties Against Him
You can use right-handed pitchers against left-handed hitters, but conventional baseball wisdom suggests that you should never bring a lefty in to face a righty if you can help it.
Strangely enough, an exception can be made in Miguel Cabrera's case. He's not overly vulnerable against southpaws, but he is somewhat limited against them.
Against right-handers this season, Cabrera hit .335 with a 1.027 OPS. Against left-handers, he hit .314 with a .913 OPS.
The only reason Cabrera's OPS against lefties was even that high was because he had a .441 on-base percentage against them. That's a sign that Cabrera didn't go out of his way to try and hit what they were giving him, but when he did swing away against lefties he only managed to compile a .472 slugging percentage.
That's pretty good for a regular player, but it looks rather insignificant compared to the .652 slugging percentage Cabrera posted against right-handers this season. (That had a lot to do with the fact that 40 of his 44 homers came against righties.)
As Simon pointed out in his article, lefties tended to bust Cabrera at and below his knees. They didn't want to elevate anything against him, and for good reason. Missing with a few pitches and putting him on base via the walk was a heck of a lot more preferable than missing up and watching him hit it a mile.
The good news for the Giants is that they do have a couple of southpaws in relief who can come in and throw strikes at the knees. Both Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt could, in theory, be used against Cabrera if Bruce Bochy is feeling adventurous.
If he is feeling adventurous, he may as well get creative with his infield too.
Don't Be Afraid to Shift Against Him
Sort of like how conventional wisdom suggests lefty hitters are low-ball hitters and righty hitters are high-ball hitters, conventional wisdom also suggests it's a lot harder to predict where right-handed hitters are going to hit the ball—shifting on them is not a good idea.
We know better in this day and age. There are all sorts of stats that keep track of hitters' tendencies. In the case of Cabrera, Simon noted that 172 of the 217 ground balls that Cabrera hit in 2012 either went up the middle or to the left of second base.
Cabrera's ground-ball tendency is something that is easily accounted for. All the Giants have to do is have Brandon Crawford shade Cabrera slightly up the middle. Given the amount of ground he can cover, Crawford could easily take a few base hits away if Bochy puts him in the right place.
If the Giants find a way to stash a few fielders in the seats as well, I'd say they'd have Cabrera pretty well defended.
Regardless of what they do, let's make one thing clear: There's no way the Giants are ever going to feel totally safe when Cabrera is at the plate. There are things they can do to make him less dangerous, but there's nothing they can do to render him completely innocuous.
But even dangerous hitters like Cabrera all adhere to the most general rule of hitters: They're going to fail more often than not at the plate no matter how good they are.
If the Giants play their cards right and get a little bit of luck on the side, they'll get Miguel Cabrera to fail a little more than usual in the World Series.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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