Why Do Pitchers Continue to Challenge Miguel Cabrera?

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Why Do Pitchers Continue to Challenge Miguel Cabrera?
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As you may have heard, Miguel Cabrera is in the midst of one of the greatest hitting seasons in the history of the sport. If the 2012 Triple Crown ride was fun, the encore has been even more enjoyable to watch as a baseball fan.

The numbers, regardless of which you choose to highlight and banter about, are ridiculous: .357/.448/.683 with 43 home runs, 130 RBI, 327 total bases, 95 runs, 171 hits, .474 wOBA and .326 ISO.

With apologies to Albert Pujols' decade of dominance and the all-around brilliance of Alex Rodriguez in Texas, the run Miggy is on has elicited comparisons to Barry Bonds' reign of terror over the sport in the early 2000s.

Of course, when Bonds morphed, however you choose to believe he did, from Hall of Fame talent to something we've never seen before, pitchers stopped pitching to him on a consistent basis.

From 2000 to 2004, Bonds averaged 174 walks per season. When you factor in his .339 batting average across those five years, Bonds' eye afforded him the ability to reach base in over 53 percent of his plate appearances.

For as great as Cabrera is now, undoubtedly the best hitter in the sport, pitchers haven't taken that approach yet.

Cabrera has a single 100-walk season on his ledger. This, obviously, isn't a big deal. He doesn't strike out much, hits a ton and draws enough walks (about 78 per season) to reach base at a clip of .399 for his career. No one is suggesting Cabrera needs to be more patient.

It's the approach from opposing pitchers that is in question. Simply put: Why don't more managers have their pitchers work around Miguel Cabrera?

Two reasons jump out, one much more prevalent than the other.

The first and most logical reason: the presence of Prince Fielder behind Cabrera in Detroit's everyday lineup.

In theory, it makes sense. No sane pitcher would want to put free runners on base ahead of a star slugger like Prince Fielder. Yet, in the context of 2013, it doesn't hold water.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

This season, potentially stemming from personal issues, Fielder is in the midst of his least productive season since his first full year in the big leagues.

If there was ever a time to make Fielder beat you, it would be 2013.

The second reason for pitchers's habit of challenging Cabrera: Unless there's a signal from the dugout for an intentional walk, Miggy's approach and plate coverage simply don't allow pitchers to "work around" him.

According to Fangraphs, the average hitter has made contact on pitches outside the strike zone at a rate of 66.8, 68.1 and 66.5 percent over the past three seasons, respectively. In that time frame, Cabrera has made contact on pitches outside of the zone at clips of 71.3, 75.9 and 67.6 percent, respectively.

In other words, he hits what others simply can't or don't attempt to swing at.

While numbers are nice, visuals are even better.

During Detroit's trip to New York in mid-August, Cabrera made headlines for channeling his inner Kirk Gibson during an epic battle with Mariano Rivera. What he did in the final game of that series, however, stood out even more to me.

Phil Hughes, an impending free agent who has struggled as a fly-ball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, should be allowed to remove one home run from the scorecard when negotiating a contract this winter. Look at how far inside this pitch is to Cabrera:

If Hughes was attempting to "pitch around" baseball's best hitter, we'll never know because Miggy crushed it for a home run to left field. 

According to a heat map tweeted by ESPN's Stats and Info on Aug. 15, Cabrera was slugging .903 on inside pitches in the middle of the zone, much like the one you just watched him hit off Hughes. Of course, not just any inside pitches, but inside pitches that likely wouldn't be called strikes.

Not only is Cabrera aggressive on those pitches, but he crushes them. 

The following is an outstanding series of screen shots from Fangraphs' Drew Sheppard (read the full piece here), profiling Cabrera's ability to rake on pitches that are likely not strikes, especially on the inner half of the plate.

Why are pitchers challenging Cabrera? Intentional walks, especially early in the game, are rare when a guy like Prince Fielder—even in a down year—looms in the on-deck circle. Yet, the biggest reason that Cabrera is being allowed to make a mockery of American League pitching: He won't let them throw balls. 

 

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