It's fitting that Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland has decided to bat Miguel Cabrera in the second spot for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, because over the past two months, Cabrera has become a two-hole hitter.
It's no secret that the reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Triple Crown winner, who posted career highs in both batting average (.348) and slugging percentage (.636) this season, isn't himself right now.
Cabrera, 30, has been dealing with various injuries and ailments to his hip, legs and torso since midseason. The injury issues began with a hip flexor strain in late July, continued with an abdominal strain in late August and led to groin soreness in late September.
All of the above has affected Cabrera's left side, which is the righty hitter's front side in the batter's box. That has left his ability to impact the baseball with his usual authority very much compromised.
Want some proof? Consider Cabrera's statistics over the month of September, at which point all of the strains and soreness had left him extremely limited:
That line looks an awful lot like that of a No. 2 hitter, doesn't it? Particularly the .333 SLG and the two extra-base hits.
So far this October, heading into Game 4 of the ALCS, Cabrera has gone just 7-for-31 (.226), and while he does have two homers, those are his only extra-base hits. Cabrera also has only two walks in eight postseason games, a sign that he's not quite as feared as he normally is when healthy.
Essentially, the best hitter in baseball over the past several seasons has been reduced to a glorified singles hitter. And for the most part, the Boston Red Sox are treating him as such. Take what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning in Tuesday night's Game 3, when Cabrera stepped to the dish with one out and the tying run only 90 feet away:
You just watched Cabrera look utterly overmatched by Junichi Tazawa, who was able to whiff him on four fastballs away that came in at 94, 95, 94 and 94 mph—in a situation where simply making contact would have given the Tigers a chance to tie the game.
Here's Tazawa's take on that at-bat, per Ian Browne of MLB.com:
He's such a good hitter. I was aware that giving up a sacrifice fly is not the worst thing to happen, but for the team, it was probably not the best thing to happen. When I got ahead, I was thinking, 'I'm getting a strikeout.'
The fact that Tazawa could even think that way shows the mindset of the Red Sox pitchers, who feel like they can attack Cabrera rather than having to pitch oh-so carefully to him.
No wonder Cabrera went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts in Game 3, thus ending his postseason-record streak of reaching base safely (via hit or walk) at 31 straight games, as Jason Beck of MLB.com pointed out. Cabrera also registered nine swings and misses, the most he's ever had in a game in his 11-year big league career, according to Buster Olney of ESPN The Magazine via the Elias Sports Bureau (subscription required).
The approach Tazawa took—fastballs on the outer half or even off the plate—is exactly the one that hurlers have used to get Cabrera out (subscription required) during the playoffs, as Olney notes:
In the first round of the postseason, the Oakland Athletics drew the road map on how to pitch to Cabrera, pounding the outside part of the plate (and off the outer edge) with fastballs. So with first and third and one out, Boston manager John Farrell wanted the hard-throwing Junichi Tazawa to work to Cabrera.
"We liked the matchup with power against Cabrera," said Farrell. "Cabrera has had good success against Koji [Uehara] in the past, hit a couple of balls out of the ballpark against him. And particularly after the base hit the other way by Torii [Hunter] to put them in the first-and-third situation, we felt power was the best way to go here."
The reason that's working is because that location forces Cabrera to extend his arms and rely more on his core for strength and balance, and that's the very area that's bothering him the most. And the reason Cabrera has lost much of his power is because it's generated from the legs, while the torque and rotation required from the swing comes from the hips and torso. Those are the exact two areas where Cabrera has been hampered for the past several weeks.
Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that the entire Tigers lineup—heck, each hitter on the four teams still playing—is struggling mightily, in large part because practically every at-bat is coming against the best pitching the sport has to offer. But it seems the book on how to handle Cabrera is out now that pitchers are well aware of his ongoing injury issues.
What Cabrera's current status does is make him—and the Tigers offense—vulnerable. There's a sense now that as long as the pitcher doesn't make an egregious mistake to him, Cabrera can be pitched to, can be had, as it were. When he's right, when he's healthy, that's not the case. That's when Cabrera, as we've seen for the past several seasons, can basically hit—and do damage to—not only mistakes but also a pitcher's pitch.
It's not quite as if the Red Sox arms can approach Cabrera like he's just any old hitter (don't go that far), but there's a certain confidence that comes with knowing that Cabrera can be pitched to and even occasionally overpowered, as we've seen in recent weeks and especially throughout most of October.
As much as anything else, Leyland's decision to alter his lineup for Game 4 is about the failures of Detroit's hitters as a whole, particularly leadoff man Austin Jackson, who is an ugly 3-for-33 with 18 strikeouts and will move down to the eighth spot.
It just so happens to be appropriate that the alterations shift Cabrera up one peg from his usual No. 3 spot, because due to all the injuries and ailments, the most fearsome batter in the sport has been producing like a No. 2 hitter for the past two months.