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What's at the Core of Tigers' Miguel Cabrera's Slow Start?

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What's at the Core of Tigers' Miguel Cabrera's Slow Start?
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This sentence is not the official kickoff of the 2014 Miguel Cabrera Doom Watch.

Nor this one. Or this one. Or thi...all right, look. It's not happening right now. All we're here to do is ask a question that's appropriate to ask in light of recent events:

Why is Cabrera not hitting like Cabrera?

Though he drove in the only two runs the Detroit Tigers got in their 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians, Wednesday's game at Comerica Park was another tough one for the two-time defending American League MVP. Cabrera's 1-for-4 day actually dropped his OPS from .654 to a very un-Miggy-like .640 through his first 11 games.

For the record, Cabrera's not typically a slow starter. At least not in recent seasons, as his OPS has dipped no lower than .850 through his first 11 games in any of the last four years. 

And it's hard to chalk Miggy's slow start up to bad luck, as he just hasn't looked like himself. Rather than the man who's been the most feared hitter in the league in recent years, he's looked more like the hitter who was rendered ordinary by injuries in the fall months of 2013.

It turns out this is because those injuries aren't 100 percent in Cabrera's rearview mirror just yet, and they're impacting him in much the same way they impacted him when we last saw him in 2013.

When Jon Paul Morosi of FoxSports.com went looking for answers Wednesday, he found that Cabrera is still "rebuilding core muscle strength" following the hernia surgery he had late last October. As a result, he's dealing with the following complications:

  • Cabrera's swing mechanics aren't where he wants them to be. Notably, he doesn't quite have the strength to explode through the zone and finish with his usual one-handed follow-through.
  • The cold weather isn't helping, as Cabrera told Morosi that the low temperatures result in his core muscles feeling "weird."
  • Since he can't use his usual explosive swing, he's vulnerable to hard stuff.

If you've watched Cabrera this year, you might have noticed that his swing mechanics are off. If not, what he seeks is this:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And all he can do is this:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Though Cabrera was able to hit this second ball out of the yard, the difference in his mechanics is hard to miss. You can see him put his whole body into his swing and finish with one hand in the video from 2013, whereas in the second one it's mainly upper-body strength with a two-handed finish.

Cabrera just can't have the same kind of explosiveness with the latter swing mechanics, and it's unfortunately nothing new. We saw the same thing from him when he was playing through his injuries last fall, and it was a swing that practically invited opponents to attack him with hard stuff.

Which they did, and with great success to boot. And as this data from Brooks Baseball can show, it's been the same story thus far in 2014:

Miguel Cabrera vs. Hard Stuff (Four-Seamers, Sinkers, Cutters)
Split Whiff/Swing AVG SLUG
Through August, 2013 15.5 .411 .779
After August, 2013 22.0 .257 .357
2014 21.5 .182 .303

Brooks Baseball

It wasn't impossible to get a fastball by Cabrera through the first five months of 2013. But it was pretty darn hard, and the ones he hit stay hit. That stopped in September and October when his injuries were at their worst, and the problem has yet to correct itself in the early goings this year.

An inability to destroy fastballs isn't the only way in which Cabrera hasn't been himself. I'd like to direct your attention to a few key plate-approach statistics from FanGraphs:

Miguel Cabrera's Plate Approach
Year F-Strike% Zone% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% O-Swing% O-Contact%
2010 54.3 42.4 74.1 86.0 32.7 67.6
2011 58.6 40.0 75.3 86.6 32.5 75.9
2012 57.4 42.5 71.7 90.4 33.9 71.3
2013 60.3 41.5 77.5 87.6 34.1 69.6
2014 67.4 53.4 64.0 85.5 32.0 58.3

FanGraphs

Note: These are figures not yet updated to include Wednesday's game.

Those first two columns are first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike%) and the percentage of pitches Cabrera has seen inside the strike zone (Zone%). Relative to the previous four seasons, pitchers have been coming right at him so far in 2014.

Those next two columns tell us the percentage of pitches inside the zone Cabrera has swung at (Z-Swing%) and the percentage he's made contact with (Z-Contact%). So far in 2014, his aggressiveness inside the zone is way down and his contact rate is slightly down.

After that, we have the percentage of pitches outside the zone Cabrera has swung at (O-Swing%) and the percentage he's made contact with (O-Contact%). He's actually been a tad less aggressive this year, which is good. But for a guy known for his plate coverage, that Miggy's O-Contact% is down that far is not good.

Between this, what we know about Miggy's swing mechanics and about his ongoing inability to hit fast-moving pitches, what we're looking at is anything but a hitter who has everything clicking for him. Cabrera hasn't hit like himself so far in 2014 because he simply hasn't been himself.

If you're looking for a reason to be optimistic, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus liked what he saw on the RBI single that Cabrera hit Wednesday. Via Catherine Slonksnis of Bless You Boys:

If you're looking for another, Cabrera's gripe about the weather having an impact on him might not be him just making an excuse. Cold has been known to make muscles tighten up, after all, and it should be noted that Cabrera has looked like himself in warm weather already this year.

It was pretty warm during spring training, and that's when he was able to do this against a Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That's a knee-high fastball that Cabrera was able to drive over the wall in right-center, and you'll notice the Miggy-like one-handed follow-through. 

That it's still so early in 2014 is a good enough reason not to worry too much about Cabrera. That it's not going to be cold forever (knock on wood) is another reason. That he's presumably only going to get stronger as he gets further away from his surgery is another reason still.

This is why we're not starting the 2014 Miguel Cabrera Doom Watch just yet. What's happened early on in the season is good enough for a step toward the device, but not nearly enough to push the button.

We'll reconvene in the event that it's been weeks since the weather warmed up and yet Cabrera is still struggling with his approach, his swing and anything hard, at which point the larger sample size and thoughts of Cabrera's looming $248 million extension will have us feeling justifiably nervous.

Here's hoping it doesn't come to that. Life is more fun when the best hitter in baseball is hitting like the best hitter in baseball.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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