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May 10, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

Pitchers Union Goes On Strike Against Miguel Cabrera

by Marc Carig

DETROIT--It must be hard work making an entire league of pitchers cower in their cleats, but to hear the scariest hitter in all of the American League talk, it would be easy to think that what he was doing was effortless.

Don't be fooled by Miguel Cabrera.

A little more than a month into the season, it's clear that American League pitchers have zero interest in throwing anything close to the plate against the Detroit Tigers slugger, and their fear is warranted. If a pitcher dares challenge him, Cabrera has proven himself to be ready to pounce.

“Hopefully they make mistakes and you hit them,” Cabrera said last week. “You don't hit good pitches. You hit mistakes. I never see somebody say 'I hit a good pitch.' I always say 'I hit a mistake.’” The key, he says with a shrug, is to stay ready. Sounds easy enough, though few in baseball are as good at it as Cabrera.

Through 35 games, Cabrera has posted a .320/.444/.566 line with seven homers and 24 RBI. At 18.8, Cabrera's VORP ranks him fifth overall and second in the American League to the Blue Jays Jose Bautista (25.3). Cabrera's .375 TAv is fourth-best in the game and second to only Bautista (.447) in the AL.

Those numbers are even more impressive considering that according to PITCHf/x, Cabrera has seen the fewest pitches in the strike zone in all of baseball. If we define the zone as a fixed rectangle —1.7-3.4 feet vertically and -0.83 to +0.83 feet horizontally for all batters—the rest of the league is seeing strikes 43.4 percent of the time (minimum 100 pitches). For Cabrera, that number is a minuscule 31.7 percent.

Not surprisingly, Cabrera leads the American League with nine intentional walks, an indication of just how carefully teams are pitching to him. And there's no reason to think it's going to stop. One longtime AL pitcher, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said Cabrera had better get used to it. That's because nobody else in the Tigers lineup offers much of a deterrent.

Still, despite getting fewer chances to inflict damage and lack of protection by his teammates, Cabrera has made the most of his opportunities.

Pitchers have taken note. Judging by their actions, the scariest man in the American League gets scarier by the season. Here's Cabrera's strike-zone percentages compared to the MLB average, as with the previous statistics courtesy of PITCHf/x guru Mike Fast:

2007: 36.1 percent/42.4 percent
2008: 41.3 percent/43.1 percent
2009: 41.7 percent/43.3 percent
2010: 37.5 percent/43.4 percent
2011: 31.7 percent/43.4 percent

For context, the Giants Pablo Sandoval is next at 32.9 percent, while the Dodgers' Tony Gwynn Jr. is at the other end of the spectrum; the least intimidating hitter in all of baseball sees 52.4 percent of his pitches in the zone.

Cabrera's ability to maximize his chances to punish pitches around the plate is a skill reminiscent of Barry Bonds during his prime home-run years. During that run—when few teams dared pitch to him—Bonds never seemed to miss a chance to punish those that did.

Sure, Bonds’ records are clouded by accusations of performance-enhancing drug use, but his ability to clobber mistakes speaks to his skill as a hitter. “Bonds was maybe the best I ever saw,” said another veteran pitcher. “I saw him through that whole stretch, played with him a couple of years. He was pretty incredible. They'd walk him three times, get one pitch near the plate, and he'd absolutely square it up.”

Though PITCHf/x data doesn't cover Bonds' scariest years, partial data from as far back as 2007 offers at least a bit of a hint. That season, the league saw an average of 42.4 percent of pitches in the zone. Bonds saw just 32.9 percent in the zone.

According to the pitchers, both Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez were in the same class. The data can vouch for Guerrero, who in 2007 saw the fewest pitches in the strike zone, a paltry 28.6 percent. Meanwhile, one longtime scout gave Albert Pujols the nod as the best in baseball, just ahead of Cabrera.

“He cashes in,” the scout said. “There's not too many guys you can put on this list.”

There's no doubt that Cabrera's name belongs.

A Gold Glover’s Solution to Fielding Metrics
We love to rank everything. Nowadays, it's not enough simply to know the best five or six college prospects heading into the amateur draft; we've got to know in what order they rank. Never mind that such rankings are often arbitrary, that the difference between the No. 2 prospect and the No. 6 is razor thin, since the players being ranked have typically already proven themselves to be on roughly the same elite level.

In my case, it might be the holdover from all that time in Madden franchise mode, where the skills of every players were ranked and sorted for all to see. We rank everything perhaps because we're comforted by that sense of order, even though it may be flawed.

Which brings me to the idea of defensive metrics. Created in response to the obvious shortcomings inherent in relying on errors and fielding percentage, the array of defensive metrics publicly available have changed the way we view the game, mostly for the better. At the very least, defensive metrics have offered a method to challenge long-held beliefs about players, whose evaluations are too often based upon reputation—a fact we're reminded of when it's time to hand out Gold Gloves. With metrics, we can Madden-ize the complicated world of defense on a baseball diamond, or at least try.

Yet, given the broad error bars that surround some metrics, at times it might be more beneficial to take a step backward from our ranking ways, particularly when it comes to defensive metrics. Instead of getting caught up in the degree to which one player may be better than another—no different than assigning letter grades in class—perhaps the metrics may be better used simply determining which players are good and which are not. Ultimately, isn't this the most important question to answer when it comes to defense? Hot or Not? Pass or Fail? Utley-esque or Uggla-esque?

For one current player, a former Gold Glove-winner, less is more. While the player is an expert at playing defense, he is admittedly not somebody attuned toward the methods of measuring that defense. Still, he is well-aware of the issues that come with trying to gauge somebody's glove on fielding percentage and errors alone. “You can't do it that way,” said the player, who I've granted anonymity so he could speak candidly.

Could somebody who watched a defensive player every day form an accurate impression? The player believes it's possible. Still, he acknowledges the effects of subjectivity. For instance, this player was not regarded as much of a fielder in his early days, a perception he had to battle for years. Yet, he also harbors some doubts about whether defensive metrics can truly capture a player's defensive value.

For instance, there's an issue of sample size. Using Ultimate Zone Rating as an example, it has been suggested that three-years' worth of UZR data is roughly equivalent to a season's worth of offensive data. That's not a whole lot to work with. That relative lack of data can leave defensive metrics vulnerable to imprecision. For instance, it's clear that from 2007 to 2010, Chase Utley has been an excellent second baseman while Dan Uggla has been awful. The two represent the extremes at their respective position when it comes to UZR. In the middle, where the ratings are bunched closer together, I'm not sure that the metrics possess the precision to make a distinction between the Aaron Hills and Robinson Canos of the world.

In response, the player brings up this point: Why bother? Within clubhouses, the former Gold Glover said, consistently making the routine play reigns supreme. Range? Yeah, it's noticed. But a lack of highlight reel appearances can be forgiven if the routine plays are being made.

“Routine” couldn’t be less precise, but defensive metrics, as they are built right now, have their share of imprecision. That could all change soon. Technology may soon bridge the gap in data that stands in the way of bringing more precise defensive metrics. For instance, how much better would the measurements be if we knew exactly how hard a ball was coming off a bat? How long a fly ball actually spent in the air? How far exactly did an outfielder have to run to make a catch? How far over was he shaded toward the gap before the play? Until then, perhaps it's best to acknowledge the imprecision that exists with defensive metrics, and compensate by demanding less of them.

The Gold Glover's solution may not be such a bad idea. He says to leave the rankings for another day and instead place all defensive players in one of two bins. “Helping,” he said. “Or hurting. That's all that really matters.”

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

Marc Carig is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Marc's other articles. You can contact Marc by clicking here

Related Content:  Defensive Spectrum,  The Who

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