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October 12, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Three: Miggy Shines

by R.J. Anderson

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Implicating Miguel Cabrera as the only reason the Tigers won Game Three 5-2 would be unfair—about as unfair as ignoring the hitting prowess he displayed a night after Albert Pujols and Nelson Cruz claimed headlines for similar feats.

Cabrera’s standing as a quality hitter is nothing new. This same fellow held his own as a 20-year-old in 2003 as a precocious wunderkind and extended his streak of consecutive seasons with 25-plus home runs to eight earlier in the year. This same fellow will hit his 300th home run next season at age 29, barring an injury. This same fellow is very good at hitting baseballs, but even good hitters are not supposed to have much success once they fall behind 0-2 in a count. Yet, Cabrera does have success, relative to the league, after falling behind 0-2. In 2011, major league hitters batted .169/.198/.253 after falling behind 0-2; Cabrera has hit .225/.255/.375 for his career in the same situations.

On Tuesday night, Cabrera fell behind 0-2 in all four at-bats. He struck out swinging in the first and hit a grounder back to the pitcher in the second. The third time up was special because it provided an opportunity to second-guess Ron Washington. Some background knowledge is required to understand the situation, so here it is: runners are on first and third with two outs in a 1-1 ballgame. Colby Lewis is pitching, Cabrera is coming up, and Victor Martinez is swinging a bat on deck. The part about Martinez is crucial, as earlier in the game he homered only to strain his oblique muscle. Washington ostensibly has no idea what the status of Martinez is beyond his glacier pace around the bases, but he has to make a difficult decision in whether to issue an intentional walk to Cabrera or not.  

Washington decided not to walk Cabrera, so Lewis went to work. He threw a first-pitch fastball that Cabrera fouled off, then came right back with another fastball that Cabrera swung through. With an 0-2 count, Lewis decided to expand the zone and throw a fastball away from Cabrera, so far away that PITCHf/x data later confirmed the pitch was off the plate by a fair margin. Cabrera swung anyways and poked the ball down the right field line, plating the go-ahead run and reaching second during the run of play. This was not a predictable pitch or a poor strike in an attempt to steal a strikeout; rather, it seemed like Lewis’s intent was to lure a swing, and he did—Cabrera just played his part a little better.

In Cabrera’s fourth trip to the plate, he fell behind 0-2 again, this time after Koji Uehara sprinkled a variety of pitches and velocity on him—in sequence: 91 mph fastball, 82 mph splitter, and 90 mph fastball. Uehara’s fourth pitch was another splitter, but he left it up and over the plate and Cabrera sent it deep into the Detroit night. Ben Lindbergh wrote about Albert Pujols on Monday night, all but stating that great players briefly transcend the rules of the game when they play at their best. Cabrera did not transcend the rules on Tuesday evening, but his talent did outshine the situation in two key (and memorable) moments.

  • Some more on the decision not to walk Cabrera to face Martinez: the key is that Washington could not have known how severe Martinez’s injury was, if he even knew he had an injury. If Washington did have that information, he still may have chosen the path he took. Martinez hits right-handed pitching to the same severity that Lewis pitches to lefties, making it a bad match-up on paper. Of course, Lewis versus Cabrera is a bad match-up on paper too, but the tiebreaker might be the idea of advancing Ramon Santiago into scoring position with two outs, since a single then plates two instead of one—as it turns out, a double only plated one as well. You can point out that the goal is to get the batter out, not limit the damage, and that point is valid. In Washington’s defense, there did not seem to be a clearly superior option at the time, given what he did not know about Martinez. 
  • Jhonny Peralta also homered in the game. During the Prospectus chat, Kevin Goldstein wondered whether the moves to acquire and re-sign Peralta would receive more praise if he played for a team generally managed by a sexier name. Impossible to say, but Peralta did lead American League shortstops in True Average during the regular season, yet received little publicity for an otherwise tremendous season.
  • Another of Dave Dombrowski’s undercover additions, Doug Fister, paid off for the Tigers in Game Three. Fister went 7 1/3 innings, striking out just three and allowing seven hits but holding the Rangers to a pair of earned runs. One of the runs and three of the hits came in the first, when the Rangers were making contact (albeit not solid contact) and watching their batted balls sneak through the infield. Otherwise, Fister performed considerably well given the opposition at hand.
  • Austin Jackson is also deserving of a shout out, as he reached base three times in five tries, all on singles. Jackson had been maligned for spotty play lately, but you wouldn’t know it from tonight’s game.
  • Game Four between the Rangers and Tigers is scheduled to start at 4:19 PM (EST) as Matt Harrison looks to give the Rangers a 3-1 series lead, and Detroit’s Rick Porcello tries to tie things up.

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

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