For the next several weeks we’ll be rolling out our list of the best The Moment’s of 2013. The list is the product of winnowing down 173 moments from April to October into the best twenty. They vary in their importance but all captivated us in an important way. A few are silly, a few are excellent plays, and a few will travel down in Tigers lore. I hope you enjoy it.
#19 – Miguel Cabrera Walks Off the Royals
[click to play]
This moment makes the list on its own merit but also gets a nice boost from the set of circumstances that brought it into the world. The Tigers had a 3-2 lead entering the 4th inning and they looked poised for another close victory over the Royals before things got out of hand.
It started with a foul ball that the umpires missed leading to a run and a Jim Leyland ejection. If that doesn’t seem interesting enough, it also lead to a Brayan Pena ejection. Now I have your attention. The score was 3-3 entering the bottom of the 4th inning but the Tigers retook the lead on a Miguel Cabrera RBI double, putting them up 4-3. It stayed that way until the 7th inning when Drew Smyly allowed a game tying homerun to Sal Perez just two batters after relieving Doug Fister.
In the bottom half of the inning, Prince Fielder smacked a solo homerun to put the Tigers back on top 5-4 but that lead lasted about five minutes thanks to a lengthy and dangerous outing by Jose Veras that thankfully only yielded a single run to tie the score at 5. They headed to the bottom of the 9th, tied at 5, with Miguel Cabrera due up first.
The Royals went to the talented Aaron Crow with the hope of pumping fastballs by the game’s best hitter. Crow threw one low and away before challenging him in the zone on pitch Cabrera would foul off. From there, he threw two more out of the zone to set up a 3-1 fastball at 93 mph in a location that would generously be described as “sucky.” You can watch the video above, but the graph below can give you some idea of what happened. Someone came very closer to winning a new set of tires as the ball just missed the Belle Tire sign in RF and Mario Impemba gave us one of his best calls of the year.
Miguel Cabrera is on this list quite a few times thanks to his amazing year, but only 18 total moments rank above this one on our list.
On Thursday night, Miguel Cabrera hit a homerun. Generally this wouldn’t be news but he’s been battling injuries for six weeks and hadn’t hit a bomb since September 17th and only had one since August 27th. Miguel Cabrera hit 43 homeruns through August 26th and 44 homeruns through Wednesday. Again, he’s been hurt. It’s limited his playing time and cut down on his ability to drive the ball to some extent. We’re not surprised that he’s struggling because he’s obvious some diminished version of himself.
On Thursday night he turned a Sonny Gray fastball into a two run homerun. Here’s a gif via Jeff Sullivan’s excellent post at FanGraphs:
Notice anything different? It didn’t jump out at me at first, but this tweet showed up on my doorstep this morning:
Miguel Cabrera hit a two-handed-finish homerun. That’s pretty strange. That’s not Cabrera’s swing. It looks good, but it’s not typical. Cabrera hit 22 HR this year on inside fastballs and I watched every single one. He finished with one hand every time. I don’t know how to make .gifs, but I can do screenshots. The following is a typical finish:
Watch the .gif and then look at the screenshot. Miguel Cabrera tried a new swing against Sonny Gray on Thursday and still managed to hit a homerun. It gets a bit more interesting. Take a peak at his finish on his long fly out on Tuesday. Fastball, inner half.
It’s unclear to me why he tried the new swing. I suspected it was an injury because he didn’t want to let his left side fly open as far, but he had no problem doing so two days earlier. Maybe things got worse or maybe he made some weird adjustment based on what Gray was doing. Cabrera is known for his exceptional hitting IQ. I went back to look at a few ABs from the worst period of his injury – all one handed finishes.
The takeaway point is this. Miguel Cabrera can try a new swing for the first time in a winner take all playoff game while hurt against a really good pitcher and still hit a homerun in a giant park. Good grief.
In studying the Tigers offensive statistics so far, I spent some time looking into Jhonny Peralta, whom I have generally defended, but decided that his extremely good numbers so far (3rd in SS WAR) are driven somewhat by a high BABIP which isn’t very interesting.
Then I thought about writing about why Matt Tuiasosopo, the Tigers RH platoon OF, should play a little more but realized there isn’t really any extra PA for him unless you’re willing to bench Victor Martinez, whom I’m not giving up on at all.
Yet in the course of this perusal of Tuiasosopo’s numbers, something very amazing caught my eye. He’s crushing the ball, but that’s not what I mean. There is a belief, one which I share, that a baseball player can do pretty much anything across 60 plate appearances, or a 10 to 14 day stretch. Tuiasosopo has 51 PA at this moment in time. So I’m not shocked that he’s doing well. I’m shocked at how it compares to someone else on the team. First, for reference, he’s Tui’s line:
.366/.490/.561, 189 wRC+ (51 PA, 2 HR, 7 R, 15 RBI, 19.6% BB)
That’s excellent. It’s a small sample, but it’s excellent. He’s 89% better than league average at the plate so far this year. It won’t continue, but that isn’t the point. The point is that Tuiasosopo’s best 51 PA – his small sample peak – still don’t measure up to Miguel Cabrera’s entire season.
Cabrera’s line, despite covering 197 PA or a quarter of a season rather than 10%, is better. Here it is:
.387/.457/.659, 199 wRC+ (197 PA, 11 HR, 34 R, 47 RBI, 10.7% BB)
Cabrera isn’t getting on base at the same rate as Tuiasosopo, but he’s outslugging him by a lot. Cabrera is 99% better than league average at the plate this year. This post is meant to illustrate how awesome that is. Tuiasosopo is crushing the ball over a small sample and he still isn’t on Cabrera’s 200 PA pace (In Cabrera’s last 55 PA, he’s at 220 wRC+ BTW). That’s nuts.
Miguel Cabrera’s wRC+ for the season is better than Babe Ruth’s career wRC+. Now obviously that won’t continue. He won’t be Babe Ruth (although for a second I did actually think about removing the word “obviously”). But right now he’s outhitting everyone. Even great hitters. Even players who are having the best couple weeks of their lives.
Chris Davis is the next closest qualifier to Cabrera with a 182 wRC+. If you drop the threshold from qualified to 50 PA, Tuiasosopo is as close as anyone gets. To find someone with a higher wRC+ than Cabrera, you have to find your way to Matt Adams’ 43 PA.
And just for fun, even though it isn’t a meaningful number, over the last week Miguel Cabrera leads baseball with a 344 wRC+. It’s a small sample, but that’s just silly.
Miguel Cabrera has the 29th best career wRC+ of all time at 150. This is his peak. It has to be. The last three seasons have been his best three and this one looks like it might top them all. We may be watching one of the best dozen or so hitters of all time at his absolute best.
Rangers 11, Tigers 8
Entering the bottom of the 5th inning, the Tigers lead the Rangers 4-1 behind two Miguel Cabrera (.387/.457/.659, 1998 wRC+, 2.8 WAR) homeruns and solid pitching from Doug Fister (5-2, 54.2 IP, 3.62 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 1.7 WAR). Then things just went indiscriminately crazy. I mean it. The Rangers got 4. The Tigers got 3. The Rangers got 4. That was three consecutive half innings. It was 9-7 at that point. Then 11-7, then 11-8 on Cabrera’s third homer. I don’t think it’s necessary to rehash exactly how it happened at each interval other than to say that the offense did its job, but the pitching and defense struggled in different ways at different times. I’m really not even sure if the Tigers were giving the game away or the Rangers were trying to give the game away. There were many runs and Miguel Cabrera did something that has happened just a couple times in history. He hit 3 HR in a game and lost…for a second time. The Tigers drop to 23-19 after dropping 3 of 4 from Texas this weekend after Verlander, Sanchez, and Fister all struggled. The Rangers are a good team and you’d be plenty happy with a split on the road and that just escaped their grasp. The Tigers will get Monday off to reset the bullpen and will turn to Max Scherzer (5-0, 54.1 IP, 3.98 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 1.9 WAR) to get the team on track Tuesday in Cleveland.
The Moment: Cabrera homers…three times.
Tonight’s Tigers game has been postponed until Thursday on account of rain in D.C., so I thought I’d take this opportunity to consider one of Rod Allen’s favorite topics of conversation: swinging on a 3-0 pitch. This is a topic of interest for me because it exists at the intersection of two things I think are really important in baseball: plate discipline and strategy.
Let’s set the stage for a moment. Generally speaking in baseball, when a hitter gets himself into a 3 balls, 0 strikes count, the manager gives him a “red light” indicating that he is instructed not to swing at the next pitch because the pitcher has recently had trouble finding the zone and the batter should accept a free pass if the pitcher is offering it. If you take a strike on 3-0, you still have two pitches to choose from while the pitcher still has no margin for error. It’s a good percentage play. A quality major league player will recognize the value in accepting a free pass and will take the pitch.
But 3-0 pitches are very often fastballs right down the middle because pitchers are trying not to walk you and that pitch is presumably the easiest to throw for a guaranteed strike. That makes sense, except that it makes no sense at all. If the pitcher had the ability to control his pitches that well, he shouldn’t have gotten behind 3-0 in the first place and even if he grooves one on 3-0, he’s going to go back to nibbling at the strike zone on the next pitch. Either the pitcher shouldn’t have gotten into a 3-0 count or he shouldn’t care about issuing a four pitch walk if he is just going to issue a five pitch walk twenty five seconds later.
It’s a pretty standard paradigm. If you get behind a hitter 3-0, you usually groove a fastball. If a hitter is ahead 3-0, he usually takes. Except when he doesn’t.
Rod Allen, the Tigers TV color man, has made a lot of this during the first few weeks of the season because he thinks really good hitters should attack the 3-0 pitch more often because it’s usually such a good pitch. His logic makes sense. If you know a straight fastball is coming, you can probably do significant damage that might be better than a walk. There is a risk in swinging, in that you might make an out, but if you get exactly what you are expecting, it could be beneficial to swing. Rod tells us Cabrera and Fielder have the green light 3-0, but don’t like to swing too often when they get it. Which makes sense given the risk while also knowing if they get ahead 3-0, they’re probably getting walked soon anyway.
But maybe we have this wrong. I’m a huge proponent of plate discipline and taking the base on balls, but maybe hitters should be more aggressive on 3-0 pitches. After all, so many of them are batting practice fastballs waiting to get crushed. Is there an inefficiency here that hitters can exploit?
Let’s start with some basic data. Tigers hitters have been in 65 3-0 counts so far this season and 39 have ended in walks. Of those 65 plate appearances, 28 ended after the fourth pitch. 25 of those were walks. What this indicates is that Tigers hitters have put the ball in play just three times in a 3-0 count. I don’t have access to the data, but I think we can probably assume the Tigers haven’t swung an missed at a 3-0 pitch this year, but there may be a foul ball in there somewhere and we have to ignore those away.
In those 3 plate appearances in which the Tigers went for it 3-0, here are the numbers. Obviously, they are gaudy: .667 batting average, 1.667 slugging percentage (.964 OBP when you leave the walks in). A three run homerun by Cabrera, a single by Peralta, and an out by Prince.
Notice the pitch sequence during the HR at bat to Cabrera (I mean, what do you expect here?):
But let’s take this a little further and go back to the 65 3-0 counts in general. If they walked 25 times on 4 pitches and put the ball in play on 3 others, then there are 37 at bats that got to 3-0 and then went at least 5 pitches. So 37 times, the Tigers took a 3-0 pitch for a strike. What happened after they did that?
After the Tigers got to 3-0 and took the fourth pitch for a strike, they went on to hit .391/.595/.609. Not bad at all. It’s not better than when they swing on 3-0, but obviously a sample size of 3 in the first analysis isn’t that predictive. What I think is interesting is the on base percentage. If you get to a 3-0 count, your odds of getting on base at any time during the at bat are .769. If you take the next pitch for a strike, it drops to .595. In other words, if you take a 3-0 strike, you’re sacrificing a ~17% change of getting on base to avoid the risk that you’ll make an out. That’s an interesting trade off to make given that you have a .667 batting average swinging 3-0 so far this year. (If you take out the intentional walks, which you obvious aren’t swinging at, the point holds)
So this means we should think about swinging on 3-0 more often because taking a 3-0 strike, which should be easy to hit, reduces your chance of getting on base pretty substantially, right?
Well, not exactly. This could be a small sample illusion. Last year, the Tigers hit .250 swinging on 3-0 and .192 in at bats that started 3-0. In 2011, it was .250, .232. What’s going on there?
I’m not really sure. The Tigers put 3-0 pitches in play just 4 times in 2012 and 8 in 2011, so it’s not like the sample size is much different than this season. The number of ABs that got that far is much bigger in the two complete seasons however. But the on base pattern does hold in larger samples. It’s around .700 when you get to 3-0, but it drops down substantially when you take a strike.
Essentially, if you get into a 3-0 count, taking a strike substantially changes your odds of getting on base. If you see a strike on 3-0, maybe you should swing. If you’re looking for exactly what you get. There is a chance to out fox your opponent. Pitchers expect you to take, so they groove it. If you swing, there is an above average change you will get a base hit because you know it’s a fastball, but there is also a good chance it will give pitchers pause when throwing you 3-0 pitches in the future because they don’t want to throw a meatball if you’re swinging. Which means in the future, they won’t do that so much and you’ll get more walks 3-0 and won’t have to continue the at bat into counts in which you have worse odds.
It’s kind of fun to think about. There is an optimal rate at which you should swing 3-0 and I don’t think we’re there. You can’t swing too much or you’ll end up on base less overall, but swinging too little also huts you because your odds of reaching base 3-1 are much worse than 3-0 and you’ve also sacrificed a chance at a 3-0 hit.
So next time Rod talks about Cabrera or Fielder swinging 3-0, think about it a little more carefully. There is probably good reason to swing 3-0 at a higher rate. Of course, no one wants to make an out on a 3-0 pitch, so hitters probably won’t be doing this any time soon.
Good, but I only saw 2/3 of it.
Tigers 6, Mariners 2
With respect to the phrase above, let it be known that on the eve of my birthday, when all I wished to do was relax on my couch with the Tigers, MLB.TV saw fit to meltdown for a solid three innings. Alas, it returned in the 4th inning and it had not seemed to affect the team. Cabrera drove in Jackson to take an early lead in the 1st inning and Fister sailed smoothly for the first three. The 4th was an adventure as Doug surrendered 2 runs, but Cabrera came to his rescue with a 2 run homerun to right centerfield that returned the Tigers to the lead in the 5th. The Big Fella wasn’t done, however, and drove Jackson in again in the top of the 7th to give the Tigers a 4-2 lead. They would add two more in the 8th thanks to two based loaded walks by Jackson and Hunter. Fister would maneuver his way through 7 and the bullpen did the rest to secure the Tigers’ third straight victory and their 8th overall on the season. The Tigers struggled against the Mariners last season (1-5) and an early win should help reverse that trend for 2013. Max Scherzer will meet Felix Hernandez Wednesday night at 10pm, so schedule an appointment with your television. There could literally be 25 strikeouts, which would be worth seeing with your own eyes.
The Moment: Miguel Cabrera gives the Tigers the lead with a 2 run homerun in the 5th
Freezing cold and raining, but a nice easy win.
Tigers 11, Blue Jays 1
The Tigers jumped out to an early lead and chased Josh Johnson during a 5 run 2nd inning and added 4 more in the 5th to put this one out of reach easily. Despite the nasty weather, Doug Fister had no trouble silencing the Jays’ bats, twirling 8 innings of 1 run baseball enroute to his second win of the season. Only Dirks failed to register a hit among the Tigers starters and he did his part with a nice assist from the outfield in the 3rd inning. The bats punished the Jays and Fister cruised on the way to a series win and a 4-2 homestand today, leaving the Tigers 5-4 as they hop on a plane and head west for nine games in Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles. We’ll be staying up late tomorrow night to watch Max Scherzer go toe to toe with Bartolo Colon from O.co Coliseum.
Also of note, if you’re just dying for stats, is that after 9 games, the Tigers have 6 everyday players with OBPs north of .370. That bodes well.
The Moment: Miguel Cabrera triples to deep RCF in the 2nd inning
A nice clear win.
Tigers 7, Blue Jays 3
The Tigers extra base power was on display at Comerica Park today as Miguel Cabrera and Alex Avila hit homeruns while Fielder, Hunter, and Tuiasosopo each added doubles. Cabrera also chipped in with 4 hits in order to outdo Torii Hunter who added 3 on way to his 2,000th career knock. Anibal Sanchez did his part with 7IP featuring 8K, 1BB, and 2ER. It was, all in all, a well played game by the Tigers as they moved to 4-3 on the season while knocking off the buzzworthy, but struggling Jays. Yet, none of this was the story from Tuesday’s game. Thanks to a cut on Victor Martinez’s finger, Don Kelly ended up playing LF. This would prove to be a sage choice by Jim Leyland as JP Arencibia hit a long fly ball to left field that had homerun distance in the 2nd inning. Unfortunately for Mr. Arecibia, Don Kelly takes no prisoners.
Here, for you viewing pleasure, is Don Kelly taking a homerun away from Arencibia. It shall also double as today’s The Moment. Man, Don Kelly is just awesome.
Good luck trying to drop one in on the Tigers when this is their worst outfielder.
Strange, but fun.
Tigers 8, Yankees 4
On this day, Max Scherzer was Max Scherzer. He struck out many Yankees, but allowed some hard contact, including a Vernon Wells homerun. Additionally, there was very little offense at times and explosions of offense at others. The Tigers put up a big number in the bottom of the 5th. The Yankees answered in the top of the 6th. The Tigers came back with more in the bottom half of that inning. Every Tiger but Santiago had a hit and many had multi-hit games. Jackson and Hunter continued their torrid starts and Cabrera’s 4 hit day launched him near the top of the team’s leaderboards. Scherzer wasn’t at his best, but the bullpen held it together and the bats carried him. One of the strange moments, other than Vernon Wells homering, was a call that came in the top of the 6th. The bases were loaded with no outs. A line drive was hit to Prince Fielder who caught it and stepped on first for the double play. Except the first base umpire, who was standing not six feet from the base, called the runner safe at first despite being a solid foot away from the base when Fielder stepped upon it. Luckily, the homeplate umpire overruled him, but it was peculiar in the sense that it was such a clear call I could see he kicked it from my kitchen. I didn’t just react as a fan who wanted the call to go our way. In real time, from far away from my television, I saw certain evidence the runner was out. You don’t get to see that too often.
Also of note today was the Alex Avila played the entire game waiting to hear if his wife was going into labor. Seems like a pretty stressful day. New English D is excited to welcome this player to be named later to the Tigers family. Speaking of the Tigers family, we’d also like to plug this fantastic feature from ESPN on Max Scherzer and his brother, Alex, who took his own life last year after a battle with depression. It’s a touching story not just because of our affinity for Max, but also for his brother who suffered from mental illness.
The Tigers climbed to 3-2 on the season and look for the sweep tomorrow behind Justin Verlander at 1pm on Kids’ Opening Day.
The Moment: Prince Fielder turns an unassisted double play in the top of the 6th, despite the best efforts of umpire Brian O’Nora.
Well folks, the time has come. Less than two weeks from now, the Tigers will be at Target Field taking on the Twins and getting the 2013 season under way. It has seemed like a quiet offseason for the defending AL champs, but they actually made some big moves by signing Torii Hunter to a two year deal and re-upping with Anibal Sanchez for five seasons.
The Tigers have two consecutive division titles under their belts and a pennant flying this season for their work thwarting the rest of the AL in 2012. With essentially the entire team coming back in addition to the aforementioned additions and a healthy Victor Martinez, all signs point to another big season for the Tigers. Things can go wrong, but the expectation surely is that the Tigers will repeat as AL Central champs.
You can read my AL Central preview here, my preseason power rankings here, and my standings prediction here, all of which point to my agreement with the conventional wisdom about the Tigers chances. I think they’re going to be very good and a force with which to be reckoned. Here’s why.
The Starting Pitching
The Tigers have six starters who belong in a major league rotation. The staff is led by Justin Verlander, who is the best pitcher in the game according to most, and backed up by three pitchers who can make a strong claim to #2 starter status: Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Those potential number twos are the strength of the rotation because it makes them extremely deep. It would surprise no one if any of those pitchers accomplished something close to a 4 WAR season (they’ve all done it before), and it would be incredible if they all managed to do it.
Think about this, Verlander is the oldest member of the rotation. The Tigers have three pitchers in their primes with a history of strong performance behind the game’s best starter. That’s pretty good.
And then there are Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly. Both of which deserve to start this season. I wrote here that I’d go with Porcello and he is making his case this Spring with an excellent strikeout to walk ratio and a much better breaking ball. To his credit, Smyly isn’t struggling either. It’s a good problem to have.
I would argue the Tigers have the best rotation in baseball and I can’t make a case for them being any worse than third entering the season. In the next two weeks, the Tigers are going to trade, send to the pen, or demote a pitcher capable of a 2-3 win season. That should be all you need to know.
At this point, it just sounds like I’m naming parts of a baseball team, but the lineup is very good. Austin Jackson was a top five AL outfielder last season and is joined by fellow top ten AL outfielder Torii Hunter at the top of the lineup. If that wasn’t enough, MVP and elite hitter Miguel Cabrera follows them, sitting ahead of Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez.
If there is a better first five hitters in the sport, I haven’t found them. Behind that force lurks the underrated Andy Dirks, the on-base machine Alex Avila, and the poised for a bounce back Jhonny Peralta. Omar Infante will hit ninth and hopefully prevent anyone whining about second base this season.
The Tigers are blessed with exceptional depth on the bench, but the overall quality of the lineup is impressive. They can’t replace many of their players, but they should be able to weather one serious injury at a time without much problem. Every player in the Tigers lineup has either been an All-Star or had an All-Star type season very recently with the exception of Dirks. The infield defense is sub par, but with a much improved outfield defense and strikeout inclined starters, they can probably outslug any problems.
On occasion, pundits overrate the value of experience over talent, but in the Tigers case, it should help. The Tigers have been to the playoffs in consecutive seasons with a very similar roster and the experience of having worked through long seasons with trials and tribulations should play to their advantage. The Tigers players should be well conditioned for October baseball after seeing what it takes to keep themselves in top condition over the last two seasons deep into the Fall.
Again, this is a quality that is somewhat controversial, but the Tigers have a lot of personalities in their clubhouse that will nurture a winning environment. Losing streaks will be handled appropriately and there shouldn’t be any infighting or problems. Victor Martinez’s presence will be welcomed back this season along with the addition of Hunter and the ever-present Jim Leyland, whom everyone seems to adore. Experience and leadership are hard to measure, but if they matter at all, they should work in the Tigers favor.
The Bullpen, Even the Bullpen
I wrote at length recently about why Rondon will succeed as the closer and why it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t. Benoit, Dotel, Coke, Downs, Below, Putkonen, and others are all available out of the pen. The Tigers don’t have anyone like Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, but they have many, many pitchers who could be solid, reliable relievers. The position is volatile and unpredictable, but the Tigers are well stocked with potential arms in the pen. They won’t lead the league in bullpen-ness, but they won’t be bad.
I don’t think it is too bold to say that the Tigers are among the best teams, on paper, entering the 2013 season. I would argue they are the second best team, behind Washington. Things can always go wrong, but they go wrong for every team. I always hedge and say that so long as the Tigers are no less unfortunate than their competitors, they should win the division quite easily.
The Royals and Indians are better and the White Sox aren’t pushovers, but the Tigers are the class of the Central. With upheaval in the East and a strong West, the road to another pennant will be trying, but it is certainly within the Tigers’ grasp.
With elite level star power in Verlander, Cabrera, Fielder, and others, it’s hard not to dream on the Tigers 2013 potential. They have it all, including a chip on their shoulders after a poor showing in the Fall Classic.
For the Tigers, this could be the year that the roar is officially restored.