Pitch to Miguel Cabrera at your own risk

DETROIT – Pitching to Miguel Cabrera is a heart-pounding experience. The Detroit Tigers slugger is leading the majors in most hitting categories, as well as mound meetings.

Managers and pitching coaches trudge out to calm down pitchers, provide some sort of plan or a decision to walk him – which has happened an American League-leading 60 times.

But most hesitantly pitch to him. So, just how do you go about doing that, pitching to a hitter with no holes in his swing? There are some theories, but no sure-fire solution to get him out.

Quite simply, it’s pitch at your own risk.

“You can pitch him inside,” said Houston Astros pitching coach Doug Brocail, a former Tigers pitcher. “You can come up and inside, but you had better not miss or he will kill it.

“But, you know, he can hit any pitch. So, I just tell my pitchers, ‘Go with your best stuff.’ I tell them that my report might not be best for them. Your best chance is just to go with your best stuff. He’s going to get his knocks no matter what you throw, though.

“He lets the ball go so deep and can still react to it. He’s a danger hitting to all fields, but will kill you going to right. You just have to try to let him get himself out. It’s just that his bat is in the hitting zone forever.”

Cabrera, going for a third consecutive batting crown, is hitting a major league-high .365 headed into his first All-Star Game start Tuesday night. The dynamic third baseman would be cruising to back-to-back Triple Crowns with statistics far ahead of his 2012 pace if not for Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis.

Davis has a 37-30 lead on Cabrera in the regular season home run derby.

Cabrera has a narrow, 95-93, advantage over Davis in RBIs.

Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney played with Cabrera for two seasons, and has gotten him out all six times he’s faced him for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Tampa Bay. That would make Rodney something of a go-to guy on the topic of pitching to Cabrera.

“He is the same hitter I played with and hasn’t changed anything,” said Rodney, who created a controversy by brushing back Cabrera in a game this season. “He has the ability to hit anything you throw.

“You have to make the ball work on both sides of the plate. If you get down in the count to him, he will take full advantage. So, you have to try to attack and make good pitches to get ahead of Miguel.”

Reigning major league home run champion Barry Bonds and Tigers manager Jim Leyland have observed that what sets Cabrera apart is his knowledge of pitchers and the chess master-type adjustments he makes on the fly. Rodney agrees.

“He is smarter than anyone else as a hitter,” Rodney said. “And you do not want to throw him any off-speed pitches. But, still, you have to show him that to keep him honest. But you come in with off-speed pitches and he will hit it. Off-speed pitches become home runs for him.”

That’s what Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester, a two-time All-Star, found out when Cabrera drove out his changeup for a three-run homer on June 21.

“Probably throw the best changeup I’ve ever thrown in my life to a guy that’s just on a whole other playing field,” Lester said. “Wish he’d quit and go to a different league — make a league especially for him, I guess. I thought at first it was off the end (of the bat), and apparently not.”
 
Cabrera basically hit that ball out one-handed, driving the pitch like a tennis player with a forehand volley.
 
“Those kinds of swings are a combination of strength, timing and bat speed,” said Tigers batting coach Lloyd McClendon. “He’s strong on the swing all the way through the strike zone, and his stroke is so short for a big man who is a power hitter.”
 
While most hitters are only capable of “serving” balls to the outfield with such strokes, Cabrera regularly clears fences with them.
 
It’s the versatility to hit any pitch anywhere on any count – and with authority — that makes pitchers wince before facing Cabrera.
 
“He reminds me so much of Manny Ramirez,” said Mark Langston, who won 19 games for both the Seattle Mariners (1987) and California Angels (1991) and is now a radio analyst for Angels games. “He’s so great on off-speed pitches. And he doesn’t take a bad at-bat up there with him again the next time he hits.”
 
Being smart and mentally tough allows Cabrera to maximize those great abilities.
 
“You can’t have a pattern when you face Miguel Cabrera,” said Langston. “You really have to pay attention to the situation because he’s a completely different animal with runners in scoring position. He will take walks and is disciplined.”
 
Cabrera is batting a phenomenal .443 with runners in scoring position and has a major league-best .458 on-base percentage.
 
“If you have a luxury of not pitching to Cabrera, that’s what you do,” Langston continued. “I’ll take my chances pitching to Prince (Fielder) even though he’s obviously a great hitter, too. You choose your poison, and I’d rather face Prince, no question.

“But if you decide to face Cabrera, I would try to throw inside and tie him up. I’d try to speed up his bat, and then come in with a slow breaking ball down and out of the strike zone.”

So, even in facing Cabrera, the suggestion of a crafty pitcher who won 179 games in the majors is to set him up and hope he chases something.

“Like Manny,” Langston added, “he’s a great two-strike hitter. He can sit on a breaking ball and crush it. There’s not really a good pattern to pitching Cabrera.”

Pitch at your own risk.