The worst kept secret in baseball is that Miguel Cabrera is playing through pain, with a variety of injuries impacting his ability to swing the bat aggressively. However, through whatever means, he's been semi-productive for the Tigers thus far in the postseason, still managing at least a hit in each game, with two home runs.
But Tuesday, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, including with runners at the corners and one out in the eighth inning, that along with a Prince Fielder strikeout in the next at-bat, ended the Tigers final threat of the game to get runs on the board. It was the first time Cabrera didn't reach base as a Tiger in the postseason, and just the second time he struck out multiple times in a postseason game since 2011.
What exactly happened?
First At-Bat – Bottom First, Man on First, One Out
In the first at-bat, he flied out to center in a four pitch at-bat. He fell behind early with a foul, evened the count at 1-1, then swung and missed to fall behind again 1-2, before flying out.
Red Sox starter John Lackey gave him a steady diet of fastballs, with 3 of the 4 at the top of the strike zone – a difficult pitch for Cabrera to catch up to right now, but a pitch he also can't take. Here's the zone chart (from Brooks Baseball):
Result: Cabrera got behind early, and couldn't do much with the pitches he was thrown thanks to very good location by Lackey, ending with a lazy fly out
Second At-Bat – Bottom Fourth, Bases Empty, No Out
Cabrera's second at-bat ended in a strikeout, his first of two in the game. Again this at-bat was four pitches long, and featured Cabrera falling behind early. This AB was arguably the most painful, as it featured three swings-and-miss.
Lackey got Cabrera to swing and miss first on a slider low and away, and from that point, Cabrera was again in defense mode. He came back and changed eye level with a fastball six inches above the zone that Cabrera also whiffed at, and after taking a fastball way outside, Lackey came back to that same spot, and Cabrera again swung and missed.
Result: Cabrera got behind again, only this time Lackey simply got him to chase pitches out of the zone – an overall bad at-bat from Miguel that ended in a strikeout
Third At-Bat – Bottom Sixth, Bases Empty, Two Out
This at-bat that ended in a popup to first base for the third out, took five pitches instead of four, but Cabrera could only even the count and never got ahead, and despite getting a decent pitch to hit
Once again, Lackey worked at the top end of the strike zone with fastballs, including placing two pitches on the top outside corner of the zone (the first and third pitches) that Cabrera swung and missed at. Even if he did make contact though, with his current health and inability to take outside pitches the other way, it's unlikely he could have done much had he made contact.
After falling behind 0-1, Cabrera took a ball to even the count, but the second outside corner high fastball was another swing and miss, putting him back behind. Lackey tried to get him to chase high again, but Cabrera held off, at which point Lackey again stayed outside, but with a fastball in the zone. Over the last three years on a pitch like this, Cabrera slugs over .700 in that quadrant of the zone… but this one ended in a pop up.
Result: Cabrera, behind again, could only work the count even, and despite getting a pitch in the zone in the past he could usually do something with, his lack of health probably limited his ability to do much with it, resulting in a pop up to first base
Fourth At-Bat – Bottom Eighth, Runners on First and Third, One Out
The most high leverage at-bat of Cabrera's day, and he ended it in a strikeout against Junichi Tazawa, a huge disappointment and frustration for fans, when any semi-deep fly ball would have tied the game.
Once again, Cabrera got behind, swinging and missing at the first two pitches. To his credit, Tazawa, who usually is at 94 MPH, dialed up his velocity a tick, getting up to 96 MPH in the at-bat.
The worst part here was that Cabrera got the first pitch fastball in the zone, close to the center quadrant and just plain missed it. He then chased a ball outside on strike 2, took ball 1 on a pitch way outside, but then swung and missed to strike out on another ball outside the zone.
Result: Facing a new pitcher, Cabrera got a first pitch fastball in the zone, and instead of taking that pitch back up the middle for a solid single, or driving it someplace, he swung and missed. From that point on, he worked from behind and took bad cuts at pitches outside to strike out
The Red Sox had a game plan, likely similar to the Oakland A's – keep the ball away from Cabrera – and it worked with a combination of very good pitch location, and Cabrera putting himself in pitchers counts and swinging at bad pitches.
He only got two pitches in the zone that he could have done much with as his health currently stands – the first resulted in a pop up to first base, and the second he missed entirely.
The most concerning thing was that Cabrera swung and missed nine times. NINE. Cabrera for the year only swung and missed about 9% of the time – he missed nine times out of just 17 pitches, or 53% of the time. That rate would be unacceptable for any player at any level in the game, let alone arguably the best hitter in baseball.
The Red Sox are likely to continue with this philosophy, so unless they stop hitting their spots, Cabrera will have to adjust. Whether that's starting his swing earlier, or just looking more to make contact, he will have to do something different.
Everyone knows he's playing hurt and won't be the same guy he was all summer, but if he can't at least do some of the basics, like make solid contact on a pitch in the zone or get a ball into the outfield to score a run on a sacrifice fly, then he's of little use to the Tigers right now.
They're not going to bench him, but if he can't hit, in addition to not being able to field, they'd almost be better off with Jhonny Peralta at third base and Jose Iglesias at shortstop. A somewhat outlandish statement that reflects how bad things are right now.