The Complete Guide to the Indians and Miguel Cabrera in 2015

By: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB

Want in on a little industry secret? I’m not even sure if I should be sharing this type of information with the public. I had to do a lot of reporting and digging for this, and I think I’ll be the first to report it. OK, ready?

Miguel Cabrera is really, really good.

Maybe that’s already made its way out there. I don’t know. Cabrera is 26-for-42 against the Indians this year with five homers and a 1.697 OPS, so I guess it probably has. Shoot. Really thought I had a scoop there.

Those kind of numbers have had Indians fans scratching their heads. Those kind of numbers have had the Indians scratching their heads. A reporter asked Corey Kluber how to pitch to Cabrera. The reigning Cy Young Award winner said he was “the wrong guy to ask.” It’s been the question on everybody’s mind this year, so why don’t we break it down?

How should you pitch to Miguel Cabrera? How have the Indians pitched to Miguel Cabrera, and what does the way they’ve pitched him tell us about the season’s most lopsided player vs. team matchup?

First, let’s briefly address the question the fans keep asking. “Why don’t they just walk him every time?” Well, because you just can’t do that. Cabrera is still a human being. Cabrera still makes outs more often than he doesn’t. I ran the math, and even with Cabrera’s otherworldly stats against the Indians this season, they would’ve been worse off issuing him a free pass every time.

When Terry Francona was asked about the subject, his response backed that up:

“I guarantee you, if we just went into a series and said we’re walking Miggy every time, they’d score more runs than if we pick our spots,” Francona said.

Walking Miggy every time is simply not an option. The Indians have to pitch to him, just like anyone else. Which leads us to the million-dollar question: What’s the best way to pitch to Miguel Cabrera?

Well, see, here’s the problem with that:

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 8.00.24 PM

That’s a heatmap of Cabrera’s career slugging percentage against all teams, going back as far as that kind of information is on record. Cabrera covers the plate as well as any hitter of our generation, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who’s seen him hit. I’ve heard plenty of people say something along the lines of “You’ve got to pitch him inside to keep him honest,” but the inside pitch is actually Cabrera’s biggest strength, so that doesn’t exactly apply here.

I sought out pitching coach Mickey Callaway in an attempt to find what, if any, are Cabrera’s perceived weaknesses, and how Callaway’s instructed his guys to face the slugger. Callaway’s opening statement mirrors the image above:

“The bottom line is, he doesn’t have any holes,” Callaway said. “And the more pitches he sees, the better he gets.”

That second part piqued my interest. On one hand, Cabrera is the kind of guy you’d intuitively want to pitch around. On the other hand, it makes sense that the more pitches he sees, the better timing he’d have, making a potential mistake later in the at-bat more costly. So Callaway really wants Miggy to put the ball in play as early as possible?

“That’s exactly what I want,” Callaway said. “I want them to attack him to a good area, knowing he’s going to be super aggressive. We want him to put the ball in play early. When he starts fouling balls off, fouling balls off and timing our guys up, it gives him a better chance to square the ball up, and that’s what he usually does.”

Against Cabrera, Callaway wants short at-bats. Have the Indians done that? Cabrera’s faced Cleveland 52 times this year, and averaged 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. Against the rest of the league, he’s averaged exactly 4.0 pitches per plate appearance. In this one way, Indians pitchers have accomplished a goal! Clearly, though, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Callaway also wants them to “attack to a good area.” Based on the heatmap above, it appears no such thing exists. However! That first heatmap dates back to 2007, and Cabrera is older now than he was in 2007. Has anything changed since then?

Here’s his heatmap, just from this year, against all teams:

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 8.18.21 PM

A weakness appears! Cabrera still covers the plate extraordinarily well, but, as he’s gotten older, he’s become relativey susceptible to the high-and-tight pitch. I noted earlier in the month that Cabrera has been swinging and missing against the elevated fastball more and more over the last four years, so perhaps that’s the place to attack. Have the Indians been going there?

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 8.38.17 PM

Sort of.

Remember, this is from the catcher’s view, behind the plate, so Miggy is standing on the left-hand side of this image. You can see, certainly, the intent to pound Miggy with strikes up-and-in. It’s no secret he’s developed a mini-hole in that area, and surely the Indians are aware. But here’s the problem with that location: if you miss down, at all, you’re throwing to the area of his greatest strength — the inside pitch. And if you miss out, at all, then you’re throwing to the area of every hitter’s strength — the middle of the plate. The key is to pitch up-and-in against Cabrera, but there’s absolutely no margin for error.

Just a few more heatmaps. First, the successes. This is going to show pitches where Cabrera either swung and missed, or made an out:

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 8.41.10 PM

Gameplan: executed! The Indians have attempted to pitch Cabrera high-and-tight, and when they have, it’s worked! It’s that easy. We just went over the problem, though. There’s no margin for error.

Now, the failures. This is going to show pitches where Cabrera put the ball in play for a hit:

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 8.41.35 PM

Miggy’s pounced on the pitches that missed down. Miggy’s pounced on the pitches that missed out. Maybe Indians pitchers have just missed their spots with Cabrera up more than they typically do. Maybe Cabrera’s hit the mistake pitches more often than he usually does. My guess is it’s probably a little bit of both.

One more thing to tie this all together. Remember earlier, when Callaway said he wanted his guys to attack Cabrera in “good areas” early in the count? Make him uncomfortable as soon as possible? Well, all five of his home runs have come within the first three pitches of the at-bat, with the most recent two coming on the first pitch, so that hasn’t gone over well. We’ve seen what the approach has been, overall, but what’s the approach been on the first pitch?

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 9.11.27 PM

On the first pitch, you see far less reliance on the high-and-tight pitch, with a larger focus on going down-and-away. Cabrera’s latest two homers against Cleveland came on the first pitch, and, on each, the pitcher was set up for a low-and-away fastball. Each missed over the middle of the plate, which of course is the bigger issue at hand, but if the Indians want to make Cabrera uncomfortable as early as possible, it would stand to reason that going up-and-in with the heat early — as opposed to later in counts as a putaway pitch — might better accomplish that goal. Then again, I’m far from a pitching expert. I just play one on the internet.

What have we learned from this exercise? We’ve learned that walking Miguel Cabrera isn’t an option. We’ve learned he’s never had a hole in his swing throughout his career, though lately he’s become relatively susceptible to fastballs up-and-in. We’ve learned that the Indians have made an effort to pitch him there. We’ve learned that when they have pitched him there, it’s worked, but there’s no margin for error whatsoever. We’ve also learned that, despite a focus on making Cabrera uncomfortable early in at-bats, the Indians have seemed unwilling to throw to his most uncomfortable area on the first pitch. That’s the only part of the approach against Cabrera that perhaps seems questionable. The rest can mostly be boiled down to a strong gameplan backfiring by good pitchers missing their spots against the best hitter in the world. It’s a tough game. Becomes a hell of a lot tougher when facing Miguel Cabrera.

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