To win the Triple Crown, as Cabrera did last year, a hitter must have the kinds of gifts that show up during batting practice. Cabrera’s swing is compact, repeatable, a blur. “Ball’s away, ball’s in, ball’s down, ball’s up — it’s the same swing,” Pittsburgh Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Bat speed maintained throughout the swing. It’s short. It’s quick. It’s powerful.”
And because of that, it can be easy to forget the key to Cabrera’s success, Triple Crown or not.
“He remembers,” Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said.
“You remember,” Cabrera said.
‘As good as we’ve got’
That Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 — when he led the American League with a .330 batting average, 44 homers and 139 RBI — has been dissected since last September, when he closed by clubbing 11 homers and driving in 28 runs in his final 28 games as he pushed the Tigers to the AL Central championship. He was the first player to lead his league in all three categories since Carl Yastrzemski 45 years earlier, and the merits of the accomplishment were debated well into the offseason. Angels outfielder Mike Trout was touted by many in the new-wave statistical analysis crowd as a better candidate for most valuable player, given Trout’s astronomical 10.0 WAR — or “wins above replacement,” an evaluation of a player’s complete contribution on both sides of the ball — according to FanGraphs.com.
Cabrera, who eventually beat Trout in the MVP voting, cares nothing for such back-and-forth. “People talk, man,” he said. Now he, more than any player in the game, provides a reason to talk. The first two months of this season have only further solidified his hold on the unofficial title of Planet’s Best Hitter.
“He’s as good as we’ve got in the industry,” Hurdle said, and given the relative decline of Albert Pujols since he left St. Louis for Anaheim — a drop in on-base-plus-slugging for five straight seasons — there is little argument.
Through Saturday’s 10-3 rout at Baltimore in which Cabrera hit a grand slam, he is leading the AL with a .369 average and he has driven in a staggering 65 runs in the Tigers’ first 54 games. Orioles first baseman Chris Davis has 19 homers to Cabrera’s 17, but Davis is the only player ahead of Cabrera through roughly the first third of the season.
So every at-bat for Cabrera is fraught with possibility. “Sometimes he’ll give you the impression that he can get a base hit any time he wants,” said Al Avila, Alex’s father, the Tigers’ assistant general manager and the man who, when he oversaw scouting for the Florida Marlins, signed a skinny, 16-year-old shortstop from Venezuela.
“The physical tools have always been there,” Al Avila said.
“He was just so big, so much bigger than most 16-year-olds,” said Alex Avila, who was 12 when the Marlins signed Cabrera in 1999.
But Al Avila said Cabrera’s advanced approach to hitting was apparent even back then. Not only could he hit to all fields — a defining characteristic now, at age 30, in the midst of his 11th major league season, and one on display during that pregame batting practice session at PNC Park — but he intentionally does so as a means to break out of a slump. Now, if he’s scuffling a bit, he will purposely hit the ball to right field, regardless of where it’s pitched.
‘That’s a pro’
Cabrera’s physical strength is such that he can allow even an inside pitch to travel deep into the zone, Avila said, and he can still drive it the other way. That trick can get him back on track, making him focus on seeing the pitch until the last moment, on delivering the barrel to the ball. For most right-handed hitters, that might result in a grounder to second base. For Cabrera, it could be a double to the wall.
“You might pitch him inside and think you’ll jam him,” Avila said, “and he can inside-out the ball and drive it to the right-center field gap. He has that ability that not too many people have.”
By his third plate appearance Wednesday night, Cabrera had just one hit in his first 11 at-bats over three games against Pittsburgh. Pirates right-hander A.J. Burnett, long ago Cabrera’s teammate in Florida, had handled him in his first two at-bats, a strikeout and a grounder to third. But Cabrera came to the plate — with two outs and a runner on third — looking exactly as he did the first two at-bats.
“You see him whether he gets out, whether he gets a hit, he’s the same guy,” Burnett said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s 0 for 4 or 4 for 4. That’s a pro.”
Cabrera’s approach, though, goes far beyond demeanor and carriage. When he stepped into the box against Burnett, he brought with him not only the knowledge of the way Burnett had pitched to him in his two at-bats that night, but how he had pitched to him in 23 career plate appearances before that.
“He knows what guys have done to him in the past,” McClendon said. “He knows there’s a history there, and he can go back in his career and draw from it.”
In the hours before the game, a spliced video of Burnett’s most recent start played on a television above the couch in the visitors’ clubhouse. Cabrera didn’t watch it. Fielder, the slugger who protects Cabrera by batting cleanup, spent time at a laptop, going over his own swing. Cabrera bounced into the clubhouse maybe 20 minutes later, unbuckled jeans but no shirt, ready to work, in his own way. McClendon stopped by his locker, with Fielder two stalls over, and they briefly discussed Burnett. But McClendon has learned in his six years working with Cabrera that Cabrera already has a deeper knowledge of that night’s pitcher. He remembers.
“His knowledge, it’s as good as there is,” McClendon said. “He’s got a gift. It’s special. A lot of players aren’t like that.”
So it is not absurd to think Cabrera could draw from an at-bat against Burnett from years earlier. “He says it all the time,” McClendon said. “He’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember. He threw me a 2-2 slider in 1987,” and he laughed.
Burnett, in the third at-bat against Cabrera on Wednesday, didn’t come with a 2-2 slider. He went with a 2-2 fastball, which was supposed to be down and away. He missed his spot. “Too much of the plate against a hitter like that,” Burnett said, and Cabrera drilled it on a line to right. His average had fallen 15 points as he struggled the first 21
2 games against the Pirates. But here, he went with the pitch the opposite way, taut as a laundry line for his 15th home run of the year.
“Every day, you got to do adjustments,” Cabrera said. “Every pitch. You got to do what it takes.”
‘He will remember’
Teammates marvel at what Cabrera does from pitch to pitch, but he admits to being uncomfortable with pitchers he hasn’t faced. He has no book on them, no way to predict what they might do. This seems laughable to pitchers.
“He’s gonna crush any ball that you leave over the plate,” Pirates closer Jason Grilli said. “But he can crush balls you don’t leave over the plate, too.”
Still, he wants to know, with some degree of probability, what might happen next.
“He has his own game plan,” Al Avila said. “I don’t think we taught him. He was able to manipulate the bat as a youngster. And he will remember. He will remember what a pitcher used to get him out.”
June has just begun, and there are four months of the season remaining. No one has ever won back-to-back Triple Crowns. Only Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby did it twice in a career. Cabrera could continue his pace, and someone else — Davis, perhaps? — could deliver a career year at the same time. There would be no Triple Crown.
It doesn’t matter to Cabrera. He learned, long ago, that a career, a season, a game, an at-bat are full of adjustments. Pitchers, of course, can adjust, too. But Cabrera, perhaps more than any player in the game, will remember what they did, and be ready to counter.
“It’s why this sport is so great,” Cabrera said. “You learn something every day. Every day, something.”