“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.