An old baseball axiom says that you don’t put the tying run on base in the home ninth. Unlike other axioms that the mavericks in the dugout routinely disregard, this one seems to have remained sacred. Since the turn of the millennium, only one American League manager has dared test this principle. As fate would have it, the historic event occurred in Detroit on April 14, 2011. Right-hander Neftali Feliz was pitching, Miguel Cabrera was batting, and Victor Martinez stood on deck. Ron Washington reduced his win expectancy by 4 percent with an intentional walk to Cabrera. The logic seemed to be that VMart, who would hit only 2 home runs batting left-handed at Comerica all year, was unlikely to drive in the slow-footed Cabrera from first base. The gamble worked. Victor grounded out to end the game.
A little more than a year later another right-handed closer, Matt Capps, faced a similar situation. He had a 1-run lead in the 9th with Cabrera up and Berry at second with one out. Using win expectancy tables which employ the assumption that all context is neutral, a Capps walk of Cabrera would make significantly more sense than the Feliz walk did back in 2011. Context was far from neutral, however, because this was 2012 and a hefty 214 million dollar slugger waited on deck. Walking Miggy was not an option and Capps chose to attack with mid-nineties fastballs. Cabrera, not unlike Ali toying with an overmatched opponent, swung through the first fastball and then fouled off the second. The pitcher was emboldened by the bravado induced by Cabrera’s rope-a-dope. A stud closer, Capps figured, didn't need need to waste an 0-2 or even show something off-speed. In came another piece of cheese, inner half, a little higher than the previous two. But this one went 421 feet. Cabrera got his pitch to hit. The Tigers won the game.
The hipsters who authored millions of words downplaying the significance of the Triple Crown will tell you that Cabrera was more valuable on offense in 2011 than in 2012. As usual, they’re probably right. The math is broken down in an excellent story where a big part of the argument is based on Miguel’s 42 additional walks in 2011. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, the paper shows that Cabrera's offense was worth between 9 and 21 more runs to the Tigers in 2011. The summary is that those extra walks in 2011 were setting up RBI opportunities for his teammates that outweighed the extra 34 runs he drove in himself in 2012.
The dynamic that swapped Cabrera's walks in 2011 for his Triple Crown the following year was largely set in motion by the addition of Prince Fielder. There's an adage in baseball that the more fear the on-deck hitter inspires, the more pitches to hit the man at the plate will get. The batter who followed Cabrera in 2011, namely a composite with principal element VMart, hit .307/.353/.444. The protection spot was entrusted to Prince in 2012 and the batting line improved across the board to .312/.410/.526. According to PITCHf/x Cabrera's fraction of pitches in the zone increased dramatically from 44.1% to 46.9% from 2011 to 2012 and his walk rate (BB/PA) declined from .157 in 2011 to .095 in 2012. Score one for the adage.
Now let's look with a stronger lens. There's a line in the scouting report for left-handed pitchers facing the Tigers that's in boldface, all caps, and with a larger point size than the rest of the report. It reads, DO NOT LET NUMBER 24 BEAT YOU. This emphasis is more than justified as Cabrera's protection has been much weaker against left-handed pitching. Against southpaws, the Martinez-led spot hit .277/.325/.412 in 2011 and Prince provided a modest improvement to .289/.363/.445 last year. Prince's presence caused Miguel's walk rate against lefties to drop from .210 to .179 from 2011 to 2012. But his overall BB rate of .194 against left-handed pitching over the last two years was the highest in MLB with David Wright's .164 coming in a very distant second.
Left-handed pitchers have been more than happy to follow the scouting report and take their chances with the other guys. In 53 RISP PAs against lefties last year the MVP hit .195 with a .220 slugging percentage. In the 27 of those RISP PAs with first base open he got a grand total of 3 hits and 10 intentional walks. Miguel received 4 more intentional walks with runners in scoring position from right-handers in situations where a lefty was then summoned to face Prince. Joe Maddon even had lefty Matt Moore walk Cabrera with a runner in scoring position and first base not open. In what might qualify as one of the best optical illusions ever conceived, Prince Fielder simply does not look as big to guys who throw baseballs with their left hand. Want more numbers? Miggy did not hit a non-solo home run against a lefty last year and never once drove in more than a single run in a game against left-handed pitching. As a team, the first-place Tigers finished with the same record against left-handed starters as the last-place Red Sox.
The spot following Cabrera has done much better against right-handed pitching. This was true in 2011 with a .319/.365/.456 batting line and even more true in 2012 with a .326/.436/.573. In fact, Prince Fielder's .425 wOBA against righties was third best in all of baseball last year and one of the only two better came from the guy he hits behind. The optical illusion works both ways. As large as he is, Prince Fielder looks even bigger standing on-deck to guys who throw with their right hand. And, of course, this illusion has consequences. Liam Hendriks, owner of humongous reverse splits, was the only right-hander in 2012 to walk Cabrera intentionally and remain in the game to pitch to Prince. Cabrera's overall walk rate against right-handed pitching fell from .138 in 2011 all the way to .062 in 2012. If you're keeping score, that's more than a factor of two and the 2012 number was actually under the AL average of .065 for right on right matchups.
Cabrera took full advantage of Prince's protection against righties. Miggy's .652 slugging percentage against RHP last season was the best by a right-handed batter since A-Rod's .680 in 2007. With men on, right-handers had no options. Miguel hit .378/.395/.733 in 147 PAs last year when a righty didn't have a parking place at first base and he hit a ridiculous .406/.441/.692 in 152 PAs against RHP with runners in scoring position. If you don't think that protection matters, compare the .406 and .692 to Cabrera's .195 AVG and .220 SLG in his RISP PAs versus lefties. Times have changed, but 214 million dollars still buys you something.
So where does that leave us? The Prince came to Detroit. Miguel won a Triple Crown. The Tigers went to the World Series. Is all well in Tigerdom? Almost. But there's still something bugging me. Prince Fielder led major league baseball in intentional walks last year. The protector needs protection. Victor, I'm looking for you to make that happen in 2013.