On the last Thursday in August, the Detroit Tigers awoke in Kansas City trailing the White Sox by 3 games in the American League Central. The frustration level among fans was at an all-time high. The Tigers had wasted eight runs in support of Verlander on Tuesday night with the Royals going 6-for-12 on ground balls against JV and 12-for-23 overall on balls in play as Detroit lost 9-8. On Wednesday, Anibal Sanchez held the Royals to just one run. But the Tigers could do nothing against soft-tossing lefty Bruce Chen. This time they lost 1-0. Just good enough to lose. Again.
Thursday was Rick Porcello's turn. He had pitched well in his last two starts but the result was a pair of one-run losses by 3-2 and 2-1 counts. On this day, he delivered another typical Porcello performance with one run allowed on five hits through five. But as usual, his pitches turned to pumpkins when the inning struck six. KC opened the frame with a home run, double, and single before Jim mercifully requested the baseball. The bullpen shut the Royals down, though, and the Tigers came to bat in the 9th trailing only 2-1.
Twenty-two-year-old flame thrower Kelvin Herrera entered for KC in search of three outs and his first major-league save. But the young man was erratic. Pinch-hitter Alex Avila walked on four pitches. The Royals' pitching coach made a trip to the mound to settle him down. Herrera got a break when Austin Jackson lined sharply to center. But Andy Dirks worked the count full before singling to right to push Avila to second. This is how you draw it up. Tiger superstar Miguel Cabrera walked to the plate with the game on the line.
Herrera's first pitch to Cabrera was a four-seam fastball near the top of the zone but well off the plate inside. Miguel swung and hit a weak ground ball to the right side that barely eluded the pitcher. Giavotella fielded it and flipped to second. As is his custom, Andy Dirks came in hard on Escobar with a vicious take-out slide. The KC shortstop was forced to eat the ball and jump high in the air after crossing the bag to avoid Andy. A while later Escobar landed. Once both feet were safely back in contact with terra firma he decided to throw to first. Cabrera was still out. Could anyone have been surprised? Only once during 2012 did Miguel hit a grounder with a runner at first and less than two outs where a force was recorded at second and the double play was not completed. The totals came across the PA: two runs, nine hits, and two errors for Kansas City, one run, twelve hits, and no errors for Detroit. Incredibly, the frustration level climbed higher.
Miguel Cabrera led MLB by grounding into 28 double plays in 2012. His 19.2 percent rate of grounding into DPs with a runner at first and less than two outs was well above the league average of 11.0 percent. The bean counters will tell you that he cost his team more runs with GIDPs than any other player in the big leagues. Want more numbers? When Cabrera hit a groundball that didn't go for a hit or an error with a man at first and less than two outs, a double play resulted 82.3 percent of the time. League average was 49.1 percent. Maybe you watched the endless AL MVP debates over the winter on MLB Network where you were reminded again and again that Cabrera's propensity to hit into double plays was part of the reason why Mike Trout deserved the trophy.
OK, I know what you're thinking: "Cabrera's a slow right-handed batter who hits the ball hard and tied for fifth in all of baseball last year in plate appearances with a man at first and less than two outs. GIDPs come with the territory. The guy won the triple crown and the MVP. What's your point, GWilson?" Well, I'm getting there. But let's start with this.
Back in February, Cabrera hit a gargantuan three-run home run against Jon Papelbon in Clearwater. The standard quote goes something like, "I was just out there getting some reps, he threw me a pitch over the plate, I made a good swing, and it went out." But the maestro put it this way, "With a runner in scoring position with one out, I try not to kill the inning with a ground-ball double play right there, It was like my goal to try to elevate the ball, try to hit the gap." The guy had one weakness at the plate in 2012. A weakness that I wasn't even sure he could do anything about. Now it's the fourth game of spring training and the guy's working on fixing it.
If you bothered to watch the end of the final destruction of the Astros, Cabrera grounded into a double play his last time up with Detroit leading 9-0 in the eighth. But it was only his fourth GIDP in 39 opportunities this year. The corresponding 10.2 percent rate is below league average and about half of Cabrera's 19.2 percent rate in 2012. Now let's look more carefully. In non-DP situations, Cabrera hit ground balls in 31.4 percent of his plate appearances in 2012 and is at 32.0 percent in 2013. These numbers are pretty consistent. But with a runner at first and less than two outs, Miguel hit a ground ball in 36.3 percent of his PAs in 2012, but is at only 25.6 percent so far this year. A quick consultation with a binomial calculator suggests that this difference over this sample might mean something. He may also be getting down the line faster. He's already reached twice on a ground ball after a force at second which doubles his total from last year. Interestingly, both instances this year scored Jackson for an RBI.
The numbers further indicate that Cabrera has been more patient this year in DP situations, perhaps as part of his effort to get a pitch that he can elevate. In 2012, Cabrera drew just six walks in DP situations (146 PAs) and put the first pitch in play 21.9 percent of the time. In 2013, he's already drawn five walks in these situations over just 39 PAs and has put the first pitch in play only 5.1 percent of the time. It's still early, but it looks like he's making an adjustment to avoid the dreaded ground ball double play.
The thing is, I have a feeling that we'd all still love him even if he hadn't.