CLEVELAND — The Indians did many things well en route to their division title and pennant in 2016. And one of those was to quiet the bat, in relative terms, of Miguel Cabrera.
Until last year, Cabrera had been Babe Ruth-like against Cleveland pitching. Really. Ruth and Cabrera — who, in 167 career games against the Indians, has hit .352 with 43 home runs — are the only two opponents to have hit .350 or better with 30 or more home runs against Cleveland pitching over the course of their respective careers.
Last season, the Indians “limited” Cabrera to an .879 OPS — which, in context, is a great achievement. Cleveland also won 14 of 18 games against Detroit in the season series. The improvement as a staff against Cabrera didn’t just seem to be the result of variance, of luck. It seemed to be in part due to a change in strategy, improved tactics, when facing Cabrera.
Consider the Indians’ two- and four-seam fastball location versus Cabrera in 2015, via BaseballSavant…
And then consider the Indians’ fastball location last season against Cabrera…
The Indians will readily admit that they’re trying to pitch inside against Cabrera, and they did so either more effectively or with more focus last season.
Cabrera, like most physically imposing sluggers, likes to extend his arms. He’s adept at slashing fastballs to right field, and he has the power to swat fastballs located away for seemingly effortless home runs. Consider Cabrera’s batted-ball distribution against fastballs in 2016:
Which brings us to the first pitch Cabrera saw from Indians pitching in 2017.
This is a record of all the pitches Trevor Bauer threw to Cabrera in the latter’s first plate appearance against Cleveland. Note the positioning of the pitch labeled “1.” It’s that one up towards the top left of the graph.
Cabrera didn’t care for the pitch location.
Cabrera really, really, really did not care for the pitch location — a sentiment he manages to communicate effectively by a combination of words and gestures in the direction of the Cleveland dugout.
Was Cabrera that upset over a pitch location that, while high, was never on trajectory to hit him? Or was he looking for the first moment of 2017 to try and begin influencing umpires and Indians’ pitchers, particularly a pitcher like Bauer over whom he towers physically?
Both benches were warned between innings — which was curious since the pitch, again, was more up than in.
“I didn’t think that pitch was that far in,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “It wasn’t in, it was high.”
But maybe that warning was exactly what Cabrera was trying to achieve. Was Cabrera, the chess player, going for the long con?
Cabrera told Detroit reporters and the Free Press he was upset with Francona, not Bauer, which suggests Cabrera is displeased with Cleveland’s recent team philosophy of fastball location.
“It’s something I had with Francona,” Cabrera said. “I’m not going to fight. … Guys going up there looking for a fight. I’m going there to look for a good game.”
Cabrera said he got a little upset and said Francona also got upset and once the Indians manager said something back to him and that started things.
“He got his point,” Cabrera said. “I got my point.”
Was he trying to set up more fastballs away later in the game, later in the season? If he was, it worked on Friday.
Said Indians catcher Roberto Perez: “I think he got what he wanted, that warning. So we stopped pitching him in. I thought that was the game right there.”
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway approached Bauer after the top of the first to assure him it was OK to continue to pitch inside.
“After that I went up to him and said, ‘Don’t worry about what happened. Just continue to pitch in and pitch your game, and we will deal with whatever happens,’” Callaway said.
But Bauer generally stayed away from the inside part of the plate for the remainder of the game.
Consider his offerings against righties on Friday…
And his pitches against lefties on Friday…
Said Callaway when asked if he thought Cabrera was trying to set up later at-bats or draw a warning to reduce the probability of being pitched inside, “I’m not sure that was his motivation, but you have to pitch these guys inside so that would help.”
And in the fifth inning, Cabrera accomplished what he has so often in his career: he drove a pitch on the outside part of the plate over the right-field wall for a pivotal home run.
Said a frustrated Bauer after his start: “That’s what he’s looking to do. He can’t hit the pitch in. You throw in there and it doesn’t get called a strike, or he check swings or takes a full swing and it gets called a ball and he gets upset or — I don’t know. He’s one of the best hitters in the game, so he gets a lot of those calls.”
Did Francona believe Cabrera was trying to influence future pitch location?
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” Francona said. “Every player is different… How would I know that? You would have to ask him.”
Said Detroit manager Brad Ausmus of Cabrera’s being pitched inside: “At some point, you get sick of it.” Ausmus noted that Bauer did often pitch inside after the first inning.
Said Cabrera: “I come here to play baseball.”
And perhaps Cabrera also arrived in Cleveland to play some chess, to influence and dictate pitch location, to set up a short- and long-term con. Of the 320 pitches thrown by Indians starting pitchers over the weekend, only 37 were fastballs located on the inner third of a strike zone or in off the plate (11%) against right-handed hitters. (Last season, 29.5% of pitches from Indians’ pitchers were fastballs in those locations.)
There is always a game within the game, and Cabrera won both on Friday night.