WSJ: Miguel Cabrera and the art of hitting

From Matthew Futterman at the Wall Street Journal on October 4, 2013, with mention of SABR member Alan Nathan:

For two years, Miguel Cabrera’s numbers have stunned the baseball world. Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers’ big-framed 30-year-old third baseman, won the American League Triple Crown in 2012, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in—a feat no one had pulled off since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. This year, he didn’t quite repeat the accomplishment. His power stats faded in September as he battled an abdominal strain, but his offensive production was actually better than it was in 2012.

In an era dominated by pitching, Cabrera’s hitting is borderline silly. The same player isn’t supposed to have both the power to club 44 home runs and the bat control to hit .348, get on base 44% of the time, and only strike out 94 times. Chris Davis, who led baseball with 53 home runs this season, hit a respectable .286 but whiffed 199 times.

Far more confounding than Cabrera’s production, however, is his approach to hitting. Cabrera defies nearly all of the traditional theories about the so-called hardest task in sports. His style is so hard to emulate that teammates have essentially given up trying to get tips from him.

“They ask me questions but then they say I’m a crazy hitter, that my approach is totally different from theirs,” Cabrera said in an interview last week, as the Tigers closed in on their second consecutive Central Division pennant. (They open up the American League Division Series in Oakland on Friday.) “What can I do?”

Beyond otherworldly reflexes, hitting at the highest level is supposed to require mastery of a consistent, repeatable motion and the discipline not to chase pitches outside the strike zone. Yet Cabrera sometimes alters his stance from at-bat to at-bat, even between pitches, and he’s become famous for bashing home runs on pitches thrown so far inside they look like they are going to hit him in the thigh.

“I have no idea how he does it,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said of Cabrera last week. “If I knew that I’d have been able to play in the big leagues.”

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Originally published: October 4, 2013. Last Updated: October 4, 2013.