When it comes to the Tigers underwhelming offense* Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera don’t tend to receive the share of the blame that they rightly deserve. Though both of the Tigers offensive stars are still producing, they aren’t performing up to their past levels or what we had all expected from them. Do not tell me they are not to blame: if we compare win probability added with last year’s number – these two guys alone will be worth 9 wins less this year. I’ll try to break down the numbers and see if we can explain why.
*(something NOT on display in the recent series against Texas)
Prince Fielder’s 2011 OPS was .981. So far this year it’s .877. Miguel Cabrera’s 2011 OPS was 1.034. So far this year it’s .888. Those drops are on par with the kind of offensive dropoffs we have seen from guys like Boesch and Avila. Young, unfortunately, has almost reproduced his 2011 numbers – but the decline relative to what we expected from Young is very similar to the declines from Fielder and Cabrera (since we all expected a rebound season from DY). I don’t mean to imply that the weak offense is primarily the fault of Fielder and Cabrera, but they are no less to blame than other players whose numbers look pretty awful. By WPA Cabrera added 7.4 wins in 2010 and 7.3 wins in 2011. This year he is on pace to contribute a mere 3 wins. Last year Fielder added 7.4, this year HE is on pace for 3 wins too. Better than average? Of course. Good enough? Of course not. With great power comes great responsibility, and these two guys are frankly responsible for carrying the Tigers offense.
Let’s start with Miguel Cabrera… whenever we see a player having an off year, the first place to look is BABIP – which is among the most volatile of peripheral statistics from year to year. A low BABIP can mean that the guy isn’t hitting the ball hard (in which case his “xBABIP” will also be low) or that he simply seems to be unlucky on balls in play. Miguel Cabrera does, in fact, have a relatively low BABIP thus far this season (.317) compared to last year (.365) and his career average (.345). Is it luck? A cursory examination of the batted ball peripherals would make me say “NO”. His line drive rate is down from 22.1% last year to 19.8% this year. His ground ball percentage is also down slightly, with the difference made up by fly balls. It isn’t, thankfully, that he’s succumbing to a lot of infield pop ups (like Inge tended to do) but… fly balls, in general, rarely go for (non-Home-Run) hits and Cabrera’s HR/FB rate is below his career norm as well. He hasn’t seen a power outage, since there are more flies to begin with he is on pace to better his 2011 home run total, but he isn’t contributing as much else as normal.
The second concern for Cabrera is that he is drawing far fewer walks than in 2011 – with a walk rate of only 8.1% compared to 15.7% last year. As a result (combined with that low BABIP) Cabrera’s on-base-percentage has fallen from .448 to .363 – which means fewer RBI opportunities for Prince Fielder. Part of this might be the protection effect (working against Cabrera rather than for him) – Fielder hitting behind him means that Cabrera sees more strikes. According to Pitch/FX he is seeing 46.6% pitches in the zone compared to 44.1% last year. But… he has actually been a bit MORE selective on those pitches (swinging 67.3% of the time instead of 71.4% and making contact on 89.6% of those swings instead of 87.5%). The biggest reason for this decline in walks has been that Cabrera is swinging at a lot more pitches outside the zone – 34.4% instead of 27.5% – and, as you would expect, making contact on fewer of those swings. Combine the two and (particularly given that he sees more balls than strikes to begin with) and Cabrera’s overall swing rate has risen from 46.8% to 50.2%. The third concern? Cabrera leads the league with 15 GIDP (on pace for 32) despite hitting behind fairly fast guys. That’s not good.
So what is going on? You could tell two stories: 1. the demands of playing third are occupying too much of Cabrera’s brain and he isn’t as locked in at the plate as he usually is 2. the struggles of a team with very high expectations are leading Cabrera to try to do too much at the plate. Unfortunately, the only concrete example we have of what Cabrera did as a Tiger when faced with either third base OR a vastly underperforming team with sky high expectations supports both theses. That’s because Cabrera did both in 2008 AND had mediocre numbers similar to what we see today. He swung at a lot of pitches outside the zone, had a low BABIP and low OBP but mashed a fair number (37) of home runs anyway. I think we all assumed that Cabrera had simply developed as a player since 2008, but maybe something else was at work back then as well – something that did not affect his game in 2009, 2010 or 2011.
Prince Fielder is having a strange season of his own: on pace to have career-best numbers in certain statistics and career worst numbers in others. A career-best 184 hits. A career-low (if you don’t count his rookie year) 69 walks, but another career low in strikeouts of 91. A career-high .301 batting average, but also a career high 24 GIDP. Career-high 39 doubles, career-low 26 home runs. Part of this is easily explainable by Fielder’s move to Comerica Park and the big shifts that teams are putting on him – which is reducing his BABIP on balls hit to right, but increasing it on balls hit to left (and center). His BABIP is up – hence the rise in BA, hits, doubles, etc… Comerica Park is big – especially in center, and that is where Fielder has tended to hit his bombs (and right, but not left). The big park depresses HR/FB and gives Fielder an incentive to go for line drives in the gaps instead of bombs. His HR/FB% is at an all-time low (15.2%) as is his FB% (32.2%). His Line Drive rate is at an all-time high (24.5%). This is not, of course, a good thing for Fielder’s production over all: we want him to hit home runs, not settle for singles through that big gap where you would normally find a shortstop. More balls not hit in the air, and more slow Miggys on the basepaths in front of him, was bound to mean more double plays.
Now that’s all explainable and, sadly, easily predictable – simply by knowing what we know about our Tigers’ home field. In theory, a lefty that pulls homers over the short right field wall should thrive in Comerica park. The reality doesn’t seem to be working that way – Fielder hits too many balls to the deepest parts of the park, some of which are actually falling for singles and doubles (Fielder is maintaining a very high .300 BA on fly balls despite the CoPa effect).
What isn’t as easy to explain is why Fielder isn’t drawing walks OR striking out. Last year he walked 15.5% of the time, this year it’s only 9.9%. Fielder has had subpar years (by his standards) in the past, but he has never stopped walking – even if hits and homers weren’t falling like they should. The only time he walked less (9.2%) was as a 22-year-old rookie. The thing is: compared to last year, Fielder is seeing a few more pitches in the zone and swinging a bit more. But compared to his career averages, he isn’t. [Or, if he is, the difference is small enough that the sign is flipped between Pitch/FX and the other plate discipline evaluation data used by FanGraphs.] He normally sees 43.9% pitches in the zone. Now he sees 40.6%. He normally swings 46% of the time. Now he swings 45.7% of the time. Is that a relevant difference? In contrast to Cabrera, it doesn’t look like the change in his BB and K rates have anything at all to do with how he is being pitched this season.
One thing that might? He’s making better contact – only 8.7% swing-and-misses instead of 10%. That would mean fewer walks, if he actually makes contact on that 1-0 pitch. But… last season he only swung and missed only 8% of the time and had a marginally higher overall contact rate and he still drew walks on 15.5% of his plate appearances. It would seem that Fielder is simply trying to get hits instead of walks. This could be the “Leyland Effect” at work, since the whole philosophy of the Tigers coaching staff revolves around never missing your pitch to hit, or it could be a function of Fielder trying to do too much at the plate. You might think that he’s trying to drive in runs rather than let offensive weaklings (this year) Young and Avila try their luck, but he had worse batters coming after him as a Brewer. What’s more, he actually has had a smaller percentage of his plate appearances with men on this year than last despite batting behind Cabrera – but then last year he was hitting behind Ryan Braun.
I don’t see any easy and obvious answers here. This isn’t really a BABIP blip that we can expect to correct itself. If it’s pressing at the plate, that might clear up if other guys start hitting – in which case the Tiger machine will start to snowball uphill if somebody like Raburn starts pounding the ball. If third base is the issue for Cabrera, we’re stuck. If CoPa and Leyland are the issues for Fielder, we’re also stuck – though the coaches could just shut up and let Fielder take pitches.