Miguel Cabrera has been playing hurt for quite some time, and for a lot of that time it didn’t seem to be significantly affecting his performance at the plate. However, it has become impossible to deny that Cabrera’s injuries are negatively affecting him now. In 23 games played since the start of September, Cabrera has only 2 extra-base hits for a slugging percentage that would look low on Ramon Santiago. If you extrapolated his (regular season) September production over a whole season (just multiplying by 7, since that would give you 147 games played – almost exactly as many as he actually has this season) Cabrera would have only 7 home runs and 49 RBI.
The way that Miguel Cabrera has been providing value, and he HAS been providing some value at the plate over this span in spite of it all, is through selectivity. Cabrera walked 13 times in September, which is what generated an OBP near .400 and a positive WPA in spite of the lack of power. However, if in early September opposing managers were unaware of Cabrera’s power outage that is certainly no longer the case in the ALDS. Cabrera hasn’t walked yet in the ALDS and A’s pitchers don’t seem too intimidated by him. It’s also important to bear in mind that Cabrera’s aches and pains affect his hitting much less than they affect his defense or his baserunning. Miggy isn’t going to get any infield hits and he’s going to save infielders from errors, he isn’t going to be able to make it to second base on a drive to the gap, he isn’t going to be able to make it from first to third on a single and he isn’t going to be able to make it home on a sac fly – things that even he (or Prince Fielder) would be able to do under normal circumstances. His defense was never a strong suit, but he is now virtually stationary at third base and this will cost the Tigers runs if it hasn’t already.
The question that has been posed is whether the Tigers would be better off DHing Cabrera. I think this is the wrong question – Victor Martinez is a more productive hitter at the moment and Alex Avila might be as well. Cabrera is definitely a liability in the field, but he isn’t able to do enough at the plate right now to compensate. Were he unable to play in the field and unable to run the basepaths but able to hit for power, then we would want to keep his bat in the lineup no matter what. If his only remaining tool at the plate is on-base-percentage, this is something that his inability to run interferes with. The right question is whether the Tigers would be better off with Don Kelly at third and Miguel Cabrera on the bench. Even now, Cabrera IS a better hitter than Don Kelly and far, far more likely to get on base. Unfortunately he also has less power than Don Kelly and less ability to score once on base. But the offense isn’t the point – though I would argue that if you combine legs and bat Kelly would be no less valuable of a package than Cabrera as a DH at the moment. The defense is the point… Cabrera is a -10 run defender when he’s healthy. He’s far worse than that now. Don Kelly is at least a +10 defender at third (we’ll leave Ramon Santiago out of this, his reflexes and quick feet help in the middle infield but he doesn’t have the reach for third base) maybe better. The Tigers are stuck, for better or worse, needing to win pitchers duel after pitchers duel to advance. At the moment the best way to do this looks like starting Don Kelly at third and giving Miguel Cabrera a single, solitary pinch-hit at bat every night (before being pulled for Hernan Perez if he makes it to first).