Jayson Stark: Prince Fielder
And for the record, Cabrera says he has also noticed Prince's helpful contributions to his ever-growing trophy collection. And even to Ryan Braun's trophy collection, for that matter.
"He's got three MVPs," said Miguel Cabrera, with a soft laugh, of the man who spent the past two seasons cleaning up behind him. "Three MVPs and a Triple Crown and two batting championships."
Then Cabrera looked across his locker room and eyeballed the man who hit behind him before Fielder showed up in Motown, and who will hit fourth again this year now that Prince is no longer a crouching Tiger -- Victor Martinez.
"And Victor," Cabrera added, with an even bigger laugh, "he's got one [batting title]."
In truth, of course, if you want to get all technical on us, Prince and Victor have combined for zero MVPs, zero Triple Crowns and zero batting titles. You can look that up. That math was merely a product of their amigo, Miggy, just being his usual magnanimous self.
But with Fielder gone -- traded to Texas over the winter in an eyeball-rattling deal for Ian Kinsler -- the issue of OMG, Who Hits Behind Cabrera Now hangs over the Tigers this spring, as Cabrera's first season of the post-Prince era approaches.
Fortunately, the new manager in town, Brad Ausmus, pretty much cleared up part of that question over the weekend. Ausmus said he's "95 percent" certain that Martinez would return to hitting cleanup behind Cabrera this season, just the way they lined up in 2011, in the final year of the pre-Prince era. So there ya go.
But now here's the bigger question:
How much does it even matter?
Maybe not so much. Or certainly not so much as you might think.
As my esteemed colleague, ESPN.com's Dave Schoenfield, wrote recently, there "just isn't evidence," in almost any of the really significant numbers in Cabrera's stats column, "that Prince Fielder made Miguel Cabrera a better hitter."
Wait. There isn't any evidence? Really?
That's a statement that seems impossible on the surface, even to the Tigers themselves. After all
• In the two seasons in which Fielder hit behind Cabrera, their man Miggy won back-to-back MVPs and back-to-back batting titles.
• Cabrera's on-base percentage also went up 14 points (from .403 to .417) in those two seasons, compared to his previous years with the Tigers.
• Meanwhile, his slugging percentage zoomed upward nearly 50 points (from .571 to .620).
• His home runs per season (from 35 to 44) and RBIs per season (115 to 138) also were way up.
• And his intentional walks (54 over the two seasons before Prince, 36 in the two seasons with Prince) were down.
So if you attend that school where they teach the course, Lineup Protection Is a Myth 101, you should not be expecting any guest lectures any time soon from visiting professor David Dombrowski.
"I do not think it's a myth," said Dombrowski, the Tigers' president, general manager and CEO who understood all the ramifications of trading Fielder for Ian Kinsler this winter. "I'll tell you. I think sometimes, you can get too overly analytical.
"The reality is," Dombrowski went on, "when they're doing whatever [studies] they're doing, if you don't have a bat behind him that is at least a threat, the way they approach that guy -- even though they may pitch to him -- is significantly different."
You probably don't need us to survey the occupants of locker rooms from coast to coast to know that that belief is one that's shared by pretty much every player alive. But just to give you a sampling of what you'd find if you did survey those locker rooms, here's the take of always-thoughtful Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter:
"Now you can ask Miggy," Hunter said. "Miggy's going to hit .320 or .330, and he's going to hit 30 or 40-plus [homers] no matter what. So don't get it twisted. Even without Prince, he's a hitter. But there's gotta be something said for that, that three years in a row, Prince has hit behind three MVPs and one Triple Crown winner.
“"Now if anybody can get the Triple Crown [all by himself], it's going to be Miggy," Hunter said. "So I know you've got to be careful saying that Prince had a lot to do with Miggy, because Miggy's from another planet. But I still think it plays a little bit. I don't know what percentage, but it plays into it some."
When Miguel comes up to hit, I guarantee you there are pitchers who are looking to see who's hitting behind him in situations. There are going to be times you pitch around him. There are going to be times when you can pitch to him. But there's never a game, or an at-bat, for Miguel that the pitcher doesn't look on deck to see who's coming up.” -- Wally Joyner, Tigers' hitting coach
OK then. Get the picture? Even players who are at least remotely skeptical of the concept of lineup protection still think there's something to it. But if you look past the circumstantial evidence in Cabrera's trophy case, there are really persuasive facts that say otherwise.
You'd think, for instance, that with a feared presence like Fielder behind him, Cabrera would have seen a lot more strikes over the past two years. Right?
Wrong. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron ran those numbers for us and found this:
Pitches in the strike zone to Cabrera from 2007-11: 46 percent.
Pitches in the strike zone to Cabrera in 2012-13: 46 percent.
You would also think, we're guessing, that Cabrera saw many more fastballs with Fielder hulking it up behind him. Nope. Not really, according to FanGraphs.
Fastballs thrown to Cabrera over his career: 59 percent.
Fastballs thrown to Cabrera in 2012-13: 59 percent.
OK, how about first-pitch strikes? They must have gone up in The Prince Years, correct? Sorry. Here’s more from FanGraphs:
Cabrera's career first-pitch strike percentage: 58.6 percent.
Cabrera’s first-pitch strike percentage in 2012-13: 58.9 percent.
So where's the evidence? It sure is difficult to find. But here's Torii Hunter's argument. It's one you'll never find on any stat sheet.
"The numbers don't lie, right? That's what they say," Hunter said. "But the numbers don't have a heart, or feelings, or adrenaline."
What he means by that is that the heart, the feelings and the mind are also part of this equation. And Torii Hunter should know, because he's the guy who hits in front of Miguel Cabrera, in the 2-hole.
"When I'm hitting in front of Miggy," Hunter said, "it gives me so much confidence that these guys have got to pitch to me, that I'm going to be able to hit. There's a mental side of the game. And me hitting second [with Cabrera third] is more mental than anything.
"I can almost bet you that they're pitching me the same as when I was hitting fourth, fifth and sixth in Minnesota, and early on with the Angels. But now it's more mental, because I'm not trying to hit home runs. I'm just poking the ball to right, because I'm hitting second, because I know who's hitting behind me."
And that mental and psychological side of this story also applies to the pitcher, says Cabrera's new hitting coach, Wally Joyner.
"When Miguel comes up to hit, I guarantee you there are pitchers who are looking to see who's hitting behind him in situations," Joyner said. "There are going to be times you pitch around him. There are going to be times when you can pitch to him. But there's never a game, or an at-bat, for Miguel that the pitcher doesn't look on deck to see who's coming up."
But that's where Victor Martinez comes in. To the outside world, the idea of the gargantuan Fielder lurking on deck would seem far more intimidating than the presence of Martinez on deck. The Tigers, though, don't see it that way.
"I have no problem with Victor being behind him," Ausmus said. "And it gives you the advantage of Victor being a switch-hitter. My guess is that last year, if there was a lefty on the mound, they would not want to give Miggy anything to hit and just pitch to Fielder, and go lefty-on-lefty. But you can't really do that with Victor."
The Tigers actually have all the data they need to know Martinez's "protection factor" is just as formidable as Fielder's -- because they tried it that way for a year, in 2011. And while it may have seemed as if Fielder had a major impact in 2012 -- seeing as how Cabrera won the Triple Crown and all -- in fact Cabrera's on-base percentage went down 55 points that year (from .448 to .393) with Martinez no longer behind him.
"So people think they're not going to pitch to me with somebody else [besides Fielder] behind me, but it's not going to happen," Cabrera said, "because Victor is a great hitter with men in scoring position. He can drive in runs, too. So I think we don't have to worry about it."
Well, just so he knows, his bosses aren't worrying.
"Maybe if he had, let's just say, a .190 hitter hitting behind him on a consistent basis," Dombrowski mused, "Miggy would probably get to the point where he'd get a little frustrated. But that's not going to happen."
While he may not subscribe to the Lineup Protection Is Fiction newsletter, Dombrowski has thought about this a lot. And he's come to a conclusion that all of us, no matter where we stand on this issue, can't help but agree with.
Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez are excellent hitters, in any spot in any lineup -- "but they're not as good as Miggy," Dombrowski chuckled. "No offense to either one of them, but he's the best hitter in baseball."
So we can debate this question for the next six months. But Dave Dombrowski has it figured out better than anyone.
"In reality," he said, "the only person who could protect Miggy is Miggy."
Strike One: Fresh Prince Dept.
Now that Prince Fielder is taking his act to Detroit, we have all sorts of fascinating stuff to contemplate. Such as ...
• The Tigers are now a team that has assembled three guys who have finished in the top three of an MVP election: Prince, Miguel Cabrera and your reigning MVP, Justin Verlander. So how many other teams currently employ more than one player who has done that? Here they come:
Yankees: 5 (Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Andruw Jones)
Red Sox: 3 (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz)
Twins: 2 (Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer)
Rangers: 2 (Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre)
Phillies: 2 (Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins)
Cardinals: 2 (Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman)
Rockies: 2 (Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Giambi)
• The Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run guru David Vincent, also reports that only three father-son duos have ever even hit 20 in a season for the same team. Here they come:
Gus (30, in 1953) and Buddy (20, in 1986) Bell (Reds)
Felipe (25, in 1962) and Moises (22, in 2006) Alou (Giants)
Bobby (six times) and Barry (14 times) (Giants)
• And only the Bonds family has ever produced a father and son who hit 30-plus in a season for the same team. Bobby went deep 32 times in 1969. Barry, you know all about.
• The Fielders, incidentally, are already the only father-son members of the I Hit 50 in a Season (For Any Team) Club.
• Back in the late, great 1990s, Cecil hit 245 home runs for the Tigers. Since Prince is going to be sticking around until 2020, it's a good bet he hits at least that many. If so, the Sultan says the Fielders will become the first father-son combo ever to hit more than 200 bombs for the same team. Who knew!
• The only previous father-son act that even hit 100 or more for the same team? The Bonds family (586 for Barry, 186 for his dad), naturally. The only other duo that came close? The Griffeys (210 for Ken Jr., 71 for Senior).
• Meanwhile, it's hard to escape the inevitable poundage tidbits. If we accept the official weights listed for Prince (275 pounds) and Cabrera (240), they'll weigh in at 515 pounds. Believe it or not, that would only tie them for the heftiest position-player teammates in the big leagues, if we disqualify catchers. The co-leaders in the tip-the-scales-tag-team standings: Carlos Lee (265) and Brett Wallace (250) in Houston.
• And, finally, when Prince hits his 20th homer this year, he'll become the fourth active member of the exalted 250-250 Club (250 Pounds, 250 Homers). The others, according to baseball-reference.com's sensational Play Index: Adam Dunn, Jim Thome and Carlos Lee. No truth to the rumor that all active members get a lifetime pass to the Old Country Buffet.
Strike Two: Seniors Night Dept.
The Rockies just signed Jamie Moyer. The Blue Jays just signed Omar Vizquel. Jim Thome is bringing his first-base mitt to the Phillies' camp. So darned, those old-timers out there just keep on chugging. And let's try to put that in perspective:
• Moyer is 49 years old. If he makes the team, he'll become only the second non-knuckleballer in history to throw a pitch at age 49 or older. The other: Satchel Paige, who came out of retirement to pitch one game for the 1965 Kansas City A's -- at age 59.
• If Moyer actually wins a game, he'll become just the third pitcher -- but the oldest non-knuckleballer -- to rack up a win at this advanced age. The others: Jack Quinn (50) and Hoyt Wilhelm (49). Oldest non-knuckleballer besides Moyer ever to get credited for a win in the big leagues: The unforgettable Hod Lisenbee, at age 46, in 1945.
• Then there's Vizquel. He'll turn 45 in April. If he even starts one game at shortstop for the Blue Jays, he'll become the first 45-year-old to start at short in modern history. He and Bobby Wallace (of the 1918 Cardinals) are the only 44-year-olds to do it.
• And if Vizquel finds his way into the box scores in as many games as he did last year (58), he'll become just the third position player in modern history to play at least 50 games at age 45 or older. I'll bet you've heard of the other two: Pete Rose (who played in 72, at age 45, for the 1986 Reds) and Julio Franco (who appeared in 108, at age 46, for the 2005 Braves).
• Finally, how about Thome? He's 41 now. He turns 42 in August. And his manager, Charlie Manuel, says he thinks Thome can play 20 games at first base this year. Well, if he does, he'll be just the ninth player since World War 2 to start at least 20 games at first base in a season at age 41 or older. Julio Franco did it at age 47! Rose started 61 games at age 45 -- and actually started all 162 games when he was Thome's age!
Here's the whole list:
- -- Franco (at ages 42, 43, 44, 45, 46 and 47)
- -- Rose (at 41, 42, 43, 44 and 45)
- -- Tony Perez ((at 41, 42, 43 and 44)
- -- Andres Galarraga (at 41 and 42)
- -- Darrell Evans (at 41 and 42)
- -- Willie McCovey (at 41 and 42)
- -- Carl Yastrzemski (at 41)
- -- Jeff Conine (at 41)
Strike Three: Useless Info. Dept.
In other news ...
• So postseason baseball games drag on way too long, huh? Really? As our compadre, Jorge Arangure, observed Sunday, just the REGULATION portion of that 49ers-Giants game took longer to play than five of the seven 2011 World Series games.
• Another fun Jamie Moyer note, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info's Justin Ray: Moyer's first game in the big leagues was June 16, 1986. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 263 players who weren't even born yet back then appeared in at least one major league game last season.
• And as ESPN Stats & Info Kernel collector Doug Kern reports, Moyer played in 141 games in the big leagues before the Rockies played their FIRST game in the big leagues.
• Just so Yu Darvish knows where his bar is set, want to guess which Japanese starting pitcher has had the most dominating season on this side of the Pacific? According to baseball-reference.com, it wasn't Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideo Nomo, believe it or not. If we rank all seasons of 10 starts or more by Adjusted ERA-Plus, the winner is ... uhhhhh, Tomo Ohka? Now we'd like somebody to explain how this can be. His 13 appearances for the 2000 Red Sox were assigned a 163 ERA-Plus, even though his other numbers don't quite add up to what we'd commonly describe as "dominance": 3-6, 3.12 ERA, 1.385 WHIP and just 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Take a look at this list for yourself. And if you can decipher it, please let us know.
• There are 16 "active" players with at least 2,150 career hits. Of that group, half of them are still unemployed: Pudge Rodriguez (2,844), Johnny Damon (2,723), Vladimir Guerrero (2,590), Manny Ramirez (2,574), Miguel Tejada (2,362), Edgar Renteria (2,327), Jason Kendall (2,195) and Magglio Ordonez (2,156).
• Oh, and one more thing: Now that Prince has signed, the only remaining free agent who had an OPS of at least .800 last year (with at least 300 plate appearances) is ... Casey Kotchman (.800 on the nose). Who else?