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Miguel Cabrera: The Art of Hitting

How the game's greatest offensive player does it

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CABRERA ERA: He can often recognize and adjust to a pitch as soon as it leaves a pitcher's hand—and sometimes earlier.

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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Hitting guru and former Detroit Tigers batting coach Don Slaught br...

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Cabrera's success, paired with a savant's ability to read pitchers and use an array of adjustments to prepare for what they throw, has already forced people who thought they knew everything about hitting a baseball to re-examine long-held beliefs.

"He can go to the plate and show four different stances in the same at bat," said Tigers batting coach Lloyd McClendon. "He can stride, do the leg kick, do the no-stride swing, and even stand real tall, straight up, while putting his hands low or holding them high." McClendon said he tells young players "to emulate his work habits and his dedication to the game, but not so much the way he goes about doing it."

Cabrera's ever-changing stances have spotlighted a school of hitting thatignores nearly everything but one instant during the swing. Hitting gurus call it the "launch position," the body's position in that millisecond just before the bat begins to move forward. (See graphic.)

They say nothing else that happens before the swing matters. Hitters can perform a tap dance in the batter's box if they want as long as they get to the launch position in time.

"It doesn't matter as long as he has generated energy and hasn't started his swing," said Don Slaught, the former major leaguer and Tigers batting coach who is now one of the cutting edge gurus of swing mechanics. His company, Rightview Pro, sells a state-of-the-art video analysis program used by hundreds of top high school, college and club baseball teams. "Most guys spend a lifetime trying to find one way to get to that perfect position consistently. Cabrera has mastered at least two ways of getting there. That's unique."

Cabrera's approach to hitting is the latest inflection point in a centurylong debate. Despite more than 200,000 games across the century-plus history of Major League Baseball, the sport at its highest level still lacks a grand unified theory of hitting.

For a long time, Ted Williams, the last player to bat over .400 for a season, was thought to have come pretty close to finding one. Williams's 1970 book, "The Science of Hitting," remains a bible to plenty of big-league batting coaches. Williams urged hitters to hold the bat upright, almost vertical to the ground while standing in the batter's box. Then, they should wait for a pitch in their "happy zone," particularly one they can pull, and stride and rotate the hips into a slight, uppercut swing. That angle places the bat on the same plane as a downward-moving pitch.

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Charlie Lau, a batting coach with the Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees, and the Chicago White Sox, and his lead disciple, the former Red Sox batting coach Walt Hriniak, became the gurus of a new philosophy. The Lau approach stressed starting with the bat held near to the swing plane, and keeping the weight back until the last possible moment. Also hitters were encouraged to consider letting go of the bat with the top hand immediately after contact to produce line drives that would fall in the vast gaps between infielders and outfielders.

The 1990s brought a series of what now seem like strange addenda to each of these approaches. Young players were encouraged to swing down to produce backspin and give the ball more lift even though a downward swing reduces the chance for solid contact since the bat isn't moving on the same plane as the ball. Some coaches urged digging the back toe into the ground as the bat moves across the plate—"squishing the bug" in hitting vernacular. But that technique requires a hitter to leave weight, and therefore power, on his back foot.


During the past decade, advanced video analysis and computer graphics have brought a far more empirical approach. Biomechanists, who analyze biological issues using principles of mechanics, physicists and the most tech-savvy batting coaches are beginning truly to understand the mechanics of the optimal batting swing.

Glenn Fleisig, a biomechanist with the Alabama Sports Medicine Institute, has conducted a series of experiments on what happens to the bat and the body as they go through the swing motion. According to Fleisig, hitters generate the bulk of their power from pushing off the ground. Pitchers generate substantial power from rotating their trunks, with the bulk of rotation occurring before the pitch is thrown. In hitting, most of the twist happens after the bat makes contact with the ball.


Others have suggested we won't understand the best approach to hitting a baseball until we change how we evaluate hitters. In August, Alan Nathan, a physicist at the University of Illinois, presented a paper at a conference on scouting and the science of baseball at Boston University in which he argued the sport needs to shift its emphasis from outcomes, such as base hits, home runs and runs batted in, to the characteristics of the balls that the best hitters hit, namely their speed, spin and trajectory. Scientists have only recently gained the ability to measure these effectively.

For example, according to Nathan's research, approximately 80% of all balls hit with a trajectory of 10-15 degrees become hits. Long home runs need to leave the bat at a trajectory of about 25-35 degrees. Backspin does aid distance, but measuring spin remains difficult.

Nathan suggests that working backward, scouts and coaches should analyze the swings that produced such well-hit balls and really teach the next generation of hitters the best way to hit. But Nathan has seen enough well-hit balls to conclude that obsessing about bat angles and stride lengths is wasted energy. The most important body part for the best of the best, including Cabrera, is above the shoulders. "My sense is a lot of Cabrera's success is about pattern recognition and the ability to process information quickly," Nathan says.

Cabrera does that better than anyone, though strangely McClendon said he has to drag him into the video room "kicking and screaming." Cabrera, who can remember pitch patterns from at-bats a half-decade ago, says he studies video only to understand certain tendencies—what pitchers throw when they get two strikes on a hitter, what their favorite first pitch is, what they throw with a man on first, or when they are ahead in the count.

That allows him to recognize a pitch as soon as it leaves a pitcher's hand. McClendon said in Texas earlier this season, after Cabrera smashed a change-up for a home run, he told McClendon he'd seen the pitch especially early. "He said, 'I saw it before he even threw it, before it left the pitcher's hand,'" McClendon said of Cabrera.

Cabrera's ability to anticipate the pitch helps explain both his increasing aggressiveness and his proficiency at hitting balls that aren't in the strike zone. Good hitters are supposed to grow more patient as they get older. Williams stressed the importance of taking the first pitch that each new pitcher throws in a game. Cabrera began his career swinging at 34% of such pitches, then dipped down to about 26%, about average for Major Leaguers, according to Baseball Info Solutions. This year he is swinging at nearly 43% of the first pitches he sees from a pitcher.

Cabrera explained he comes out swinging because he's grown tired of letting pitchers get ahead in the count. "I don't understand why I should do that," he said. Plus, he now sees plenty of first-pitch strikes because walking him forces pitchers to face the dangerous Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez with him on base.

Plenty of the pitches Cabrera smashes aren't strikes at all, according to Pitchf/x, which tracks the speed, location and movement of every pitch. This is antithetical to the Williams Bible.

"The greatest hitter living can't hit bad balls well," Williams wrote. "A good hitter can hit a pitch that is over the plate better than a great batter can hit a questionable ball."

Unless the great batter is Cabrera. This season his slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats) is a frightening .590 on pitches that pass between him and the inside edge of the plate. That is, inside pitches that shouldn't be swung at, never mind hit.

Max Scherzer, the Tigers starter who went 21-3 this season, said he was sure an inside pitch from the Yankees' Phil Hughes this summer was going to nail Cabrera's back leg. Then Cabrera pulled his weight back, dropped his hands inside the pitch and yanked it over the left field fence for a home run. "He's anticipating what's coming and makes the adjustment he needs to," Scherzer says. "I'd just walk him and take my chances with Prince. That guy has figured out the secret bashing codes."

Cabrera insisted the inside pitches he connects with aren't nearly as close to his body as they appear. To him, an inside pitch is one that nearly grazes his chest. "But if it is over here," he says, putting his hand a few inches from his groin, an area no sane baseball player would refer to as a safe hitting zone, "then I can pull my hands inside and swing." Also, he explained, those inside pitches are usually sinking breaking balls he can get to before they drop too close to his body.

Batting coaches generally strangle such habits early on. "You know what Ted Williams would have done with this guy?" said Toby Harrah, an assistant batting coach with the Tigers who played for Williams when he managed the Washington Senators in 1971. "He would have left him alone."

To Cabrera, hitting is about making a split-second change in his approach as much as it about repetition. For example, if he isn't feeling comfortable at the plate, he'll decide not to stride and keep his front toe in contact with the ground throughout the swing. That calms him down and allows him to see the ball better. If he makes good contact, he'll let go of the bat with his top hand on his follow-through. If he doesn't, he'll complete his swing with both hands to add more power.

Cabrera's most impressive and surprising characteristic might be his ability to hit with power to every part of the field. Most power hitters make their money pulling the ball, but Cabrera is just as likely to pound a double off the right field fence as he is to rip it down the line.

Cabrera credits his uncle, David Torres with honing his ability to go the other way when he was first learning to hit as a kid in Venezuela. During batting practice, Torres would make him do a lap around the field every time he did the predictable thing of pulling the ball.

Two decades later, Cabrera still takes batting practice as if Torres is watching him. Last week in Minnesota, as Cabrera rotated through the batting cage, Fielder and Andy Dirks began an impromptu home run contest, putting on a show for the few hundred fans that had shown up early for a meaningless game for the home team at Target Field.

Before long they were challenging Cabrera to join in. Cabrera ignored them and kept driving ball after ball to right center and right field. About 10 minutes into the session, though, he took the challenge and promptly cranked a towering fly 10 rows deep into the left center-field seats, some 400 feet away. Then he went back to driving liners into right center-field.

The home run to left center was one of only two balls he would pull during the entire hitting session. "My uncle," Cabrera said, "he knew what he was doing."

DIFFERENT STROKES
[image] Associated Press

Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame believed strongly in the power of the hips to drive the ball. The hips cock backward, then start forward and rotate a classic pull swing. Williams's eyesight, supposedly 20/10, and his patience may have been his most valuable assets.

[image] MLB Photos/Getty Images

George Brett

Charlie Lau, who believed in creating an efficient weight shift from back to front, helped Brett craft a stance that began with all his weight leaning toward the back of the batter's box, with the back knee behind the back foot. Also, Brett lowered his hands close to the swing plane to become quick to the ball.

[image] Associated Press

Sadaharu Oh

Baseball's greatest home run hitter has perhaps the game's most distinctive swing. Supposedly based on the movement of the Samurai, the Oh swing began with a high leg kick that required exquisite timing and endless practice. It produced 868 home runs in the Japanese leagues.

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Tags: Fleisig, Glenn, WSJ, author, batting, brett, cabrera, charlie, coaches, coaching, More…detroit, don, futterman, george, hitters, hitting, jim, kick, lau, leg, leyland, matthew, miguel, mlb, oh, pro, rightview, sadaharu, slaught, swing, ted, tigers, williams

Comment by HENRY MUNEVAR on October 14, 2013 at 4:57pm

THESE WERE GREAT HITTERS.

IT IS OK TO USE YOUR STYLE ALSO!!

Comment by Del Pittman on October 14, 2013 at 5:27pm
Do I dare post "slot position swing"? Go ahead...I've got thick skin...it's almost like kevlar.
Comment by Tim Belk on October 15, 2013 at 1:36am
Cabrera has off the charts hand eye. Players alike could probably hit while they are sleeping. His mechanics are his mechanics.Not for everyone
Comment by Scott Leon on October 15, 2013 at 12:58pm

Whats up Timmy?  Good to see your still at it!

Comment by Bill Stanton on October 15, 2013 at 1:10pm

Del-  What do you mean?  Go ahead, let's discuss.

Comment by Del Pittman on October 15, 2013 at 6:42pm

Oh, I was alluding to Jaime Cevallos' hitting mechanics analysis of the great hitters...most that had and have some pop had or have the slot position swing...good torque and dynamic linking and hands in which reduces rotary inertia and increases hip rotation. I normally stay away from bio-mechanics and physics here on CheckSwing...stuff that everyone here knows.

Comment by bill kenik on October 16, 2013 at 4:19am

a few weeks ago an article about chris davis and his recent success was posted here.

I see a couple of basic similarities.

 "You know what Ted Williams would have done with this guy?" said Toby Harrah, an assistant batting coach with the Tigers who played for Williams when he managed the Washington Senators in 1971. "He would have left him alone."

both seem to defy "the correct way" to hit.

 

they tried to change chris davis. said he was "doing it wrong". and he didn't do so well. he's back to what works for him. and he's having success.

 

according to this article, Cabrera is making major adjustments pitch to pitch.

 

"Cabrera credits his uncle, David Torres with honing his ability to go the other way when he was first learning to hit as a kid in Venezuela. During batting practice, Torres would make him do a lap around the field every time he did the predictable thing of pulling the ball."

 

chris davis also talks about keeping his hands in. in order for Cabrera to hit the other way, he has to be able to keep his hands in.

 

learning to hit the other way has really helped me. this doesn't mean "I would have made it" if I learned the concept when I was younger, but it definitely would have change baseball for me.

to me, what we're seeing is what both have developed and evolved into. they do what they have to do in order to be successful at hitting a baseball. it's what they've figured out after all these years of repetition.

 

regardless of all the physics, bio-mechanics, etc., you still have to step into the batters box with your bat & hit the ball. what more needs to be said? I took a couple of physics classes, mechanics, math, etc. in order to earn a civil engineering degree. it helps me to understand what takes place during the baseball swing.

 

but it has nothing to do with my level of hand eye coordination or any other physical abilities I have. I still have to practice. I can and have tried various aspects of what I have seen of the greats. some things work, some don't. I am limited by what I can do physically. depending on how i'm doing on a certain day or during a hitting session, I have to find what works for me, what gets the barrel of the bat in a position to make solid contact with the ball; what I have to do to be able to duplicate my successful swing as often as possible regardless of the pitch speed and location.

 

 

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