An Appreciation for the Approach

There are moments when observing the game of baseball when you realize that someone is so good at playing it that just watching them exist brings pleasure. Last evening I had that type of moment with Miguel Cabrera. For years Cabrera was one of the more under appreciated players in baseball. That could be because for many of those seasons he was the second best playing in baseball to only Albert Pujols and last season he was the second best player to Mike Trout, but in winning the Triple Crown and MVP things have changed. There is now attention on Miguel Cabrera like there never has been before, but the pleasure from watching him doesn’t come from any type of spectacular feats. It simply comes from watching him work.  

His at bats last evening went like this. He first came to the plate with a runner on first and one out facing Jordan Zimmermann, a pitcher who has been equally under appreciated and just as enjoyable to watch. The battle went like this. Fastball hit foul, fastball ball, slider ball, fastball foul, then on the fifth pitch of the at bat with the count even Cabrera got another fastball and drilled it. A sharply hit line drive right at Nationals short stop Ian Desmond. Five pitches and a sharply hit line drive. That is a good at bat even if the result was a double play.

The second time Cabrera came to the plate there was once again a runner on base. This time with two outs. Jordan Zimmermann would start of Cabrera as he does most batters with a well located fastball and Cabrera would foul it off, Zimmermann doubled up on the fastball and another foul. Ahead 0-2 Zimmermann did the smart thing and proceeded to give Cabrera nothing to hit, and Cabrera didn’t take the bait as he let two sliders outside the zone go by. With the count once again 2-2 Cabrera would put the fifth pitch of the at bat into play again and this time there was no National to catch it. A two out RBI single for Cabrera and a solid victory for him, and once again another deep count ending in a sharply hit baseball.

Cabrera’s third at bat would come leading off the sixth inning. It was his third time seeing Jordan Zimmermann and instead of starting him with a fastball Zimmermann nursed a breaking ball past him for a strike. On the eleventh pitch seen that evening Cabrera took his first strike, and still he had yet to swing and miss at a single pitch. With a hitter with the type of plate discipline and plate coverage as Cabrera it is hard to get any pitch past his bat. Cabrera would foul off the next offering, a fastball at 93, and once again ahead Jordan Zimmermann doubled up on the fastball in the bottom of the zone, this time reaching back for 95, and Cabrera would top the ball grounding out to short stop Ian Desmond. It was only a three pitch at bat, and Cabrera didn’t get the good part of the bat on the ball, but it was still solidly struck. Cabrera was going to make the Nats work, one way or another, to get him out.   

Cabrera’s final at bat may have been his best of the evening. Leading off the eighth inning and facing a new pitcher, Tyler Clippard, Cabrera took the first offering for a ball. He would take the next pitch for a called strike before two change-ups, one a ball the other hit foul. With the count even at 2-2, where two of his previous at bats ended, Cabrera would foul off the next fastball before taking another one for a ball and working the count full. Clippard would then try and sneak a change-up by him that he would foul before going back to the fastball for two more fouls and finally a hard line drive right at Denard Span. A ten pitch at bat that ended with a hard hit line drive nearly to the outfield wall, and again no swinging strikes. If you weren’t counting along Cabrera saw 23 pitches on the evening took two for called strikes and swung and missed at none. That is what you call a good approach in the batters box.

After watching Miguel Cabrera’s professional approach in the batters box I settled back in my seat for the bottom of the eighth and started to think about how nice it would be for the Nationals to have a hitter like that. The thought may seem stupid to most as I have on many and more occasions pointed out that Bryce Harper’s early season stats are of a historic level and that his bat speed and batting eye make it hard for a pitcher to throw a baseball by him, but maybe it hadn’t sunk into my own skull yet. So there I was in section 311 of Nationals Park having just admired the artwork that is a Miguel Cabrera at bat when Bryce Harper stepped to the plate with one out facing Joaquin Benoit. Bryce Harper is only twenty years old and his swinging strike rate of 10.4% is 2% higher than Cabrera’s so it should come as no surprise that while Harper strikes out at a rate below league average he still swings and misses more than Miguel Cabrera, but he is also nine years younger than Miguel Cabrera.  

Harper’s at bat starts innocently enough with him touching all four corners of the plate and settling into the box to watch a ball go by. He then swings with the tremendous force that only he can create for strike one. He fouls off a change-up before watching a fastball go by for ball two. Now at 2-2 Harper is on to his fifth pitch of the at bat that is another tough pitch that he fouls off, and the similarities to this at bat and Cabrera’s previous at bat are not lost on me. One more change up hit foul and then Benoit barely gets a fastball by Harper that is a foul-tip into the mitt of Avila. A solid seven pitch at bat that ends in a strikeout.  

There is a palatable sense of dread when Miguel Cabrera steps into the batters box. There is a feeling that he is about to do damage and that no pitcher can get him out. The only way Miguel Cabrera is going to make an out is by hitting a hard line-drive at someone or if he gets himself out. No pitcher can defeat him. That same sense is starting to occur when Harper steps into the batters box. Last evening Harper got a first pitch breaking ball from Anibal Sanchez and vaporized it. The ball appeared to disappear as soon a his bat made contact, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise if it had blown apart like a baseball Mr. Wizard had dipped in liquid nitrogen. Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball, but what Nationals fans are getting to witness in Harper is the birth of baseballs next great star, and the feeling is eerily when either one is in the batters box.