How much will Miggy miss Prince?

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
10:15
AM ET
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Prince Fielder is 2,000 miles away now. Being the observant guy he is, Miguel Cabrera has shrewdly noticed that.

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.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarWith the departure of Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera is back at first base after being the Tigers' regular third baseman the past two seasons.
So what does it say about the mammoth presence of Prince Fielder that the men hitting directly in front of him -- Cabrera in 2012 and '13 in Detroit, Braun in 2011 in Milwaukee -- all won MVP awards?

"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.

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
"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."

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."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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