Cabrera on struggles at the plate: ‘It’s about my eyes’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Baltimore — Justin Upton was talking about the value of being on time.

In the first inning Thursday, he somehow stayed back and timed perfectly a hanging breaking ball from Orioles starter Chris Tillman. Upton sent the ball 452 feet into the batter’s eye in dead center field.

“My eyes were just working good,” said Upton, who was not looking for an off-speed or breaking pitch in that situation. “It’s funny what you can do when you are on time. Half of this game is being on time. When you are not on time, you are out.”

Miguel Cabrera is living proof of that these days. Cabrera took a career-low .256 batting average into the game Friday. With 13 home runs, he’s on pace for a career low for a full season. The analytics picture is grim, too.

ISO is a stat that measures total bases per at-bat. Cabrera’s ISO is a career-low .161. His WAR (0.1) and offensive WAR (0.7) are career lows. His strikeout rate (20.6 percent) is as high as it’s been since 2004. His percentage of swinging strikes (whiffs) is 18.1, highest since 2010.

He is also swinging at pitches outside the strike zone 35 percent of the time.

Cabrera said before Friday’s game that timing was only part of his struggles at the plate.

“It’s not just about that,” he said. “It’s about my eyes. You can see the ball, but you can’t hit it when your eyes are moving.”

When Cabrera is himself, when he is hitting the ball hard to all fields with power, his swing is picture perfect — a clinic unto itself. The positioning of his hands, his balance through the swing, his plate coverage and bat speed through the zone, and the stillness of his head and eyes are textbook.

This season, for probably a number of reasons, he has struggled to keep his balance through the swing, which makes it nearly impossible to keep his head still and his eyes on the ball.

He has played and continues to play through back, hip and upper leg discomfort. He won’t use it as an excuse, but it almost certainly has altered or impacted his swing mechanics. He’s also at times struggled to hit higher-velocity pitches, which forces him to cheat, to guess fastball, and that makes him vulnerable to sweeping breaking balls out of the zone.

It adds up to a plausible explanation for why he’s uncharacteristically chased so many bad pitches. It explains why at times he will turn away from a pitch that is on the outside corner, thinking that it was inside. It explains why so many of his drives to the gap have been off the end of the bat or off the handle.

“I think it’s been more his timing,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “If your timing is off, especially if it’s late, your head is moving late and it’s tough to recognize pitches. At times this happens, it happens to all hitters.

“He’s just out of sync. I thought some of the swings he took yesterday were some of the better ones we’ve seen recently.”

Cabrera laced a two-run double down the right field line Thursday night. He also grounded out sharply to shortstop on a ball hit with 100 mph-plus exit velocity.

That’s the other part of Cabrera’s story this year. Hard-hit outs. His line drive rate of 27.2 percent is second in the big leagues. His hard-hit rate (45.2) is fourth. He’s hit a lot of balls hard with no results.

Which is why when you ask him if he feels like he’s making progress, however gradual, he just shrugs.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I hit a lot of line-drive outs. I’ve hit line-drive outs all season. If just 10 of those line drives fall in, it’s a big difference.”

If 10 of those line drive outs fell in, he’d be hitting .285. If 15 of them fell in, less than one more hit a week — he’d be hitting .300.

It’s a hard game. @cmccosky