The Championship Series are here and they've been as competitive as we could've hoped. Despite being down in the series 3-2, the Dodgers have out-scored the Cardinals 13-12. Two of the five games have been decided by one run, one of those going to extra innings. No game has been decided by more than three runs. That's a close series and the American League is no different. The Red Sox and Tigers are tied at two games apiece. Detroit holds a 13-10 edge in scoring but one run has decided three of the four games. This is baseball at its best; baseball at its most competitive; baseball at the highest level.
Except, not quite.
Two of the best players in baseball, one who will likely win his second consecutive MVP award and one who would have been considered for his first had he been healthy all year, are not at their best. In fact, they may be at their worst. Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera are playing with serious injuries. If this were the regular season it's hard to imagine they'd be playing at all.
During the regular season Cabrera led the American League in batting average (.348), on-base percentage (.442), and slugging percentage (.636). The amazing thing about that, aside from its general amazingness, is it includes the .278/.395/.333 Cabrera hit in September. A .729 OPS isn't bad, but is pretty terrible for Cabrera. For context, Cabrera's second-weakest month at the plate was April where he hit .363/.436/.559. Had he done exactly that for the rest of the season he'd have led the league in batting average and on-base percentage while finishing third in slugging percentage. That's a pretty strong month to have as your second-weakest.
So how did Cabrera go from the best hitter in baseball to decent-hitting third baseman in September? Simple: He got hurt. According to the injury database at Baseball Prospectus, Cabrera has suffered three different abdominal strains and a groin strain in the span of a month and a half. In early October, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Cabrera, "He's not 100 percent. He's been playing in a lot of pain. He's a real tough guy. I think if anybody knew the pain he's playing in, they probably wouldn't believe it."
And yet Cabrera is playing. But he's hardly Miguel Cabrera. Through nine postseason games, he's hitting just .257/.297/.429. Outside of September, there aren't nine consecutive games where Cabrera hit that poorly all season long. It's hard to speak to the mechanics of why Cabrera isn't hitting as I'm not a scout, but whatever the problems are, since his injuries, Cabrera has struggled with fastballs. In the regular season, Cabrera hit .370 on fastballs, so throwing a fastball to Miguel Cabrera wasn't something any pitcher wanted to do. Since the start of the playoffs however, Cabrera has hit .177 on fastballs. Sure, the fastballs are probably better, but this is Miguel Cabrera. He can hit your better fastballs. In Game 3 Cabrera came up to bat in the eighth inning. The Tigers were down one run with runners on first and third and one out. Red Sox pitcher Junichi Tazawa threw Cabrera four consecutive fastballs to strike him out. The Red Sox have noticed.
Does Cabrera strike out on four straight fastballs if he's not injured? Impossible to say of course, but it's tempting to say it's at least less likely. At minimum if he were healthy you'd expect the Red Sox to nibble around the plate more. But the fear of throwing fastballs to Miguel Cabrera wasn't there -- and for good reason. Injured Miguel Cabrera isn't the same guy as healthy Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers are worse off for it.
The Dodgers are in the same leaky boat as the Tigers (though likely in a more expensive room) when it comes to Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez played in just 86 games this season due to both a thigh strain and a torn ligament in his right thumb. Despite that, Ramirez managed to hit .345/.402/.638 on the season, good for about five wins if you're into the whole WAR thing. (For the record, I think the whole WAR thing is neat-o!)
During the Division Series, Ramirez kept hitting like someone who is really good at hitting. He hit .500/.556/1.063, and was a primary reason the Dodgers scored 26 runs against a very good Braves pitching staff (OK, minus Freddy Garcia) in just four games. Then, in the first game of the Championship Series, in his first at-bat, Ramirez was hit in the ribs by a 95 mph fastball thrown by Cardinals starter Joe Kelly. The impact broke a rib and forced Ramirez to sit out Game 2, though he was back in the lineup for Game 3. The Dodgers won and Ramirez had two singles, but neither was particularly well hit. The injury hasn't gotten better as Games 4 and 5 have seen Ramirez leave before the game was finished. He's also gone 0-for-6 with four strikeouts. The Los Angeles Times said he was barely able to throw the ball from shortstop to first base on the lone put-out he was required to make.
Ramirez has been the Dodgers best hitter this season, but the cracked rib has made it so he can barely stand to be in the lineup. Cabrera was the Tigers best hitter this season, but his abdominal strains have turned him from the game's most feared hitter to a guy who can strike out on four straight fastballs thrown by a middle reliever.
I recall that at some point in the 1980s or early '90s Washington Redskins defensive lineman Dave Butz shattered his hand. The injury was so severe a huge hard cast was placed on his lower forearm and wrapped around his wrist. The cast was in effect a massive club and Butz not only played with it, he hit opposing linemen with it. Yes, you read that correctly. He used the cast protecting the remains of his shattered hand to hit opposing players. I mention this because often times you'll hear about a football or hockey player, like Butz, playing through a serious injury. Football players play through broken bones, and hockey players get their teeth knocked out and don't miss a shift.
Baseball players don't do that and their toughness is diminished in comparison. The thing is, there is no position in baseball that you don't need your hand for. In football, if you get your hand crushed, fine, wrap it up and go hit people with the cast. You'll make the Pro Bowl! In hockey, teeth are just extra weight. Who needs 'em? You can fly down the ice to crush an opponent into the boards whether you're face is perfect for a dentist's brochure or a denture brochure.
In baseball the difference between homering and striking out is a few inches of bat placement. The difference between throwing a shutout and getting rocked is a few parts of an inch. Baseball is an intricate game played at the highest levels by those, if not in complete health, then at least not in the midst of a serious injury. It's too specific a game to play well without a hand, with a broken rib, or with a group of serious abdominal strains. That Cabrera and Ramirez have those injuries and are performing at the levels they are shows that.
It's a sad thing that Cabrera and Ramirez are injured and thus not at their best. It's a sad thing for fans of baseball who are being denied the best that these playoffs can offer as well as for the players' teams, who on more than one occasion might have benefited from the health of their best offensive force. On the other hand, it's impressive both Cabrera and Ramirez are toughing out serious injuries in the manner that they are. Baseball is fond of telling us that this is the playoffs and this means everything. For two players fighting to stay on the field through injuries that probably should render them spectators, it's valiant how those words are reflected in their actions, even if those actions have been compromised.