As much as Miguel Cabrera's mammoth home runs and opposite-field power has wowed fans, intentional walks have been almost as big a part of his summer. With just over three weeks to go in the season, he's pretty much out of Triple Crown contention, but he's nearing record territory for free passes.
If Cabrera was still in the National League, his 30 intentional walks would be second to Albert Pujols this year and almost mundane by historical standards. Even before Barry Bonds set the standard year after year, free passes were generous in the senior circuit. But in the American League, where the designated hitter usually allows teams to balance out their lineup and put another big bat in the middle of the order, Cabrera's total is almost mind-boggling.
Cabrera's latest intentional walk -- a two-out pass in Friday's 6-3 loss with two outs in the seventh and Austin Jackson on third as the potential go-ahead run -- made him the first AL player with 30 in a season since John Olerud drew 33 in 1993, tying him with Hall of Famer Ted Williams for the AL record. The only other American Leaguer to get to 30 was George Brett in '85.
Williams' mark came when the pitcher still batted in the AL. Only Olerud and Brett had done it in a league with the designated hitter.
"I try to impress upon him to just take it as the highest compliment you can get," manager Jim Leyland said earlier this year.
Cabrera gets it, but it's little consolation.
"That's a compliment," Cabrera said, "but I want the RBI, because I'm here to drive in runs. I'm in the four-spot. I'm in the middle of the lineup. I have to keep the line moving."
It's an incredible concept in a league where the ninth hitter can sometimes be as dangerous as the second or fifth. But add up Cabrera's amazing numbers with his ability to hit quality pitches out of the ballpark to all fields, subtract players such as Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen from the Tigers' lineup for significant stretches, and divide Brennan Boesch's breakout rookie season into his torrid start and cool finish, and the free passes have piled up.
"It's a product of injuries," teammate Brandon Inge said. "We've got a ton of rookies on this team right now, and they're in the lineup. Looking from a managerial standpoint, I'd do the same thing. I mean, a guy who's proven himself, Miggy, you know what he's capable of. I'm probably going to make the young guy beat me."
Given the choice of Cabrera against most anyone, a lot of pitchers will choose the latter.
While the all-time leaderboard on free passes is cluttered with Bonds' name -- eight of the top 10 single-season totals belong to him, including 120 in 2004 -- a few American Leaguers became regulars further down the list. Vladimir Guerrero drew at least 25 in three straight seasons with the Angels, capped by 28 in '07. Frank Thomas drew 29 in '95 and 26 a year later. Better to give them four high and outside, the thought went, than to cautiously give them something a little off the plate and watch them somehow get to it. Even Ichiro Suzuki, whose danger is more in key singles than multirun homers, had his year, drawing 27 intentional walks in '02.
Those totals came in years, though, when intentional walks were usually more frequent. Last season's total of 409 intentional walks was the lowest for the AL in a non-strike season since the DH came into existence. This season's pace will surpass that, but should still end up below 500.
AL clubs entered play Friday having issued 401 intentional walks. About one in 14 had been issued to Cabrera, who has more than the totals of nine AL teams. He also has more intentional walks than the next two highest totals on the AL leaderboard combined; Joe Mauer and Ichiro have 13 each. Just three other AL hitters -- Robinson Cano, David Ortiz and Evan Longoria -- are in double digits.
But then, nobody is in quite the situation that Cabrera faces.
"It's like a big mental game," Cabrera said last month, "like, 'Let's try to play with his mind a little bit, make him think, Are they going to pitch me or not going to pitch me?'"
It starts with his own performance. Cabrera always had the talent to put together this kind of season, the belief went, but he didn't find the consistency with his approach every at-bat until this year. The at-bats he used to give away once in a while are now the same tough appearances he usually gives, and opponents are paying for it.
To that degree, Leyland is right when he fires off one of his favorite phrases: "The only hitter who can protect Miguel Cabrera is Miguel Cabrera."
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen would agree. His team has had more success pitching to Cabrera than any the last couple years. The slugger is just 24-for-113, and Guillen has no interest in tempting him.
"Believe me, I don't care who hits behind Cabrera," Guillen said. "I will walk him. We did it three times in Chicago [in mid-August]. We did it [Wednesday] night. We only failed once."
That's the lineup problem that exacerbates the trend for the Tigers. For a good long stretch this summer, they struggled to make teams pay for walking him by churning out big hits behind him.
At season's start, that player was Guillen, a veteran hitter from the same hometown as Cabrera who has the experience of hitting in clutch situations. Once he was hurt, the challenge quickly fell to Boesch, whose hot bat upon arrival and abundance of RBI opportunities behind Cabrera combined for an immediate impact to Detroit's offense.
"He was lightning in a bottle," Leyland said.
Opponents intentionally walked Cabrera just eight times in the season's first half. He went through a five-week stretch from late April into early June with just one intentional pass, the same total as Boesch. Fittingly, that stretch ended with a series against the White Sox, who intentionally walked Cabrera June 8 and promptly gave up a three-run homer to Boesch. Another intentional walk to Cabrera by the Nationals a week later preceded an unintentional walk to Boesch, leading to a game-tying sacrifice fly from Guillen.
Once Boesch's struggles began out of the All-Star break, so did the aggressiveness to walk Cabrera. The highlight came at the end of July at Tropicana Field, where Cabrera came to the plate in three straight games with runners on first and second and two outs in the seventh inning. All three times, Rays manager Joe Maddon walked him and moved the potential tying run to third, the would-be go-ahead run to second. All three times, Rays relievers retired Boesch, capping a 1-for-14 series for the rookie with no RBIs.
"Miguel's the best hitter in the game," Boesch said at the time. "I'd do the same thing, probably."
The free passes piled up from there. The White Sox intentionally walked Cabrera three more times in a mid-August game at U.S. Cellular Field, making him just the 11th AL player in the past 10 years to get that treatment. The Indians and Royals gave him five free passes over a three-game span a week later. Every opponent since then has done it at least once except for Minnesota, where Cabrera's struggles with shoulder tendinitis began.
The difference now is that the Tigers have found the hitting to convert some chances behind him. Don Kelly followed Chicago's last intentional walk to Cabrera with an RBI single Tuesday, fueling a four-run third inning. Cabrera's previous pass three days earlier set up a Jhonny Peralta sacrifice fly. Ryan Raburn, Peralta and Brandon Inge converted two intentional walks into seven runs over two innings on Aug. 23.
It still won't dissuade opponents from pitching around Cabrera. It'll at least give the Tigers some offense out of it, even if it isn't the immediate offense Cabrera brings.
Cabrera, meanwhile, will continue to hit.
"I think Cabby is one of the best, if not the best hitter right now in the AL," said Ozzie Guillen said. "If you hit the way he has without protection, you have to be very good."