So at some point during Detroit's September roll to turn the division race into an afterthought, Leyland talked with his slugger.
"I told him, 'I want to see you win this batting title,'" Leyland recalled last week. "And he went on a concentration mission that's unbelievable."
Cabrera went on to hit .429 (39-for-91) over the 2011 season's final month, with 12 doubles, six home runs, 21 RBIs and 20 walks. His on-base percentage from Sept. 1 on was .532.
Leyland has been saying it for years: When Cabrera concentrates on each at-bat, instead of giving one away now and then, he's a dangerous hitter. It took him a few years of maturation -- as a person, as a hitter -- to understand that.
And maybe, by that same reasoning, a position change helped.
To hear Cabrera talk about it after he was named American League MVP on Thursday, it sure sounded like it.
"I think Leyland made a good decision to move me to third base," Cabrera said in a teleconference with reporters, "because it really pushed me to work hard. ... We talked a lot about trying to work hard, trying to get better and trying to help the team win games."
When that quote was relayed to Leyland, he ardently agreed.
"I definitely think that's true," Leyland said in a phone conversation with MLB.com Thursday night, "and I'll tell you why: I think going to third base helped his total concentration in all phases. I think it helped him at the plate. He was always in the game. I would agree with that. I think he really concentrated on third base and he did a great job."
That's not to say Cabrera was dozing off at first base, where he had steadily improved year after year to become an underrated defender. It's a statement about how different the two corner positions can be.
Cabrera has always thought of himself as a third baseman. The fact that he spent his first month with the Tigers in 2008 at the hot corner before moving to first was no accident. In that sense, the position change wasn't anything new.
The adjustment was in the skill set. What Brandon Inge loved about third base after getting out from behind the plate were the quick reactions required. He had to be ready all the time for a play. He would read hitters, lean on his knowledge of them and settle into a position. From there, it was just read and react.
That was Cabrera's focus going into the year.
"To play third base, I think it was the hardest thing coming into this year," Cabrera said, "because I focused a lot coming into the season about defense, defense, defense. I didn't focus as much on the hitting as I usually do. I think the most important thing I did this year was defensive, try to keep the ball in front of me and try to make routine plays."
In that sense, he did better than expected as a fielder, despite questions about his range. All the second guessing, all the putdowns about his defense, motivated him.
"They were all making fun of us last winter: Oh, he can't play third base," Leyland recalled.
Cabrera made it a point to show he can still play third base, even as he edged closer to age 30 as a 250-pounder. He put his concentration into each play. In the process, Leyland believes, that concentration carried to the plate.
It didn't always work out. His 0-for-22 slump in April was the second longest of his career, and he added an 0-for-15 skid in mid-June. However, Cabrera had more games with three or more hits this season (22) than he did in 2011 (nine) and 2010 (11) combined, and more than in any other season in his career.
He did more in games when he was on than he ever had. He didn't let up. That's what Leyland wanted to see. That's what the manager believes third base gave Cabrera.
"He's been giving away fewer at-bats away each year," Leyland said. "And when he doesn't give at-bats away, you see how good he can be."