Fans of all ages appreciate Cabreras talents, which last year helped the Tigers to a 3-games-to-2 Division Series win over the Oakland Athletics and a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series to make the Detroit Tigers the 2012 American League champions.
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But Cabrera’s smarts and knowledge of the game can easily get overlooked by the media and fans because, again, he’s not ­exactly cut out to host drive-time radio. He has what are known as baseball instincts. They’re tough to teach and, like a singing voice, you either have them or you don’t. Cabrera, most certainly, does.

“You can tell how smart a baseball player is by their approach and how they go about their business,” says Sean Casey, an analyst for MLB Network and a former Tigers first baseman. “He’s mentally focused on every pitch. He’s not going to give in to a pitcher all year long. He’s not giving away at-bats.”

He isn’t trying to do too much either. And as a result, he often does so much. Where often you’ll see Prince Fielder fall over from taking such a mighty hack, you’ll never witness Cabrera overswinging. He’ll take what the pitcher gives him and make the best of it, whether it’s a seeing-eye single to right field to give his team a late lead or a moon-shot homer to win a game, as he did in the 10th inning of a key game against the Cleveland Indians last August.

Cabrera hits his 300th career home run, against the Chicago White Sox on July 22, 2012.
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It’s with this approach that Cabrera, in 2012, batted .330 with a career-best 44 homers and 139 RBIs — much of that at spacious Comerica Park in Detroit, widely regarded as a pitchers’ heaven. But, as Casey points out, “no field’s too big for him.” Amazingly, all those gaudy statistics — many coming in clutch time, when his team needed him the most — might not have even been Cabrera’s greatest contribution to the Tigers’ season, which ended with a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants in last fall’s World Series. (Cabrera, in a rare case of looking human, took strike three to end it.) In January 2012, after designated hitter Victor Martinez suffered a knee injury that cost him the entire season, the Tigers had an opportunity to sign Fielder. But Fielder plays first base, which was Cabrera’s position. So Cabrera volunteered to move to third base — where he hadn’t played since a 14-game cameo in 2008 — to make room for another superstar. “I don’t think there’s many that would do something like that,” says Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ general manager, president and CEO who masterminded the blockbuster trade for Cabrera in a Nashville, Tenn., hotel in December 2007, “and do it in such a willing fashion.”

Nobody knew how Cabrera would adapt to the move. Last March, though, during a spring training game just a couple of weeks before opening day, the Tigers got a not-so-subtle reminder of the fire they were playing with when Cabrera, their franchise hitter, took a hotshot grounder to the face. Had he not been wearing sunglasses, it could have been a career-ender. Instead, it resulted in only stitches and a big scar. Many players would have been tentative about returning to the field after that. But Cabrera worked tirelessly to make the switch work and, while he won’t win any fielding awards for his play on the other side of the diamond, he was better than most expected. Any miscues in the field, he more than made up for at the plate — just as the Tigers suspected he would.

“I always think if you work hard and you want to do something, then you’re able to do it,” Cabrera explains.

The move proved greatly beneficial to the Tigers, as Fielder signed a nine-year contract and batted a career-best .313 with 30 homers and 108 RBIs. More importantly, he provided protection in the batting order, hitting behind Cabrera, as he did the year before for the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun, who just so happened to win the MVP too. Pitchers were forced to pick their poison, and most chose to pitch to Cabrera more than they had the year before, when Martinez had hit behind him.