Robinson Cano broke into the big leagues in 2005. In his first four seasons, Cano proved to be a high AVG, low walk rate, low strikeout rate second baseman who was good for 14-19 home runs a season. Stolen bases and good base running was not part of his game, and his miniscule walk rate meant that his OBP was almost entirely BABIP dependent. His sweet swing and hit tool, however, portended the possibility of more offensive production, but it would be dependent on the growth of his power and plate discipline.
As we know, the power came, pitchers started throwing Cano fewer strikes, and Cano started to take a few more walks. What resulted was one of the most consistent and productive five-year runs by a middle infielder that we have seen over the past 15 years. Playing in at least 159 games each season, Cano averaged a roto-slash of .314/28.4/99.2/102.6/5.2 from 2009 through 2013. How consistent was he? If you took his worst production for each roto category from that time frame, he still would have roto-slashed .302/25/81/85/3.
Thereafter, Cano hit the free agent market entering his age-31 season. The Yankees chose not to pay up for Jay-Z’s first high profile baseball client and Cano ended up switching coasts, signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Mariners. How Cano would fair moving from one of baseball’s best parks for left handed hitters to one of baseball’s worst parks for hitters became one of the biggest fantasy topics of the offseason. Fantasy baseball participants that paid up for Cano in 2014 would be disappointed as he posted his lowest home run, runs, and RBI totals since 2008. Those that bet on a bounce back season in 2015 would also be disappointed, as Cano had his worst season, outside of 2014, since 2008. While things seemed to be trending in the wrong direction, 2015 did offer some hope for Cano’s future production. Cano admitted midway through the season that he had been battling stomach issues for about a year (and that this was in addition to the death of his grandfather who he was very close with and a pinky toe injury), and while many of these anecdotes about player health end up being nothing more than anecdotes, Cano returned to his old form in the second half, hitting 15 of his 21 home runs while hitting .331.
So while there was hope for Cano heading into 2016, there was also plenty to be hesitant about. He was coming of two of his worst seasons, both in which he saw his groundball rate go above 50% for the only times in his career, and he had turned 33 the previous October. As we know, though, those that invested in Cano in fantasy baseball for 2016 were repaid handsomely as Cano posted a career high 39 home runs to go with a .298 AVG and triple digit runs and RBI (albeit, with no steals).
What Went Right in 2016
- Cano hit 38 dingers; as mentioned, a career high.
- The Mariner’s offense was improved in 2016, scoring 112 runs more runs in 2016 than they did in 2015 and 134 more than they did in 2014. This, along with his own improvement, led to the previously mentioned triple digit runs (107) and RBI (103) logged by Cano.
- Cano got his ground-ball rate back below 50%.
- He posted the second highest fly-ball rate of his career and combined that with the second-highest HR:FB rate of his career.
- Cano’s swing continued to be the most beautiful.
What Went Wrong in 2016
Not much. He stole exactly zero bases and his AVG of .298, while still well above average, was on the low side for Cano’s standards. The low AVG was a result of his lowest BABIP since 2008; however, the low BABIP was likely a result of more fly balls and fewer grounders and line drives. He also played the majority of his games on the west coast, which, when combined with my average 8:55 p.m. EST bed time, means that I did not get to see him play as much as I would have liked to do so.
What to Expect in 2017
Again, we find ourselves asking if a player’s power gains shown in 2016 will translate into 2017. Cano was able to improve his fly ball rate and pull the ball more in 2016, which led to these fantastic results. Could pitchers adjust by pitching him away? They surely could, but Cano has always been comfortable going the opposite way; in fact, Cano also went the opposite way more in 2016 than he did in 2015 (he thus hit fewer balls to center). While he did not hit for as a high a slugging percentage on pitches in the outer third of the strike zone, he did hit for a higher average—really making pitchers pick their poison. And, when pitchers left the ball over the middle of the plate, Cano absolutely crushed the ball.
This is all to say that I think Cano is back to being the hitter he always was, that 2014 and the first half of 2015 are likely the outliers, and that he is just a little bit older and a little bit slower. Also, his elite bat to ball skills are the kind of skills that we have seen really benefit from the MLB-wide power surge; so while I would not bet on 35+ home runs, I think projecting him at about 30 home runs is reasonable. Moreover, I think that if pitchers do shy away from going inside more than before, then Cano has a good chance of improving on his 2016 AVG. While the lack of steals hurts his fantasy baseball value and ceiling, his likely elite production in the other four categories give him some of the best odds of any second basemen to remain near the top of the position, fantasy production-wise, next year.
The Great Beyond
Second basemen, historically, have not aged so great. Second basemen, historically, have not been as good at hitting as Robinson Cano. While I think he still has a few more years as an elite slugging second baseman—all of his production already comes from his bat—I would not be surprised to see him move down the defensive spectrum to first base and/or DH thereafter. With first base not being what it once was from a productivity perspective, I would imagine that Cano will continue to maintain fantasy value, just not near-elite fantasy value. Essentially, I could see him becoming a more nimble Kendrys Morales, although one that might be platooned against some tougher lefties. For a player Cano’s age though, the next three years are the most important for our purposes anyway; and given what we have seen over the last year and a half, there is plenty to be excited for.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now