This is not the first time there has been a Robinson Cano Player Profile at Baseball Prospectus. Given the team we are talking about, consider this the Empire Strikes Back edition of Player Profile; we’ll continue the story started a few years back, and take a look at Cano during his peak when the tale was at its most interesting point. I won’t be discussing the time he had to cut open his Tauntaun on the ice planet Hoth in order to warm up his bat, though, because some things are better left to the imagination.
A long time ago, in a galaxy where Pluto had only just lost its status as a planet, Twitter was a private, small-scale project, and PITCHf/x was just getting up and running, Cano was highlighted thanks to a significant increase in his performance from one year to the next. It turns out that Cano was pretty lucky on his balls in play in 2006, and that you could expect him to fall back a bit in the future because of it. However, as a talented 23-year-old, there was still a lot of room for growth-the key point to take away that the growth would come from 2005, and not from 2006’s inflated numbers.
Midway through the following season, Cano was hitting .268/.307/.420, a drop as significantly steep as his jump up from 2005 to 2006. This wasn’t a case where Cano was unlucky, which was pointed out in a Profile Redux on Unfiltered, but instead was due to pitchers adjusting to Cano:
One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed about Cano this year is that he has lost his power to the opposite field almost entirely. He lacks an extra-base hit going the other way at Yankee Stadium, according to his MLB.com hit charts, whereas in 2006 he hit bunches of doubles and singles down the lines and to the warning track… Are pitchers going inside on Cano more often than in years past, taking away the opposite field and contributing to the increase in his strikeout rate? He is popping up less often, but the increase in strikeouts coupled with the lack of power to the opposite field, a once successful weapon of Cano at the plate, makes me think pitchers are keeping balls inside on him.
Cano would overcome these issues in the second half, hitting .343/.396/.557 after the All-Star break with power to all fields and far fewer whiffs. This gave him a line that, while not on par with his 2006 numbers, was a step up from 2005, and was earned by responding to the adjustments that pitchers had been making to him. Overall, his strikeouts were up from 2006, but had dropped in a big way since he rebounded from that awful first half. He also cut his pop-up rate down, and in the two years after that, it hasn’t been anywhere near where it was the first two years of his career.
Because of all of this legitimate growth, there was reason to expect that Cano to be at least as good, if not better, in 2008. Baseball doesn’t like when you start expecting things, though-the baseball gods actively hunt down people’s predictions and smite them with their Bats of Woe-so Cano ended up hitting .246/.285/.358 in the first half, with the same kinds of issues he experienced during the first half of 2007. This was a bit of a facepalm moment for Yankees fans, since he had already solved this riddle once before, but Cano was vexed by the challenge presented to him by opposing pitchers yet again. He’s a little more Inspector Clouseau than Professor Layton, but he gets the job done just the same-he ended up figuring out what he needed to do again, and hit .307/.333/.482 in the second half. He struggled against right-handers for much of the year, which was odd for two reasons. First, he was left-handed, and second, he had never struggled against them before. In fact, early on in his career, Cano had a little more trouble with southpaws, and his performance against righties buoyed his numbers-the opposite was occurring in 2008.
There was a lot of poor luck surrounding Cano’s 2008 season as well. His BABIP was .286, which isn’t awful, but is much lower than the numbers Cano was putting up in the other years of his career. He hit just .170 (with .107 BABIP) on fly balls, and .624 on liners-the league averages for those two figures were .223 (with a .142 BABIP) and .728, so he was lagging behind in both categories. The biggest issue was that Cano just didn’t hit fastballs well in 2008 either-he was +10.1 and +12.4 on fastballs in 2006-2007 but, out of nowhere, put up a paltry -16.4 in 2008. The run values for pitch types are somewhat results-based, so if Cano didn’t put good wood on a bunch of fastballs and lazily popped or lined out a bunch of times, it would show up like it did in with his 2008 numbers. While it doesn’t necessarily mean that a player is bad against that pitch, it does show that their performance against them in that season was poor.
Cano had shown for two years that he was pretty good at hitting fastballs, but a few things happened that may have rushed this process along. First, pitchers started to attack him earlier in the count-his first-pitch strike percentage jumped from 57.7, a career low, back up to the low/mid 60s, which is where it had been before. He also made more contact with pitches outside of the strike zone but made slightly less contact inside of the zone-chances are good he didn’t hit some of those pitches out of the zone with the same kind of authority he could have were they in the zone, and it affected his line and his run values on fastballs. Cano also struggled with curves, posting the first negative value against them (-5.3) of his career after a 4.0 mark the prior season.
PECOTA was not sure where to peg Cano going forward into the 2009 season. His weighted-mean forecast looked a lot like his second half (.284/.322/.418) but his 90th percentile looked like the Cano of old, at .308/.349/.470. Baseball Prospectus 2009 felt that Cano may be able to redeem himself, based on his second half and late-season hitting streak:
A first-pitch swing at a ball out of the strike zone, popping it up to short left field, a disgusted shake of the head and dip of the shoulders, and a futile trot to first base; that was Cano’s too-frequent contribution in 2008. He opened the season batting .151 in April, and “recovered” to bat .283/.311/.430 from then through late September. At that point, mechanical adjustments implemented by coach Kevin Long kicked in and Cano caught fire, batting .452 in a season-ending 11-game hitting streak. The Yankees believe that those changes will carry over, but if they don’t, the Yankees will have to think about making a change, fast.
The changes did carry over, though, as Cano hit .366/.400/.581 in April en route to a .308/.341/.490 first half. Without a terrible first portion of the season to rebound from, his second-half numbers only served to pump up his line into a studly .320/.352/.520 for the year.
What changed to bring about this big of a turnabout? Would you believe me if I said “nothing”? Cano’s batted-ball data is a mirror image of 2008’s, despite the varying levels of success. Pitchers attacked him with the same kinds of pitches and at similar rates as they had in the past. He continued to swing at pitches outside of the zone, and continued to make lots of contact on them while maintaining his high rate of success on pitches in the zone. You could point at NuYankee Stadium and be half-right-yes, he hit better at home (.338/.370/.541), but he’s also done that over his entire career (.309/.340/.487 from 2006-08 at home, .300/.339/.456 on the road). The new park helped, just not by as much as one would assume at first glance.
Most of the changes were BABIP-related. He put up a .326 BABIP despite the nearly identical line-drive numbers, giving him a 40 point boost from the year before. He cut down on strikeouts by a percentage point too, which isn’t much but when combined with the other stuff doesn’t hurt either. Remember those fastballs that he struggled to capitalize on in 2008? He put up a +21.9 on the pitch this year, a 38-run swing that explains how he went from near-replacement level to well above average in the course of a year. He also didn’t struggle with curves, flipping that negative figure back into a +5.8, another swing of 10 runs or more in his favor.
Cano took 3.4 pitches per plate appearance again; it’s a number that’s basically clockwork for him. He wasn’t smarter about what he swung at either, as his swing rates look similar to 2008. He did, however, have better swings, as evidenced by improved production and a complete turnaround on fastball and curveball results. He bumped his batting average on fly balls up to .253 (with a .713 slugging percentage) and on liners to .738-those are both at or above the league average for 2009, a huge difference when compared to 2008.
The difference for Cano between 2008 and 2009 is in the results, not the approach. What does that mean going forward for the Yankee second baseman? Given how well he has hit in the second half each season-numbers that look a lot like his full 2009 campaign-it would make sense that Cano has a few years like 2009 in him. He is in his traditional peak-season period, after all, and 2008 was a campaign mostly marred by poor luck and some bad swings (OK, a lot of them). If he can keep his swing in check, and not succumb to the first-half woes that have plagued him for most of his career-seriously, Robbie, stop swinging at bad pitches outside and letting pitchers kill you inside; it’ll work in April too, not just in August-then he should remain as productive as he’s been for New York this year for at least the next few seasons.