A few days ago I put up a post comapring the current Yankees and Red Sox rosters, on paper (the bombers won). I used Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus to value players on either team. Those two sites didn’t agree on a lot of player values, and often disagreed about which team had the better player at a given position. Second base was one such position. Baseball Prospectus felt that Robinson Cano was a full win more valuable than Dustin Pedroia, while Fangraphs felt the opposite.
The disagreement has motivated me to examine Cano as a player again. On the one hand, Robbie is a career 113 OPS+ second baseman, which is excellent. On the other hand, I’ve often argued that only Melky Cabrera was a worse batter on the 2009 Yankees due to Cano’s complete and total inability to draw a walk of almost any kind (take a pitch Robbie, take a pitch).
My impression is that Yankee fans don’t focus on Cano as much as we should. He provides plus offense at a position usually reserved for defensive players. He’s also a homegrown talent whose relative value will increase as players like Jeter and A-Rod grow older. Despite this, I don’t get the feeling that Cano is perceived as being as valuable to the team’s future as, say, Mark Teixeira, even though Fangraphs says that they are of similar value.
I believe that Robbie’s miserable 2008 performance is the main reason why he doesn’t get the attention he deserves (he didn’t help his cause with his postseason stats this year either). He put up an OPS+ of 84 that season, the lowlight of which was a miserable .305 OBP. Coming on the heals of 2007 in which the Yankee infielder put up .274/.314/.427 before the All-Star break, it seemed perhaps that his breakout 2006 was a blip in an otherwise Kevin Mass-esque decline. But it wasn’t. Cano bounced back in 2009, putting up career highs in home runs and OPS+.
There are visible flaws to Cano’s game, his picture-perfect swing aside. People talk about Tex and CC Sabathia as slow starters, but Cano is probably the slowest starter on the Yankees. In each season from 2006 through 2009 he has been a better player in the 2nd half of the season. In 2007 and 2008, his first half start was poor enough to make him a liability, while in the 2nd half of 2007 his OPS was .953. In 2009, Cano was a beast in April, even putting up a .400 OBP, before stalling in May and June (costing himself an All-Star spot in the process). And in the 2nd half? .912 OPS.
The other critical weakness to Cano’s game is that he swings at everything. I’ve heard it speculated that this is because he is excellent at making contact with pitches. Other players, it is believed, can’t reach pitches that he can so they need to learn plate discipline that Cano doesn’t require. This is true, but specious. Cano has struck out more than 70 times only once in his career, and it was in 2007, not 2008. But Cano’s excellent bat control — and it is excellent — is not an excuse for poor plate discipline. Robbie would contend for the batting title every year if he could just learn patience. He has never drawn more than 40 walks in a season. Derek Jeter, by comparison, who is also sometimes described as free swinger, has done this every season of his career. Imagine a middle infielder with Cano’s power, and improved plate discipline.
Cano is projected to regress only slightly from his 2009 performance. It also seems unlikely that he will have a repeat of his terrible 2008 season anytime soon. His BABIP has been above .320 every year of his career EXCEPT 2008, when it fell to .286. The real question for Cano is whether or not he can add drawing walks to his game (and defense, but that’s another post). Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the third-best second baseman, by VORP, in 2009. He’s just a few walks away from being the best offensive second baseman in the game.