How good would Robinson Cano be if he took more pitches?

Robbie shouldn't be surprised to learn that we all want him to walk more.

On Friday I wrote a post asking if we actually over rate Robinson Cano. The premise of the post is that while Cano is a great baseball player, he is not a top five or top ten baseball player. He’s actually a top twenty baseball player, so when we describe him as a top ten guy we’re actually over rating him a bit. Unsurprisingly, the post turned out to be one of my most heavily commented since I started blogging about the Yankees.

Larry Koestler said something interesting in the comments section. He compared Robbie to Miguel Cabrera. He used Cabrera as an example to counter the logic that it is ok for Robbie to swing as much as he does because he’s such a dangerous hitter. Cabrera is also a dangerous hitter, Larry explained, but he walks a lot. He had a 15.7% walk rate in 2011, and has a career walk rate of 11.1%. Taking his walks hasn’t prevented Cabrera from wreaking havoc on AL pitchers, as every Yankee fans knows. Larry went on to point out that Cabrera and Cano are not that far off as hitters. They have comparably high averages, but Cabrera walks more, has a higher OBP, and a higher SLG.

Larry’s comment got me thinking. What if Robbie walked more? We all know that he distributes pain with his bat, but he also gets himself out a fair share. If he had more patience at the plate, how much better would he become? Given that the fewer outs he would make would drive up his OBP and his SLG, would Larry be correct? If Robinson Cano had more patience at the plate would he be as good a hitter as Miguel Cabrera?

To answer this question, I applied Miguel Cabrera’s career walk rate of 11.1% to Cano’s past three seasons (his best stretch of baseball). Unsurprisingly, this increased Robbie’s walk totals each season because Robbie has never had an 11.1% walk rate. Once I had the adjusted walk numbers, I used them to adjust Cano’s plate appearances and his at-bats. Armed with those numbers, it was easy to adjust Robbie’s AVG/OBP/SLG upwards to reflect the increased walk rate.

I made one assumption, which was big. I assumed that if Robbie walked more his extra walks would replace only outs and not hits. This thought experiment isn’t possible without this assumption, but doing this makes any player into a much better hitter. Intuitively it is highly unlikely for a player to increase his walk rate without taking a way a few hits as well.

Here’s what Cano actually did over the past three seasons:

That’s just one great season after another, even in the absence of the adjustment. Here’s what Robbie’s numbers would look like if he walked as much as Cabrera:

And that’s just one super human season after another. The impact of this is greater than what I had anticipated prior to running the numbers. This experiment is a bit of a straw man because I’m sort of asking the question, “How good would Robbie be if he were even better than he is currently.” It shouldn’t be a surprise if the effect of this is then to make Robbie better than he currently is. However, I didn’t expect fake-Robbie to be that good. He would just narrowly miss the batting title in 2011, but he runs away with it in 2010 and 2009. He also turns into a perennial 1.000+ OPS player.

While I have cautiously pointed out that this experiment is flawed, it isn’t without merit either. One thing is crystal clear: Robbie’s lack of plate discipline is what prevents him from being a top five baseball player. While Robbie wouldn’t be as good as the player above if he walked as often as Miguel Cabrera because he would inevitably walk sometimes instead of hitting the cover off the ball, the opposite is true as well. Walking more would reduce the number of outs Robbie makes, which would beef up the rest of his rate stats. Robbie’s true potential if he walked more is somewhere in between his actual numbers and the second table above, but that player is a top five player. For example, if Robbie got just half the improvement from walking more his 2011 line would be .323/.377/.570, which is remarkably close to the .317/.395/.555 line that Miguel Cabrera has put up for his entire career.

9 thoughts on “How good would Robinson Cano be if he took more pitches?

  1. Awesome post, Mike. Was hoping someone would run with the numbers after I made that Miguel Cabrera comp. While you yourself acknowledge the inherent flaws in replacing outs with walks, you’ve successfully illustrated just how drool-worthy it is to think of what Cano could become if he showed just a tad more patience.

  2. Cris Pengiucci

    Wow!!! I wonder, if this hasn’t been pointed out to him already, could he become a more patient hitter while still mashing the ball as he does now? He seemed to see more pitches as the season progressed, but I’m not sure if that translated into more walks. I guess it all starts with plate discipline. Hope he continues to grow as a hitter.

  3. Glad you guys liked the post. I enjoyed writing it.

    Lar, I agree completely. While this isn’t the most thorough approach to the question, I’ve come away certain that Kevin Long and the Yankees must do something — and I mean anything: hypnosis, reverse psychology, whatever it takes — to get Cano to be more patient at the plate.

    Chris, my understanding is that it has been pointed out to him but that he kind of stubbornly refuses. Michael Kay said that Kevin Long has explained to Cano that he is a better hitter when he’s more patient but that Cano feels like he’s not. 2010 saw Cano have his most disciplined season at the plate, and it was also far and away his best season. The numbers are there, if Robbie wants to pay attention.

    • T.O. Chris

      How scary is it to realize that Cano walks less than Vlad Guerrero ever did in his prime, and that his career high mark of 8.2% last year is almost identical with Vlad’s career walk percentage of 8.1.

      I simply don’t feel at this point in the game Cano will ever be more patient than he is now. I thought maybe he was turning a corner after last year. However I now think that he is always going to be consistently closer to his 5.1% career mark than he is 8.2. He may have seasons here or there with a better walk percentage than others, but I don’t see a consistent change in his approach going forward.

  4. You can even think about how good Cano was in 2010. He posted a career high 8.2% – not half bad really. That’s the big reason why he was a 6.5 WAR player instead of a 5 WAR player. He actually had a better ISO and LD% in 2011, but the walk rate made him a much better player in 2010.

  5. Professor Longnose

    Is there data on what kind of a hitter Cano is when he swings at pitches outside the zone? If there is, you could get a better idea of how many hits he’d lose if he if he took more walks.

    • That’s a great point. I’m sure that data exists, but I personally wouldn’t know where to track it down.

      You would want to add an analysis of what kind of a hitter Cano is inside the zone as well.

      (I’m going to hazard a guess that a Robbie who doesn’t chase pitches while only swinging at pitches in the strike zone would bat something like .350.)

  6. Tim HJ

    At the risk of dabbling in matters of which my understanding is rudimentary (as a Brit, I will still be learning this game for many years to come) surely walk percentage is not just about patience at the plate, but also the extent to which opponents pitch around a given hitter? Or are intentional (and what announcers sometimes call ‘semi-intentional’) BBs excluded from these assessments?

    I must admit, though, watching Robbie over the last few seasons, his default approach while waiting for ‘his pitch’ seems to be to spoil pitches he doesn’t like, rather than to leave them alone. He has many at-bats that are deemed ‘great’ – whether or not he gets on base – because he fouls off six or seven pitches. A more selective hitter might work a walk instead.

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