What we know about Robinson Cano

There is contextual evidence that Robinson Cano is a valuable commodity. Fangraphs ranked Cano the sixth best second baseman in baseball last year. And over the last three years, that same site ranks Cano third behind Ben Zobrist and Chase Utley. Utley, unfortunately, seems on the wrong side of history with knee problems. Zobrist is not a true second baseman as he plays right and first base too. Both kill Cano with their fielding rankings. Dustin Pedroia is in the same category as knocking Cano silly in fielding metrics. But when it comes to offense, Cano is clearly the leader with the highest wOBA and wRC+ for second basemen over the past three seasons. Fangraphs ranks his play as averaging $23.4 million a year for the past three years.

And for the past three years, Robinson Cano has been remarkably consistent. His OPS totals the last three year are all in the same range, .871, .914 and .882 respectively.  Perhaps Cano could have a  “career year” and blow these numbers away. But this seems to be who he is and going into his 29th year, he should be at the peak of his game. Yes, a sudden spike could happen. But judging from his consistency, we may have seen the best of Robinson Cano. Who he is makes him a great player for the Yankees.

There are two downsides to Cano’s game. One is his lack of patience at the plate. If the guy could walk sixty or seventy times a season, he would rank higher than them all. But he doesn’t and he won’t. In fact, there is evidence that he is getting less patient at the plate as he goes. According to PitchF/X data, Cano swung at 34.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2009, 34.2 percent in 2010 and 36.8 percent in 2011. He is getting less patient as he hits his prime. In 681 plate appearances in 2011, Cano compiled only 27  non-intentional walks. That is pretty close to Vladimir Guerrero territory. His lack of patience at the plate does inhibit some of his value.

While talking about his lack of patience, we might as well talk about his tendency to put the first pitch he sees in play. This is a consistent theme on Twitter among Yankee tweeters and the numbers bear it out. Of Cano’s 689 plate appearances in 2011, 98 of them ended with a ball in play on the first pitch. That is more than one in every seven plate appearances. But this is not the huge problem everyone thinks it is. Cano’s OPS in those 98 plate appearances was .894. That was twelve points higher than his OPS for the season.

The second downside to Cano’s game is his defense. Whether you believe the fielding data or not, Cano is not the fielder that Pedroia, Kinsler, Kendricks and Phillips are. He is not even close. According to the numbers, he is just below adequate. Joe Morgan used to rave about Cano’s ability to turn the double-play and the numbers bear that out. Cano is above average in that category. But overall, his defense is a drag to his overall value. For those of us who watch the games all the time, our eyes seem to tell us something different. But this is what the numbers say. And until they are proven wrong, we have to accept the facts for what they are.

There is enough to like here that all of these conclusions should not come across as a negative. The numbers show us that Cano will play 159 games or more. He will come close to 200 hits. He will hit over forty doubles and over 25 homers. He will score 100 runs and drive in 100. He mashes left-handed pitching more than most other left-handed batters. He hits sliders like few others in baseball. He is effective against every pitch type and cannot be pegged easily as to position a defense against him. He hits line drives at an above average rate and his balls in play always exceed league average BABIP figures. He has become a terrific high-leverage hitter. All this post is saying is that Cano has already shown us who he is as a player over time and to expect more is perhaps pie-in-the-sky thinking. And just to put a bow on all of these thoughts, here is a historical perspective of Cano’s relative worth compared to some other second basemen historically.  The WARGraph comes courtesy of Fangraphs.com.

(click the graph to see it better)

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

8 thoughts on “What we know about Robinson Cano

  1. Jay M.

    Do me a favor if you can, Will: Show a graphic moving the initial data points for all those second basemen to intercept the y-axis. That'll show us a great comparison of how the hitters' careers progressed over time rather than their cumulative WAR at a given age. This will give us a better sense of historical value trajectory.

    • williamjtasker

      Jay, I've added a second chart. Refresh the page to see it at the end. Not sure if that's what you need. Obviously, I'll never be a Dave Cameron.

      • Jay M.

        The new chart isn't exactly what I was talking about, but it's another VERY interesting way of looking at the careers. These charts correlate production with age, whereas I'm looking for cumulative production by seasons played. Here's what I meant:
        http://i.imgur.com/qAiSu.png

        Yet another interesting chart is the nth-best season chart: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?players=326

        • Jay M.

          Uh… ignore the extra data series for seasons played and the poor screencap. I was in a hurry, heh. ><

          • williamjtasker

            Thanks, Jay. Your chart should help the overall perspective. IIATMS has other writers who are much better at sabr stuff than I am. The overall points I was trying to make were that Cano is a great, great player who probably won't get much greater than he already is. There are some holes in his game. But we'll taken them.

  2. Jay M.

    Indeed. Looking at the various charts, I'd say the the way Cano has developed puts him on a very nice trend. He's not Alomar or Grich—Pedroia projects to be more in their class—but he's outperforming guys like Kent and Soriano. He might not be in the Hall of Fame category, but if he keeps on this path and stays a Yankee for most of his career, he certainly could be in the Retired Number category.

    With respect to your overarching point: It's spot-on. I agree completely. What we should see is a relatively steady slope on his career WAR graph followed by an eventual tapering and plateau—NOT an increasing slope (which would represent better seasons over time). I see him sort of mirroring Kent's career arc as they are very similar players in many ways.

    • mikeNicoletti

      I think you are underrating Cano, if he keeps up with the trend he is a sure fire hall of famer, and the distance between he and Pedroia are not nearly as huge as you are making it out to be. If you subtract the worst season from both they are sitting at even. Comparing anyone to Kent is going to be tough… I'm not sure if with the current testing programs in place you will see people peak @ 35 years old again.

      • mikeNicoletti

        Even it was all natural, the guy would be a complete freak of nature, especially since second basemen have typically peak earlier than any other position…

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