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)