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Color by Numbers: Patience Is a Virtue

Robinson Cano has always had one of the sweetest swings in the big leagues. Even as a rookie, he was often compared to seven-time batting champion Rod Carew, but a lack of plate discipline always prevented him from reaching his full potential. In 2010, however, Cano finally put it all together. Or so it seemed. A year after establishing himself as one of the top position players in all of baseball, Cano has again taken a step back. This year, he barely ranks among the game’s best second basemen.

Top-10 Second basemen, Ranked by Average WAR

Dustin Pedroia      0.304      0.404      0.476      0.394 6.2 5.6 5.9
Ben Zobrist      0.278      0.373      0.499      0.384 5.5 4.3 4.9
Ian Kinsler      0.251      0.357      0.454      0.368 4.8 3.4 4.1
Howie Kendrick      0.302      0.360      0.455      0.359 4.2 2.7 3.5
Rickie Weeks      0.270      0.345      0.477      0.361 3.8 2.7 3.3
Danny Espinosa      0.234      0.321      0.440      0.339 3.4 2.4 2.9
Robinson Cano      0.290      0.333      0.499      0.360 2.8 2.5 2.7
Brandon Phillips      0.283      0.330      0.422      0.327 3.3 1.9 2.6
Neil Walker      0.269      0.334      0.405      0.326 2 2 2.0
Maicer Izturis      0.273      0.335      0.382      0.319 1.4 2.2 1.8
Jamey Carroll      0.291      0.363      0.358      0.328 1.6 1.4 1.5
Kelly Johnson      0.224      0.307      0.446      0.334 1.9 0.8 1.4

Note: AvgWAR = bWAR + fWAR/2
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

The most noticeable area in which Cano has regressed is plate discipline. In 2010, the free swinging second baseman worked a walk in 8.2% of his plate appearances, but this season, he has returned to a rate of 4.5%. Although it should be noted that 14 of his career-high 57 walks in 2010 were intentional (this year he has only received four), Cano’s overall approach in 2011 has reverted back to a relative lack of selectivity, which in turn has seemingly resulted in less production.

Looking at Cano’s plate discipline statistics can be a bit misleading. For example, in 2010, when he had his best season and highest walk rate, the All Star second baseman also swung at what was then a career-high percentage of pitches out of the strike zone. For that reason, it’s hard to confidently blame his 2011 regression on this year’s rate, which at 39.8% is even higher than last year’s. However, maybe, the issue isn’t that Cano is swinging at too many pitches out of the zone, but the count in which he is doing it?

Robinson Cano’s Plate Discipline Breakdown, 2005-2011

O-Swing%= pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone; Z-Swing% = pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone; O-Contact% =  times a batter makes contact when swinging at pitches outside the strike zone; Z-Contact% = times a batter makes contact when swinging at pitches inside the strike zone; Zone% = pitches seen inside the strike zone.
Source: fangraphs.com

What jumps out most from Cano’s 2011 count-based splits is how poorly he has performed when he should be in the driver’s seat. In 134 plate appearances with the pitcher in a hole, Cano has only managed a very pedestrian line of .304/.403/.530, which equates to a situational OPS that is 5% below average. This level of underperformance is even more dramatic when you consider extreme hitter’s counts, such as after working the count to 3-0 and 3-1. In such instances, Cano has posted a sOPS+ (OPS relative to league average in the split) of 72 and -3 (!), respectively. For comparison, Cano’s 2010 sOPS+ in those counts were 109 and 137.

Robinson Cano’s Splits by Count, 2010 vs. 2011

Note: The baseline for OPS+ is 100. For example, a score of 105 is considered to be 5% above average.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

In just about every count favoring the batter, Cano has underperformed last year’s output, in some instances by a dramatic margin. In fact, the All Star second baseman rates below average after working his way into every hitter’s count but 1-0 and 3-2. On the flip side, Cano has remained well above average in every pitcher’s count but 0-1. Considering his ability to make good contact on pitches off the plate, the latter isn’t much of surprise. However, Cano’s significant decline in hitter’s counts is certainly perplexing.

Based on the data above, Cano’s troubles haven’t resulted from an inability to work the count. Rather, things have gone awry once he has reached a favorable position. Without access to more granular plate discipline data, it’s hard to explain why this might be. After all, a hitter with Cano’s ability should feast on pitchers who have to throw him a strike, just as he did in 2010. However, based on observation (which, admittedly, is inherently flawed), it seems as if pitchers have been reticent to challenge Cano when behind in the count. One reason for this development could be Cano’s own reptutation, which was greatly enhanced by his MVP-caliber 2010 campaign, although the relative weakness of the hitters batting behind him in 2011 probably hasn’t helped (Yankees’ sixth place batters have hit .219/.317/.344). Whatever the reason, pitchers now seem more than happy to walk Cano. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been as willing to take it.

In order to return to the more prolific output of 2010, Cano will need to once again refine his approach at that plate. Otherwise, the Yankees will have to settle for a more muted level of production from their second baseman. Although the current incarnation of Cano is not a bad consolation prize, 2010 proved that he can be even better. Cano still has the sweet swing of Carew, but, like the Hall of Famer, can he develop more patience?


1 Alex Belth   ~  Jul 28, 2011 11:28 am

Yeah, when he's ahead 2-0, 3-1 why would a pitcher serve him up a fastball when they can get him to chase a breaking ball? Frustrating.

2 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jul 28, 2011 11:42 am

His wOBA today is .358. Career-wise, it's .356. 2010 was probably a "best-case scenario" season rather than the establishment of a new norm.

When things break right, he might be the best in the AL. When they don't he's still top 5.

3 William J.   ~  Jul 28, 2011 11:52 am

[2] Cano's worst case is still pretty good, but he clearly has the ability to attain his best case. It all comes down to whether he can develop a sustainable command of the strike zone. He doesn't have to be Barry Bonds. All Cano needs to do is improve his discipline just a little. He is only 28, so hopefully he'll figure it out eventually.

4 OldYanksFan   ~  Jul 28, 2011 12:16 pm

.OBP - .BA: Diff - Player
.374 - .260: 114 - Swisher
.343 - .243: 100 - Tex
.405 - .306: 99 - Chavez
.361 - .266: 95 - Grandy
.367 - .285: 82 - Gritner
.309 - .229: 80 - Posada
.366 - .295: 71 - ARod
.295 - .228: 67 - Brains!
.330 - .268: 62 - Jeter
.317 - .272: 45 - Nunez
.333 - .290: 43 - Cano

Cano has been very disappointing.
Even as good a hitter as Ichiro has been, his lack of walks has greatly deteriorated his value.

It would be great to pick up an impact player this week, but I would be happier to see Cano (.829), Teix (.848), and to some extent, ARod (.852), post the numbers we expect from them.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jul 28, 2011 1:03 pm

[3] Is his worst case 2008? Or his is power stroke reliable enough now to raise that floor?

[4] You're very disappointed that Cano is hitting almost exactly at his career level in wOBA, OPS+, BA, OBP and SLG?

6 William J.   ~  Jul 28, 2011 1:55 pm

[5] I think 2008 was more of an aberration. I also agree with [4] that Cano has been a major disappointment. I really expected him to use 2010 as a spring board to reaching his full potential. The fact that he is only on par with his career rates is underwhelming based on expectations, which, admittedly, may have been unwarranted.

7 Kered Retej   ~  Jul 28, 2011 2:06 pm

What's the sample size on the "hitter's count" situations? I'd have to assume that a free swinger like Cano sees fewer of those counts than league average.

8 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jul 28, 2011 4:06 pm

[6] fangraphs ZIPS from march had him at:

BA .298; OBP .346; SLG .491; OPS .837; wOBA .356

So it's pretty harsh to call a guy a major disappointment when he's done exactly what was reasonably expected of him.

9 OldYanksFan   ~  Jul 28, 2011 4:07 pm

[5] Willaim said it well, but to further express my sentiment:
At age 27, Robbie posted a .915 OPS, and nothing about it was a fluke. I thought the 29 HRs might be, but witnessing some of the hardest hit LD HRs I've every seen, and this years HR derby, I see no reason why Robbie shouldn't be a .900 OPS guy through his prime years.

But as you pointed out, he has regressed a bit to his old hacktastic ways.

Around the league, opponents announcers have all declared Robbie as an elite hitter. There are few batters that match his quality of contact. For example, as a pure hitter, you can't even compare Swisher to Robbie, yet Robbie is only .011 pts better on career OPS.

This is a matter of approach... of attitude.
Ted Williams says the MOST IMPORTANT factor is hitting is:
Get a good pitch to hit (and I assume that also means let the lesser pitches go by).
If Robbie could preactice this, the sky's the limit.

10 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jul 28, 2011 5:00 pm

[9] He was hacktastic last year too.

I think you guys might have missed that he was walked intentionally 14 times in 2010, vastly skewing his total for the season and his OBP. Give him 4 IBB, what he normally has, and his OBP goes down to .366.

Then there is just the BABIP which is .300 this year and was .326 last year. Let's see what his line would like if he had the same freq as 2010, give him 9 more singles and voila:

.312 / .349 / .519

Looks like Cano's statiscal regression is almost entriely due to BABIP and a return to a normal level of IBBs.

11 William J.   ~  Jul 29, 2011 10:37 am

[7] If you go to the splits section of Cano's page on B-R.com, the sample sizes are available. By the way, your assumption is correct. Cano does see more pitchers counts than hitters counts.

[8] That projection is based on his past performance. My expectation was based on what I thought was the convergence of his talent and a more patient approach that seemed evident last year. With a swing like Cano's, he can be so much better than his career averages.

[10] I didn't miss the 14 IBB (they are mentioned above). Even without them, his walk rate was up. Also, I am not sure how you came to your adjusted figure, but you can't simply transfer 10 IBB to outs. At the very least, you need to give Cano credit for a level of production equal to his rates at the time. It's kind of a futile practice anyway because there are so many variables involved, not the least of which is another significant drop in offensive levels.

Cano doesn't need to become a 100 walk guy, but he does need to develop more discipline, especially in counts when he should have patience. Whether his 2010 was caused by his own improvement, or an ineffective approach by the opposition, that doesn't change the fact that he has regressed to this point. That doesn't mean he isn't a very good player, but it seems to me as if he can still be better.

12 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jul 29, 2011 2:12 pm

[11] If Cano can be better, what's holding him back?

13 William J.   ~  Jul 30, 2011 12:06 am

[12] His inability to develop a consistent command of the strike zone.

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