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
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?
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.
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.
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?