Sabermetric Outlook: Robinson Cano
By Matt Hunter
Robinson Cano never ceases to amaze. As great of a player as he has been for the New York Yankees, especially in the past few years, something clicked with Cano this season. While he might not look like a different player on the surfuce, the underlying numbers reveal a changed approach at the plate for Cano, which could make him a strong MVP candidate for years to come.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to first check out the primer that I wrote for this series a few days ago, which outlines some of the most important statistics that I’ll employ in this post and others. If you’re unfamiliar with sabermetrics, or you’re not sure about a particular statistic I mention, check out that post (if you still don’t understand, please leave a comment below or email me and I’d be happy to help).
Cano has been absolutely on fire recently, hitting home runs in 7 of his past 9 games (including today). He is on pace for the best season of his career, with a 153 wRC+ that blows away his career 121 wRC+, and is better than his previous high of 141 in 2010. While his batting average of .308 is right on pace with his career .307 average, every other part of his game is better than before, specifically his power and his patience at the plate.
A good measurement of power (which I failed to outline in the primer) is ISO, or Isolated Power. It is calculated by subtracting Batting Average from Slugging Percentage so that only extra-base hits are measured (Total Bases from Extra-Base Hits/At-Bats). Take a look at Cano’s ISO since 2008:
As you can see, Cano has steadily improved his power over the past 5 years, and this year it has skyrocketed. For reference, Alex Rodriguez has a career ISO of .262. That’s right, Cano has more power this year than a guy with 641 career home runs, one of the best power hitters in baseball history. As a second baseman. Now that’s impressive.
The strange thing about his power surge this year, however, is that he is hitting flyballs at the lowest rate of his career. Generally, when a batter sees his power increase, it is at least partly due to an increase in the number of flyballs he is hitting. For example, in 2010, Jose Bautista‘s FB% jumped to 55% from 42% the year before, and consequently his home run total jumped from 13 all the way to 54.
However, although Cano’s flyball rate has decreased 3% from last year, his line drive rate has increased slightly, and is the best of his career at 23.2%. He is also hitting groundballs at his highest rate since 2007. What does this mean? First of all, it probably means that we can his expect his power (or at least his home run power) to decrease going forward, as a smaller proportion of his flyballs turn into home runs. His HR/FB% (home runs per flyball hit) is extremely high at 25.8%, which is almost certainly unsustainable, as only a couple of players (Jim Thome and Ryan Howard) have sustained a HR/FB% that high over the past 10 years. Those players are very extreme flyball hitters, which Cano is not, so it is much more reasonable to expect a HR/FB% closer to last year’s mark of 17% going forward.
On the other hand, the high number of line drives and groundballs that Cano has hit thus far indicates that he should have a higher BABIP than the .310 mark that he has now. His career BABIP is .320, but that was done with fewer line drives, fewer groundballs, and more flyballs, each of which negatively impacts BABIP. With a .325 BABIP, slightly above his career number, Cano would see a jump in his batting average, though that would be slightly counteracted by a lower number of home runs. All in all, based on his batted ball data, we can probably expect a slight increase in batting average for Cano going forward, but fewer home runs. Given his current production, a final line of .320 with 35 home runs is certainly within reason.
Finally, I want to point out one of the most fascinating parts of Cano’s season: his patience. While his power and line drive numbers are only somewhat improved from previous year, Cano’s patience at the plate is completely transformed this year. The obvious indicator of this is his walk rate, which is at 9.1%, almost 5% higher than his career rate and last year’s rate. Though he is usually thought of as a very aggressive hitter, that walk rate is actually above the league average of 8.2%.
Part of the reason for the increase in walks is that pitchers are not throwing Cano strikes, only pitching in the zone 41.6% of the time, compared to the league average of 45.4%. This doesn’t entirely explain it, though, because Cano saw just as few strikes last year with only a 5.4% walk rate.
Cano has always been an aggressive hitter, and when pitchers began to figure that out, they threw fewer and fewer strikes to him. Last year he chased those pitches, but this year, he has learned to lay off those pitches. His O-Swing% two years ago was 36.5% and last year it was 41.9%, but this year it has dropped all the way down to 31.7%. Similarly, while Cano swung at 55.8% of all pitches last year, he has only swung at 48.7% of pitches this year.
This is a huge difference. Cano has transformed from a swing-happy aggressive hitter to a relatively patient hitter, without sacrificing strikeouts or home runs. That high walk rate isn’t just a product of pitchers pitching around Cano, but is a result of Cano’s adjustment at the plate as a result of the way he has been pitched.
I’ve always thought of Cano as a great player, one of the top 20 in the majors maybe, and one of the best 2nd basemen in the game. This year, however, at 29 years old, Cano has somehow managed to get even better, hitting more line drives and home runs and chasing fewer pitches outside the zone at little to no cost to the rest of his game. If he can sustain these improvements, Cano should be one of the top MVP candidates this year and for years to come.
All stats come from FanGraphs.com.