The expectations for Robinson Cano going into 2008 were quite high. Most fans were expecting him to take a step forward, and develop into the middle of the order hitter that he flashed signs of in his first few seasons. Instead, his performance took a major nosedive. His numbers were down across the board, with both his rate stats and counting stats seeing sizable reductions. His defense also suffered, as he followed up a great 2007 in the field with a below average 2008. At the end of the season, Kevin Long and Robbie began tinkering with his swing:
The promise is of a completely revamped player in advance of Spring Training. Long outlined pieces of his blueprint for Cano by eliminating excess action, while putting him in a better position to hit, squaring up more with the pitcher. Addressing Cano’s strike-zone discipline is also high on the to-do list.
“You’re going to see a huge difference visually,” Long said. “You’ll see less movement, an explosive, compact swing, and you’ll probably see more home runs. I think his average will go way up and I think his walks will go way up.”
Long sounds a bit optimistic, but I think most Yankees fans have fairly high hopes for Cano, in that they expect some sort of return to form rather than a continuation of 2008. It is important to understand why he declined to predict whether he can bounce back.
Why It Happened From A Scouting Point Of View
Any reasonably educated baseball fan could identify that Cano’s mechanics were stilted and faulty for much of 2008. The most obvious issue was his unwillingness to take balls on the outer half the other way. Cano constantly lunged at pitches away and topped or popped them towards second base. The fact that he never waited to see a pitch better suited for pulling exacerbated this issue, as pitchers began throwing tons of fastballs on the outer half and out of the zone, knowing that Robbie was not going to wait for something better. Another obvious problem with Robbie’s swing was the motion of his head combined with his front shoulder flying open. Players are supposed to keep the head looking at the pitcher, and then the ball, at all times, while the front shoulder remains square to the pitcher. Robbie consistently pulled his head early while allowing his front shoulder to fly open, which contributed greatly to his unbalanced swing and resulted in plenty of softly pulled balls on pitches that Robbie would typically drive.
In regard to defense, Cano started the year strongly in the field. I distinctly remember the YES crew touting him for a Gold Glove at some point in May. However, as the season continued to go poorly at the plate, Robbie seemed to take his issues onto the field with him, and his defense suffered greatly. A boost in confidence at the plate should help solve Cano’s glove work problems.
Why It Happened From A Statistical Point Of View
Many people have run the numbers for Cano’s 2008 and decided that Robbie was killed by poor luck. They point to his K’s and BB’s being perfectly in line with his career averages, as well as a BABIP significantly lower than his career average (.286 to .323). However, a closer look at the numbers confirms some of the approach flaws mentioned above.
Cano’s isolated power took a huge fall, going from a career rate of .165 to .139. Robbie’s loss of power can be explained by looking at his batted ball data. Generally, people look at the BABIP in conjunction with line drive rate to discover whether the player actually suffered from bad luck. Cano’s 2008 LD% was similar to his career rate, which suggests that luck did harm him. However, as Rich Lederer points out, this is not the complete story:
According to THT, the MLB average groundball out rate was 74 percent in 2007 and 2008. By comparison, the MLB average flyball out rate was 83 percent in 2007 and 84 percent in 2008. Another way of looking at those percentages is to say that batters hit about .260 on groundballs and .160-.170 on outfield flyballs (excluding home runs).
The line drive out rate was 29 percent in 2008, meaning batters hit roughly .710 on these batted balls. The hit rate on infield flies is nearly non-existent as pop-ups are converted into outs 99 percent of the time.
When it comes to batting average, line drives are king, followed by groundballs, outfield flyballs, and infield flies. Put it all together and National and American League teams hit .298 and .302, respectively, on balls in play in 2008. NL and AL clubs had BABIP of .301 and .305 in 2007.
However, when it comes to production, flyballs are more valuable than groundballs. To wit, including home runs, line drives produced .40 runs in 2007 and .39 in 2008, while the average outfield flyball yielded .18 runs in 2007 and 2008. Meanwhile, the average groundball generated .05 runs per event in 2007 and .04 in 2008.
Basically, a grounder is less likely to produce an out than a flyball, but outfield flyballs yield more runs. I would argue that Cano’s decline can be found in this point. Cano hit significantly fewer ground balls and more flyballs than he did in years past. Most Yankees fans know that when Cano has everything working, he is hitting line drives and ground balls right back through the middle. The decrease in ground balls definitely hurt him. Furthermore, Cano saw a sharp decrease in HR’s per flyball, suggesting that the flyballs that he was hitting were less dangerous than in years past. Essentially, Cano hit fewer grounders and more flyballs without gaining the run production that increased flyballs would give a hitter whose swing is not faulty. One other point to notice is that Cano’s O-Contact% and FB% saw a significant increase, affirming the point that pitchers were throwing Robbie fastballs out of the zone, and he was more than willing to just put them in play rather than fouling them off or laying off of them.
This all essentially confirms the mechanical issues discussed above. Cano was flying open and jerking his head, leading to a multitude of soft popups. Rather than take those pitches up the middle or the other way, Robbie played into the pitchers hands by attempting to pull everything. Bad mechanics, rather than bad luck, were what killed Robinson Cano’s 2008.
Update: I just found this piece from Josh Kalk, written in May 2008, that seems to confirm my suspicions using Pitch f/x data:
In 2007, Cano feasted on fastballs, especially fastballs that were away from him (remember, Cano bats left-handed so balls that have a negative x are on the outside part of the plate). This is very unusual for left-handed batters, who tend to hit better on balls that are middle in; most seem to prefer the ball down in the zone. Cano had great success going the other way with these balls away from him even if they ended up being only singles. Also, while Cano did swing at a lot of balls up in the zone, he tended to foul most of these off or swing and miss.
In 2008, Cano is not doing much with the balls on the outer half of the plate. He has very few hits to the opposite field, which seems to indicate that he is pressing and trying to pull this pitch instead of going the other way with it. Notice how few balls he has had to hit on the inner part of the plate this year. This makes sense because if he is trying to pull everything, pitchers should be working him away. As for the balls up in the zone, Cano is actually making more contact this year than last year but many of those have gone for the weak pop-ups we noted before. If he continues to pop this pitch up, the only remedy is for him to stop swinging at those pitches.
What About 2009
Cano’s numbers after April were solid, and he actually hit .307 with an .815 OPS after the All Star break. It seems that Kevin Long has recognized that Robbie has to fix his swing, and that may help fix many of the issues that plagued him in 2008. I would expect Cano to bounce back to his 2007 numbers at the plate, although most predictions are moot until we see exactly how well his new swing responds to MLB pitching. This is a vital year in Robbie’s career, and another poor year may signal that the 2005-2007 Robinson Cano is gone for good.
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