Let’s talk about two different second basemen. One had a wOBA of .370, comprised of slash stats of .320/.352/.520 with 25 home runs and a UZR of -2.8, good for an fWAR of 4.4 in his age 26 season. The other player had a wOBA of .389, comprised of slash stats of .319/.381/.534 with 29 home runs and a UZR of -0.8, good for an fWAR of 6.4 in his age 27 season. Obviously, the second player is better, although a little older, but he’s not a ton better.
Anyone familiar with Yankee stats has probably figured out by now that the first player is 2009 Robinson Cano and the second player is 2010 Robinson Cano. I’ve presented the data this way because the media narrative surrounding Robbie’s 2010 season was that he dramatically improved, surpassing Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira to become the best player on the Yankees. The numbers show this wasn’t true. Cano did improve from 2009 to 2010, but not substantially. Both seasons were excellent. His improvement was to be expected for a player entering his prime. Although he did become the best player on the Yankees, that had as much to do with A-Rod and Tex having below-average seasons as it did with his own improvement. He moved forward. They moved back. It took just that little nudge for everyone to realize how awesome this guy is.
Here’s what he did last season:
Those are some pretty numbers. With the exception of September, when Cano was simply average, Robbie was anywhere from flat-out awesome (April’s .497 wOBA) to pretty darn good (July’s .375 wOBA). He’ll finish somewhere in the top three in the MVP balloting, and may only lose the award due to that September slump.
Two factors contributed to Cano’s success in 2010: The first is that he had a more consistent season than he has in the past. In 2009 Robbie was almost as hot out of the gate, posting a .420 wOBA in April, but he faded in May and June, posting a .317 wOBA and then a .313 wOBA. He came alive in ’09 in the second half, when he never had a wOBA below .385. This past season he was hotter in April (itself a change for a player who had developed a reputation as a slow starter) and didn’t cool off until September. He built a solid foundation for his season, and was able to keep his numbers up in September, even though his performance suffered a bit. Then, he caught fire again in October, keeping pace with Josh Hamilton in the ALCS. If Cano is going to continue to be as good as he was in 2010, he’ll have to remain as consistent, avoiding the kind of two-month slumps he had demonstrated as recently as 2009 or even his awful 2008 campaign.
The second, more important, difference between 2009 Robbie and 2010 Robbie (on offense, because his defense improved too) was his walk rate. Prior to 2010 Cano’s best walk rate had been 5.8%, in 2007. In 2008 it fell to 4.1% and in 2009 it only improved to 4.5%. That’s a low walk rate, no matter how you slice it. Alex Rodriguez had his lowest walk rate since 1999 in 2010, and he still managed to get a free-pass 9.9% of the time. In 2010 Robbie’s walk rate improved to 8.2%, far and away the best of his career.
While that hardly makes him Nick Johnson when he steps into the box, the difference was enough to improve his offense across the board. Cano’s increased patience meant that he was giving himself that much of a better chance to see a pitch he could hit, and when you have a swing like Cano’s, you can hit almost anything. Robbie waited that much longer, and hit the ball that much harder. The combination made him one of the best players in baseball, not just one of the best second basemen in baseball.
Robbie can do it again in 2011. He may even be able to improve. Almost all of Robbie’s peripheral stats have been identical across his career, save for 2006 and 2008, two genuine outlier seasons. In 2006 his BABIP jumped up to .359, while in 2008 it fell to .283. For his career it sits at .322, and it was .326 last season and .324 in 2009. In addition, Robbie’s line drive, fly ball and ground ball rates have all been incredibly consistent the past few seasons. There is nothing in his statistics to suggest a need for him to regress to the mean.
There is, however, something that suggests the best is yet to come. Cano struck out 12.3% of the time in 2010, compared to 9.9% of the time in 2009 and 10.9% of the time in 2008. If he continues to work on his game, and can successfully reduce his strike outs without sacrificing his improved plate discipline (something that has to go hand-in-hand) then it is probable that he will continue to improve in 2011.
I’m writing only for myself when I say that I’ve long underestimated Robinson Cano (but I suspect a lot of Yankee fans are guilty of the same thing). On a team with players as great as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira (pre-2010 editions for each of them) it was easy to overlook a player who was not a heralded prospect and came out of nowhere to provide excellent offense at second base. Robbie’s penchant for long slumps, and his abysmal 2008 season only made me more likely to undervalue him. He’s now put together back-to-back excellent seasons. He’s only just entering his prime. There is every reason to believe that he will be at least as good as he was in 2009 for the next few years, and quite possibly better than he was in 2010 at least once.
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