2010 was Robinson Cano‘s coming out party. He exploded out of the gate, posting an incredible .497 wOBA in April, while batting .400. He posted a wOBA below .375 in only a single calendar month and went on to post career highs in homers, OBP, walk rate, slugging, wOBA, fWAR, OPS+ and bWAR. The world noticed. Cano was voted to his second All-Star Game, won his first gold glove, and came in third in the MVP voting. By any measure, 2010 was Cano’s best professional season and he was, without question, the best player on the Yankees.
The media turned its attention to Cano for two reasons. The first reason was his smoldering April. The Yankees were a much better team in the first half of last season, and Cano was the biggest reason why. He was the best hitter on the planet for the first month of the season, and posted wOBA’s of .385 and .390 in May and June. On a team that at one point was on pace to win well above 100 games, Cano was the offensive motor. The second reason isn’t so much that Cano upped his game in 2010, but that so many more famous Yankees fell flat in their games. Had Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira put up similar numbers in 2010 to their 2009 numbers then Cano would have been the third best hitter on his team, and probably isn’t starring in Nike ads. Instead, the old aged, the young got better, and the media spotlight in the Bronx turned its attention to the next, home grown Yankee star.
The attention that shifted to Cano was well-deserved. Why didn’t that attention shift sooner? Posted below are select stats from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for Cano’s entire career.
Two things are evident from the above table. First, Cano had a standout season in 2010. Apart from his average, every single statistic above improved to new, tangibly improved heights in 2010. The second thing that the table shows is that Cano has been a stand out hitter every season of his career, except 2008. While 2010 was the only season he became one of the game’s best hitters, he has been one of the game’s best hitting second basemen just about his entire career. Last year was the first time the rest of baseball noticed so loudly.
From the above numbers, Cano’s 2010 improvement came from a much improved OBP, and a somewhat improved SLG (Cano has always had excellent power — going from great to even greater isn’t all that much of an improvement from the already impressive baseline). The numbers below will help explain what caused these improvements.
Cano has never been much for discipline. His 2010 walk rate was far and away a career high, but Derek Jeter, for example, who isn’t much for discipline himself, has a career rate of 9.0%. Cano doesn’t walk a lot because he is excellent at making contact (more on that in a second) and he’s hard to strike out. Even though his strike out rate in 2010 was his highest since 2007, his 12.3% was better than Jeter’s career rate of 16.9%. It makes sense to swing a lot if you can make contact the way Cano does. In 2011, Cano made better contact than at any point in his career. While his line drive rate is both elite (Alex Rodriguez and Jeter have posted similar career line drive rates) and consistent as a German train, his ground ball and fly ball rates improved in 2011, and more of those flies carried for home runs than ever before in his career. The combined effect of an improved walk rate and more fly balls that carried for home runs, predictably, was a career high OPS+, one that catapulted Robbie from being a great hitter to one of the game’s best hitters.
Interestingly, there is no clear evidence to understand why Cano walked more in 2010. The data below explain.
It is natural to assume that a player who posted career highs in OBP and walk rate would also have demonstrated increased plate discipline. In the case of Robinson Cano that assumption would be wrong. According to Fangraphs, even though Cano walked more than ever before in 2010, he also swung at more pitches both inside and outside of the zone than any other time in his career. The net result, however, was only a slight increase in Cano’s overall swing rate from his 2009 rate. This means either the data are wrong (certainly possible) or Cano saw fewer pitches in the zone in 2010 overall (also quite possible). Even if Cano was swinging at more pitches both inside and outside the zone, if overall he saw far fewer pitches to hit in aggregate, than his total swing rate would decrease.
Given that there is no reason not to trust Fangraphs, it is safe to move ahead under the assumption that overall in 2010 pitchers saw what Robbie was doing and decided it was better not to give him any mistakes to put into the people. Robbie, in turn, demonstrated improved discipline with pitches he clearly couldn’t hit, but clobbered those that he could, even if they were actually balls. To put things into perspective, Cano’s contact rates in 2010 (and 2009) were absurdly high. His rates of 75.4% for pitches outside the zone, 94.4% for pitches in the zone (think about that for second — the dude makes contact on just about every pitch he swings at in the strike zone!) and 86.9% overall are higher than A-Rod’s career rates of 52.1%, 83.2% and 75.7% respectively, as well as Jeter’s career rates of 60.3%, 89.3% and 83.3% overall, and those guys can hit a little. The numbers suggest that Cano was making harder, better contact in 2010, while chasing fewer pitches he clearly couldn’t hit. The net outcome was the first of probably many monster seasons.
I say the first of many monster seasons because I believe the projection systems are selling Cano short. If you remove his 2008 campaign, in which he posted a BABIP of .283, or .039 points below his career average, then Cano has never had a season with an OPS+ below 119 since his rookie campaign. 2011 is his age 28 season. He’s an extremely talented ball player entering his prime. Furthermore, the numbers don’t point to any particular abberation that would wipe away the progress he’s made in 2009 and then again in 2010. His BABIP in those seasons, for example, was right in line with his career norms. While his OBP suggests improved discipline, his discipline numbers don’t demonstrate any heavy outliers. He didn’t, for example, double his career walk rate in 2010. Most of his numbers were more gradual improvements, the kind of improvements one would hope a smart ball player would make as his career advances.
In light of all this, Marcel’s 2011 projection seems too conservative. My money is on Robbie posting a line closer to .312/.370/.515, with considerable upside. It would be surprising for a player in his prime to go from posting a .914 OPS in his age 27 season to the .823 OPS that Marcel suggests Robbie will put up in his age 28 season. It would not be surprising at all, however, for that player to post the .885 that I suggest, or a .935, for that matter. 2008 has made many fans and analysts alike gun-shy when it comes to Robbie. We’ve seen the worst, and that was pretty bad. However, Cano has now put together two consecutive elite seasons, one better than the other and it is the 2008 season that is beginning to look like the outlier. There is no reason to believe a player this talented who is on the right side of 30 won’t continue to be among the game’s best hitters in 2011 and beyond. Expect Robbie to do great things.
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