Back in May of 2005, we saw the debut of Robinson Cano. He wasn’t exactly a highly regarded prospect — the Diamondbacks rejected him as part of a trade-deadline Randy Johnson trade in 2004. But he tore up AAA in April, and was given the call once the Yanks realized that Tony Womack wasn’t going to cut it (which was about four and a half months after the rest of the league knew it). He ended up being an enormous upgrade, hitting .297/.320/.458 for the season, with 14 homers and 34 doubles on his way to placing second in the Rookie of the Year voting. He also struck out only 68 times in 551 plate appearances, a more than respectable 12% rate (which went along with his minor league numbers post-2002). However, one bit of criticism prevailed: the dude swings at everything.
There was no arguing that in 2005: he worked just 16 walks in those 551 plate appearances, and saw a paltry 3.05 pitches per plate appearance. Many a statistician noted studies that show the negative long-term production of such players. Most Yankees fans chose to ignore that bit of logic, though. After all, Cano has a sweet swing, sweet enough to draw comparisons to Rod Carew.
Thing is, even Carew worked his share of walks. You’d be hard pressed to find a player who kept up production while drawing so few free passes. This made Robinson Cano’s 2006 season so strange. Instead of regressing, he progressed, hitting .342/.365/.525. He saw a few more pitches per plate appearance (3.22), and drew more walks (18) in fewer plate appearances (508). Even better, strikeouts became even rarer, now at 10.6% of his plate appearances.
Yet, the detractors still came out full force. They cited his ridiculous .363 batting average on balls in play. “He can’t keep up that pace,” they said. “Without plate discipline, he’ll never maintain those numbers,” they added. Of course, Yankees fans scoffed again. “His swing is still sweet,” we remarked.
(Note also that Joe Mauer had a BABIP of .370 and Derek Jeter had a BABIP of .395. Just sayin’.)
This year, it would appear on the surface that the detractors were right. Robbie isn’t performing near the levels of yesteryear, prompting “all numbers, no physical observation” types like Lee Sinnis to say things like “I expect big things from Cano, and by that, I mean big negative RCAA values.” Note that this quote is paraphrased, and that RCAA is quite possibly the dumbest stat ever.
Here’s the thing: the Yankees organizational philosophy is patience at the plate. The more pitches you see, the better chance you have of seeing a bad one. That’s all fine and good…for some players. But to expect all of your players to fit this mold is simply unreasonable. Mike actually pointed out to me a tidbit about the Reds minor league system a few years back. They actually required that their minor league hitters do not swing until a strike is called. Ridiculous, right? That’s not training plate discipline; that’s letting them stand limp until they have a strike. Some guys just don’t work well with that kind of approach.
This years numbers show that perhaps Robinson Cano shouldn’t be trying to fit the Yankees mold. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t fit with the Yankees, but rather that he won’t be as effective as a guy who takes a lot of pitches. The way the numbers are panning out, he looks like a guy who simply needs to swing the bat.
It may not be a significant jump, but Cano has seen even more pitches per plate appearance this year than he has in the last two: 3.36. He’s also seen a reduction in the percentage of times he swings at the first pitch of an at bat: from 39% last year to 35% this year. As a result, he’s walking more: 13 in 299 plate appearances, or 4.3%, as compared to 3.5% last year. So, in total, he’s seeing more pitches. And it doesn’t seem to be working.
What’s the problem with this? Well, for starters, his contact rate is down: 86% last year to 84% this year. That might not seem significant at first, but let’s illustrate it with strikeouts. Robinson has struck out 46 times in 299 plate appearances, which amounts to 15%. In other words, a whole helluva lot more than last year.
More strikeouts means fewer balls in play. For a guy with a traditionally high BABIP, that means a lower batting average. But his BABIP is considerably lower this year: .319. Is this the regression to the mean that statheads have been talking about?
I honestly don’t think so. Let’s dig up some batted ball data to illustrate.
Line Drive Percentage
Well, that’s a problem. There’s no guarantee that he could stay in the 20% range, but it seems a bit odd that he’s about 5% lower this year than he was the previous two years. Looking at other guys around the 20% mark this year, it doesn’t look like any have that kind of disparity — except guys like Craig Monroe and Yuniesky Betancourt, guys who saw a rise in LD% as they gained more experience. But losing that much seems to be reserved for guys like Bobby Abreu, who hit an out-of-this-world 28% last year.
According to the Hardball Times stat glossary, line drives fall for hits roughly 75% of the time. That makes his 14.8% from this year hurt so much more. For instance, in 2005, he put 440 balls in play. At a 20.6% line drive rate, he had 90.64 line drives, which projects to 68 hits. Because this is a projected number, we’ll divide by at bats and say that he should have gotten a line drive hit in 13% of his at bats. In 2005, he put 413 balls in play. At a 19.9% line drive rate, he had 82 line drives, which projects to 61.5 line drive hits — 12.76% of his at bats. Now, in 2007 he has put 250 balls in play at a 14.8% line drive rate, meaning 37 line drive hits — roughly 27.75 which project to have fallen in for hits, for a paltry 9.3% of his at bats. A lack of line drives are simply killing Cano.
Now, here’s the question that I cannot answer beyond speculation: does Robbie’s reduced LD% mean that he’s not hitting the ball as hard this year? My tendency is to say yes, but we all know how quirky baseball is. If true, that means that his ground balls this year, on the whole, aren’t being hit as hard, and therefore not finding the holes like they did in years past.
Ground Ball Percentage
We’ve seen Cano flail a bit this year, swinging at both pitches in the dirt and at his eyes. He’s always swung at pitches out of the zone, but anecdotally, it’s never seemed as bad as this year. There’s no readily-available pitch data for me to find out if this is objectively true, but just let’s assume it is for a minute. Why would he be swinging at these pitches? Could it be because he’s over anxious? Sure. Could this over anxiety be caused by pressure (I’m not speculating as to whether it’s internal or external pressure) put on him to take more pitches? Possibly.
I don’t know about you, but I can see him getting anxious up there after seeing a bunch of pitches. After all, he’s a hacker. And hackers hack. So let Robinson swing. I believe it will do him a world of good.
Before I wrap this up, I want to restate that much of this is speculation on my part. We’re all looking for reasons why Cano isn’t performing to the levels he showed in 2006, and I thought I’d chime in and get the conversation going. I mean, the facts do bear it out: he’s not hitting as many line drives, and he’s striking out more. In order to address those problems, we need to answer “why,” and sometimes “why” is intangible.