Robinson Cano: Let him hack

Torre a master at repeating terrible mistakes
Torre more clueless than usual yesterday

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
2005: 20.6%
2006: 19.9%
2007: 14.8%

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
2005: 50.1%
2006: 51.9%
2007: 54.2%

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.

Torre a master at repeating terrible mistakes
Torre more clueless than usual yesterday
  • Luddy Bazcej

    How about putting some thought into your posts buddy :)

    Great analysis!

  • Joseph P.

    Thanks, Luddy. I had that one brewin’ in the old noggin for a while.

  • brxbomrs

    Cano needs some protection in the lineup behind him.

    Everyone in MLB (except Torre and Co.) realize there is no reason to throw Robbie anything good when Melky, Cairo and Abreu are behind him.

    Considering how old and awful Sui and Abreu look – I think Cano as a #3 hitter with A-Rod behind him is worth a shot.

  • Joseph P.

    brxbomrs, I simply cannot disagree with you.

  • Mike A.

    Robbie also could have gone in the A-Rod deal, but Texas wanted Joaquin Arias instead.

    Maybe pitchers just found a way they could pitch to him – if so, now he has to make adjustments.

  • brxbomrs

    Thanks Joseph,

    If Yanks fans start giving up on 24 year old guys who have already hit .342, then we all might as well find something else to spend our time on.

    This is more Torre being Torre though – forget about the kids, put blinders on and hope the veterans live up to the back of their baseball cards.

  • Sherard

    It is shocking the number of people that think it’s a good idea to ship Cano out. As if 24 yo second basemen that can hit .342 grow on trees or something.

    Guys on the roster that have a good chance of being part of a 2009 Yankee championship team – Cano, Wang, A-Rod, Jeter, maybe Cabrera. And you are going to trade one of them ?

  • Pat

    I’m a Sox fan so my posts usually get me yelled at but I gotta hand it to you buddy… that was the most thought out (and accurate) post I have ever read.

  • brxbomrs


    You can make a case for trading Cano or Melky, but it has to be for a younger player who has his prime ahead of him – not far behind him as Damon, Matsui, Giambi, Abreu, Pavano, RJ all have proven or are proving.

    If its my call, it be pretty hard to let go of Cano, Melk is one of my all-time favorites already and I was hoping he could be a modern Roy White in LF (less speed, better arm, good instincts and spray the ball to all fields).

    Melk’s got me a bit worried, but I still like his hustle, his smarts and that arm and for the most part his glove. As a LFer I think he could be one of the best in the league right now.

    I think the Yanks have a great talent for messing up the few rookies that actually force their way into the lineup – Cash and Torre are doing just that with these guys – they are so worried about the fading stars that they have signed, they aren’t paying enough attention to young guys that might actually help them break this cycle of waste and failure.

  • Joseph P.

    Thanks, Pat. Means a lot.

  • Mike

    This year is the first year that I have the Extra Innings package (I live in Delaware) and I find myself thinking about Cano’s at-bats more than anyone else on the team. At first I thought he swung at the first pitch too much and he became a much different hitter when he was behind in the count (not entirely untrue). But now it seems like pitchers go right after him and he is behind in the count whether he swings or not.

    So I agree with Joseph that he should just swing away and do whatever is natural to him. Maybe you add a caveat to that and tell him to eye up a certain pitch (fastball, anyone?) for the first pitch and if it is not that pitch then maybe he should take it. He definitely swings and misses too much (as opposed to say, Chuck Knoblauch) to be waiting for his pitch.

    The guy is without a doubt a very good hitter and he just may be the rare case of a guy who will not improve by seeing more pitches.

  • C-Note

    great post, very interesting… what’s also coming into play is that whispers on some talk radio shows and some Blogs that Cano is enjoying too much of the good life this year— everyone from NY who is over the age of 30 can remember what the NY nightlife did to certain Mets mega stars of the 80’s— while it’s not suggested he is abusing anything, it is being said that he is partying and staying out late way too much

    And again this is all rumour, I didn’t see it, I don’t know, but this stuff on Robbie is out there.

    Myself, I’d like to see him hit somewhere else in the line-up with some protection behind him- he was a hitting machine coming off of the DL this last year, I can’t believe that guy has disappeared

    I’m also a huge Melky fan, he’s 22- play him in center everyday for the rest of the year, I mean, who else is there, Kevin Thompson?

  • brxbomrs

    Yep C-Note, I heard the same whispers today on the radio, don’t know what to think.

    I understand the point of some that for a legendary franchise who had DiMag, Mantle and Williams in CF, to annoint Melky the CF is a bit ludicrous when he’s struggling at the plate (with no power yet) and having some trouble taking charge out there.

    You are absolutely right, right now the choice would be KT or Kevin Reese (also ludicrous for a team with our p\r).

    I think Melk if nurtured could become a nice everyday LFer – better than what Curtis gave us and closer to Roy White. And regardless of the naysayers, I think he needs to be cut some slack in CF – most guys don’t improve in a straight line – its two steps up, one back, sometimes vica versa (and if you are most of the guys we developed the last 15 years its several steps down into the abyss).

    I like the way Cano and Melk interact with Bowa, Torre doesn’t appear to have that kind of relationship with anyone other than Jeter – and for me going forward I’d like to see a few more young guys mixed in with veterans that aren’t in steep decline.

    It is really not about Torre or Cashman, its about a change in philosophy and a front office that can be ahead of the curve, not even with it or behind it.

  • Barry

    It doesn’t help where he hits in the line-up.

  • C-Note

    well barry, we won’t know till we see it, will we??

  • dan

    wow joe. that was a great post. that was like the best of THT and RAB rolled into one. Cano said that last year he started feeling more comfortable in the box after he stopped thinking about taking pitches. we all remember when he hit about .624 after the break with an rbi per game, maybe (okay, definitely) he should go back to what he did last year after the hammy injury.

  • NBarnes

    RCAA is quite possibly the dumbest stat ever.

    Productive Outs.

  • Joseph P.

    Touche, NBarnes. Touche.