Fielding Bible: The strange case of Robinson Cano

Joba gets probation
Bob Sheppard may be close to calling it a career

We’ll continue the Fielding Bible series today with a bit on Derek Jeter‘s double play partner, Robinson Cano. The 26-year-old has been a strange case during his tenure with the Yanks. Sometimes he looks like a Top 5 defender at second. Others it appears he lacks the range to play the position. So what gives? Is Cano a guy the Yanks can count on in the future to hold down his position, or is he going to become a liability who needs to switch positions before age 30?

According to John Dewan’s plus/minus system, Cano was putrid in 2008. He had a -13 rating, which placed him third to last in the league, ahead of only Felipe Lopez and Luis Castillo. Even Jeff Kent finished ahead of him. It’s tough to argue with a poor rating for Cano, since we could all see his defensive deficiencies in 2008. Was he really third worst in the entire league, though?

UZR doesn’t have the same result, but certainly a similar one. It pegs Cano at a -7.2 UZR, second worst among qualifiers and beating out only Kelly Johnson of the Braves. Castillo and Lopez do not show up on the UZR list. So yes, Cano had a pretty horrible season in the field by all accounts. That’s not the fascinating part, though.

In 2007, Robinson Cano saved the most runs in the league among second baseman, according to plus/minus. That’s 13 runs saved with his glove, plus another 9 saved on the double play ball. In 2006, Cano was quite average by plus/minus standards, registering -3 runs saved. UZR backs that up, placing Cano third in the league in 2007, behind only Chase Utley and Brandon Phillips — and ahead of reputed defensive whiz Mark Ellis.

Given the fluctuations in Cano’s defensive output, it’s tough to make a determination here. He was average in 06, stellar in 07, and horrible in 08. Chances are he’s really just average, had a career defensive year in 2007, and took his poor start with the bat out to the field with him in 2008. There’s no way to prove that, but it makes at least a degree of intuitive sense.

Maybe, just maybe though Cano is actually an excellent fielder and just needs to keep his focus out there. While his 2008 plus/minus was the pits, he still managed to make a number of what Bill james calls Good Fielding Plays. This is the opposite of Defensive Misplays, in that it gives a fielder extra credit for fielding a ball which seemed likely to be a hit. Surprisingly, Cano led the league in Good Fielding Plays with 69 (dude). While he ranked fourth in the league for Defensive Misplays with 42, he still had enough Good Fielding Plays to rank him fourth in the league in terms of GFP minus DM.

(Also note that Cano fielded more balls than most second basemen in the league in 2008, which inflates his DM and GFP numbers just a bit. In terms of Defensive Misplays plus Errors per touch, Cano was not in the bottom 10 in the league.)

One last statistical note before jumping into the scouting report. Dave Studenmund of The Hardball Times adds Revised Zone Ratings to the mix. For those unfamiliar with ZR, it divides the field up into slices, or zones. When balls are hit to a certain zone a particular fielder is assigned responsibility. In 2008 Cano had a .809 ZR, which put him in the bottom third of the league. However, he made 30 plays out of his zone, which looks to be about average, maybe slightly above. In 2007 he had a .833 ZR, which was right in the middle, but made 53 plays out of his zone. Only Dan Uggla and Aaron Hill fielded more out of their zone that year.

So was Cano’s top-notch defense in 2007 attributable to the balls he fielded out of his zone? Given his positive rankings when ranging to his left and to his right in 2007 and their negative values in 2008, that might be the case. It’s always a dicey proposition to combine defensive stats, but given what each system tells us, this might be the case. The evidence available suggests Cano has excellent range, so there’s plenty to be hopeful about. We can only hope that he acted immaturely last year by taking his offensive woes out to the field with him, and that he’ll learn from that mistake in 2009.

Now onto what the scouts say about Cano:

Cano took a step back defensively in 2008. Granted, he made some flashy plays on the run, going side to side or charging softly hit balls. He also possesses an above-average arm and features a nifty sidearm flick that helps on the double play. With all his flashes of brilliance, though, Cano still had a hard time fielding simple groundballs. On balls not hit particularly hard, Cano stabs too quickly at the ball or botches the play entirely. He also can seem lackadaisical. As time passes, 2007 is looking more like the exception than the rule.

Thankfully, the ability to field routine grounders is a skill which can be learned and honed. The ability to range to one’s left or right cannot, or cannot so easily. Perhaps Cano should learn something from his double play partner, who we learned is quite adept at avoiding mistakes. If Cano can do that, his range should make him one of the top defensive second basemen in the league.

Previously: Derek Jeter’s defense revisited.

You can get The Fielding Bible–Volume II from for $16.29. That’s our Amazon Associate code, so if you buy the book from that link you’ll kick us a few pennies.

Joba gets probation
Bob Sheppard may be close to calling it a career
  • John

    So if he tries and focuses more, he can win a GG soon?

    • John

      And if his D improves this year, we will have a pretty improved defense with Tex, nady/swisher, and gardy also.

    • Joseph Pawlikowski

      If that’s what it takes to make the routine plays.

  • andrew

    Maybe I’ve just starting noticing it recently, or maybe you guys have starting posting more often, but the amount of new, interesting information you guys churn out here everyday really is absurd. I love it, thanks for a great Yankee experience.

    That being said, I don’t think Cano’s fielding really brings the team down that much. He’ll make fis share of mistakes and he’ll make his share of great plays, as long as he continues to do so, all he has to do is start hitting again and I’ll be happy.

    • steve (different one)

      it’s an attempt to save the tarnished credibility of their socialist agenda.

      • jsbrendog


        • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside


  • radnom

    He was average in 06, stellar in 07, and horrible in 08. Chances are he’s really just average

    The problem with analyzing these defensive metrics in this manner is that you would think most players have HUGE fluctuations in defense from year to year. That is more likely due to the flawed nature of these systems right now, more so than an accurate representation of what is actually happening on the field.
    Did Cano have a better season defensively in 07 than 08? Yeah, probably. But he almost as probably was not one of the best in 07 and the worst in 08. I would wager his performance in both of those seasons if closer to his average than the current systems would indicate.

    • MattG

      I agree. These systems are sorely flawed. Do the zones a fielder is responsible for (in ZR) shift? Because the players themselves do a lot of shifting. What’s more, infielders (at least the smart ones) turn their feet and lean, depending on the pitch. A 2B isn’t going to shift a few steps to his left because a changeup is called (vs a LHP), or he’ll be tipping the pitch, but he very well will angle his body and shift his weight.

      Cano might’ve gone through a season where he was leaning the wrong way more often than not. Then again, maybe that can be improved with better focus.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Do the zones a fielder is responsible for (in ZR) shift? Because the players themselves do a lot of shifting.

        That probably shouldn’t change the statistical analysis of his zone rating, though. Whether Cano is shading to the right or left, he’s still responsible for the balls hit in the vicinity of the second baseman.

        • radnom

          Agreed. If he misses a ball because he is leaning wrong that is a poor defensive play.

        • Ed

          Yes and no. Depends on what you’re measuring.

          Other than in extreme situations such as the Giambi shift, the second baseman is still responsible for the same section of the field regardless of positioning. However, what balls he is expected to be able to make the play on changes.

          Runner on first, less than two outs, right handed batter at the plate. Unless the team is expecting a sac bunt, the second baseman should be shifting a little closer to second base. The first baseman isn’t shifting here, so the second baseman’s responsibility is still the same, but the expectations change.

        • MattG

          You would expect it to even out with a large sample. But maybe one season isn’t a large enough sample. Being that the second baseman makes less than 5 plays a game, it is possible that Cano was simply unlucky in his anticipation of the ball last season, something that might just turn around this season.

          What we need is for someone to correlate ZR with pitch FX data, to see if certain fielders are more effective moving in certain directions on certain pitches. I bet you can find out who is particularly good at positioning themselves. That would be interesting.

  • Ed

    Saw this Baseball Think Factory article published at the All Star Break last year.

    At the ASB, Mark Ellis’s defense was worth 13.7 runs. Cano was next at 6.6 runs, followed by Asdrubal Cabrera at 1.9 runs. Cano’s defense was really good in the first half.

    Follow that up with this end of season update, and we find Cano at -3.72.

    What happened to him in the second half last year?

    • Joseph Pawlikowski

      That would about debunk my presumption that his bad defense was a result of him taking his offensive woes out to the field with him. In fact, in this case defensive and offensive output for Cano would have been inversely related.

      • Ed

        Looking further, here’s another update.

        As of September 2nd, Cano’s defense was -7.88.

        So from July 16th through September 2nd, Cano’s defense was worth -14.48 runs. For the rest of the season, it was worth 10.76 runs.

        Digging around a little, it looks like he was hit in the hand with a pitch on July 27th. Perhaps the hand injury made his defense atrocious until it healed?

        • MattG

          It is hard to see how a hand injury would effect his range. We need to look for a leg or back injury.

          • Ed

            Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe these stats are tracking balls turned into outs, not just balls fielded cleanly.

            Getting hit in the hand could very easily prevent him from getting a good grip on the ball, resulting in weaker throws and less ground balls turned into outs. Getting hit in the fingers would be especially bad for that.

            • steve (different one)

              you are correct.

            • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

              Very interesting theory.

            • andrew

              Interesting theory, but don’t you think we’d notice if all of a sudden runners were beating out ground calls to Cano that they never beat before? I just say this because the difference between +10 and -14 is enormous, i think we would’ve noticed it if it were as simple as his throws being worse.

              • MattG

                Yes, this is something we wouldn’t help but notice…unless Cano played shallower to compensate, resulting in less range.

                If this were true, there would be a sharp reduction in 6-4-3 double plays during that time span.

                Also, it would have to have been his right hand that was injured. I see no way an injury to his left hand could impact his ZR, ever.

              • Ed

                Actually, I would think the throws would be the least noticeable thing.

                No one has a radar gun on his throws, so we wouldn’t notice if he’s throwing the ball a little slower than he was.

                The TV camera usually can only show either the fielder or the runner, not both, so we usually don’t have a great sense of where the runner is at any given moment in the play. Yeah, we’d know if he wasn’t making the easy plays, but I think it’d be hard to tell on the average play, and near impossible on the hard plays.

                I do think we’d notice if he was having trouble making the initial grip, as that would make it take a lot longer to get the ball out of his glove.

                • MattG

                  But we would notice if the opposing team was getting a lot of infield hits. Even if your listening to the radio, Sterling’s, “Well, they haven’t exactly knocked down the fences” refrain would make you sick.

        • Count Zero

          I would like to see if there’s any correlation between these wild swings and who was the guy next to him on the right side of the infield?


    • radnom

      Barring that hand injury effecting him (was it bad? I can’t even remember it), I think this is your answer.

  • Drew

    I know I’m in the minority but I hate the computer stuff when dealing with baseball. Robbie eats up a lot of grounders to my naked eye. I wonder if the numbers would be any different if he didn’t have that game where I think he had three errors. That said, I understand that the computer stuff is a proven science for the most part.. I just don’t like it.

    • radnom

      That said, I understand that the computer stuff is a proven science for the most part..

      Not at all, especially with defensive numbers. You should always think and try to figure out WHY the numbers might not match up with reality based on how they are calculated. Never take anything at face value without thought; be it things you notice on TV or numbers calculated be an equation.
      In this case though, it is not due to a 3 error game, considering these numbers do not value errors very heavily.

      • Drew

        Oh okay, I don’t really know what they do take into consideration. I just like seeing Robbie eat up them balls to his left. While he’s not O-dog, I’ve always considered Robbie an above average defender.. but I guess the numbers don’t back that up.

    • jsbrendog

      so you dont care what the spreadsheets say….cause you saw it with your own eyes?

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      I wonder if the numbers would be any different if he didn’t have that game where I think he had three errors.

      They wouldn’t. Because that one game with those three plays would be a fairly insignificant blip in the hundreds of defensive chances he handled.

  • Darth Stein

    This got me thinking about Cano and technique. In 2008 and over the off season Cano worked with Kevin Long to improve his hitting mechanics. My understanding is that he had flawed mechanics which he overcame with talent in 2006 and 2007. Now he may have the opportunity to be better at the plate because he is not fighting his mechanics.

    Is it possible that he has a similar situation in the field? The trouble with routine ground balls and the observations of the scout lead me to believe that he does not always make “normal” plays. However, the plays outside of his zone lead me to believe that he is capable of making extraordinary plays. Has Cano been getting by despite poor mechanics due to his talent int he field? So, could Cano work with a defensive specialist to address his fielding mechanics?

  • Drew

    Sorry to get off-topic here but have those two Cuban defectors fallen off the side of the earth?

  • Rafael

    the NY Times just said that Bob Sheppard has retired

    is this a april 1st joke too?

    • jsbrendog

      i hope so. damn.

      • steve (different one)

        he’s 112 years old, i don’t see what would be funny about it not being true…

    • Drew

      I wish… But his health is most important. Hopefully this isn’d an indication of his current situation and more of a precautionary measure to eliminate any stress caused by traveling to the stadium 82 games per year.

    • Joe R

      Didnt Sheppard himself the other day just say he cant wait to announce a game in the new stadium?

      • steve (different one)

        he is a filthy liar just like A-Rod.

  • Rob S.

    I can explain the difference between Cano’s defense in 2007 and 2008 very simply…

    2007-Larry Bowa

    2008-no Larry Bowa

  • Yardisiak

    Can the huge swing in his defensive performance have anything to do with the loss of Chien-Ming Wang? First half and 2008 Wang was there(mostly), 2nd half and 2009 he was absent.

    Coincidence? I would guess is more based on the chances with Wang around and how these metrics are calculated.

    • 27 this year

      yea but Wang had like 17 starts, figure Cano made around six plays a game with Wang in, give a or take a couple, I don’t think that would be a significant factor.

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