Before he digs into the batter’s box for the first time, Robinson Cano playfully taps the opposing catcher’s shin guards with his bat. He then starts to settle in, adjusting his uniform and waving his bat in front of him like a pendulum. Then, as the pitcher readies, Cano gets into his stance, slightly open. The bat waggling behind his head seemingly dictates the movement of the rest of his body. It’s as if he and the bat are one, rocking back and forth in unison, waiting for the perfect moment to turn loose and strike the pitched ball.
If the ball is near the strike zone, I expect Robbie to swing. He’s never been known as a disciplined hitter — he’s been in the bottom five in the AL in pitches per plate appearances four out of five seasons, and in the other, 2007, he was in the bottom 10. Yet even though I understand the virtue of seeing more pitches, I want Robbie to swing. Not at a pitch in the dirt or at his eyes, of course, but if it’s reasonably close to the zone I think swinging is probably the proper decision. (Cano, for his part, made contact with 77.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2009, and 75.3 percent in 2008.)
This season, I noticed many times that Cano would stand and passively watch the first pitch go by, no matter its type or location. Unfortunately, a statistic does not exist which can quantify this situation. All we have is the number of times he swung at the first pitch, 230 out of his 674 plate appearances, or 34 percent overall. That is actually up from 2008, when he swung at the first pitch 32 percent of the time. In previous years, Cano swung at the first pitch more often. But while we know that Cano swings at the first pitch often enough, we don’t know how many of those first pitch situations he’s eschewing because of this passive tactic.
Presumably, this is to help correct for his poor discipline. Again, Cano routinely sees among the fewest pitches per plate appearance in the league, so the idea might be that if he takes the first pitch, he might get a better read on the pitcher. I’m not sure if this first-pitch passive approach is an instruction from Kevin Long, or an initiative of Cano’s own undertaking. What I do know is that while that tactic can sometimes lead to a 1-0 count, oftentimes Cano watches a perfectly good pitch go right by, a pitch that he can put in play. That’s Cano’s strength, putting balls in play, and I don’t like seeing him take good pitches — or even close pitches — without even thinking about swinging.
Just how good is Cano when he swings at the first pitch? He did it 118 times in 2009, and he picked up 51 hits, good for a .432 batting average. Of those 51 hits, seven were home runs, 11 were doubles, and one was a triple, for a .720 slugging percentage. He also picked up 21 of his 85 RBI by first-pitch swinging. Though his 2009 performance on the first pitch probably isn’t repeatable, Cano has fared well throughout his career in that situation, posting a .374 batting average and .578 slugging percentage over 544 plate appearances.
Hitters who see a lot of pitches provide value to the team. Nick Swisher makes fewer outs than other players because he’s willing to wait for the pitch he wants. If the pitcher doesn’t give him something he can hit, he’ll take his walk (or, as the case may be, he’ll strike out looking). The Yankees have always coveted patience at the plate, and it seems like they sometimes go out of their way to acquire this type of player. It stands in contrast to Cano, a free swinger. Even as he watched balls pass by, having no intention of swinging, he still ranked fourth to last in the AL in pitches per plate appearance in 2009.
Cano saw an 0-1 count 303 times in 2009. We might not learn from his numbers in that situation, because we don’t know how he got the strike. It could have been a passive look, an active look, a foul ball, or a swing and miss (though that only happened about 230 times all season). In any case, he hit .288/.294/.482 over 303 plate appearances. That’s pretty close to his career mark of .285/.299/.422 over 1,334 plate appearances. He is much better with a 1-0 count, .305/.383/.464 over 253 PA in 2009 and .298/.368/.476 over 1,158 PA in his career. Still, not as good as his first pitch numbers.
This is not to say that Cano should swing at every first pitch. That would be preposterous. It is to say that he’s not doing himself any favors by passively resting the bat on his shoulders. Maybe I’m falling victim to an observation bias and he doesn’t do this nearly as frequently as I think. I wish I had a way to measure it, other than watching the archive of all his 674 plate appearances. But that would just annoy me. That’s why I wrote this post, really. Because Robinson Cano annoys me when he nonchalantly watches a good pitch go by.