What Went As Expected: Robinson Cano

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After spending the first four-plus years of his career as a strong complementary player, Robinson Cano turned into a legitimate star in 2010. The Yankees installed him as their fifth place hitter and watched him respond with an MVP-caliber campaign. At 27 years old, Cano was just entering his prime and figured to be a mainstay in the heart of the order for years to come. He did nothing to change that outlook in 2011. Let’s review his season by dividing it into three unequal parts.

The Hot Start

Much like last season, Robinson came out of the gate like a madman, hitting four doubles and two homers in the first nine games of the new year. More doubles and homers followed over the next few weeks, and Cano ended the month of April with eight homers and a .320/.340/.639 batting line. His plate discipline had taken a step back, but it was still early in the season and there wasn’t enough of a sample to worry just yet.

The Slump

After hitting two homers against the Blue Jays on April 29th, Cano fell into a deep and somewhat prolonged slump. He had just two singles in his next four games, and just seven hits (one triple, one homer) in the nine games that followed that. His strikeout rate started the climb a bit, but the most noticeable difference between the slumping Cano and the hitter we saw in 2010 was the utter lack of discipline. Robbie was chasing pitches in the dirt, pitches over his head, and generally just swinging at everything. There were times he would just give away at-bats by chasing pitcher’s pitches early in the count.

Following that two homer game against the Jays, Robbie hit just .241/.301/.398 in his next 146 plate appearances, dragging his season line down to a still solid but very un-Cano-like .273/.314/.502. He drew just seven unintentional walks in his first 249 plate appearances of the season, a ghastly 2.8% walk rate. If it wasn’t for six hit-by-pitches, Robbie’s OBP would have been a much more unsightly .289. Thankfully, the slump came to an end in early-June.

The Crazy Finish

Cano woke up with a three-hit game against the Indians on June 10th. They were three singles, but it was just his second three-hit game and eighth multi-hit game since mid-April. Robinson had multiple hits in seven of his next eleven games, including three doubles and two homers. He just didn’t stop hitting after that; putting up a .319/.370/.551 batting line in his final 432 plate appearances of the season, a performance that looks a whole lot like the .319/.381/.534 he hit during his breakout 2010. With 20 unintentional walks, Cano beefed up his walk rate to 4.7% down the stretch. Still subpar, but at least it was in line with his career average (4.6%).

One year after being installed as the five-hole hitter, Joe Girardi moved Robinson up to the third spot in the order just before the season ended. Cano carried that stellar finish into the postseason, whacking two homers (including a grand slam) and two doubles in the five games against the Tigers. He reached base a total of nine times in the series (once on an intentional walk), and drove in nine of the team’s 28 runs.

* * *

For the second straight year, Cano was the Yankees’ best middle of the lineup force. His 81 extra-base hits (46 doubles, seven triples, 28 homers) where the second most in the game (two behind Jacoby Ellsbury) and the second most by a middle infielder in franchise history (Alfonso Soriano had 92 in 2002). Although his .375 wOBA was down a bit from last year (.389), it was still the second best among second baseman (Dustin Pedroia was just ahead of him at .377) and his third straight year over .370.

At 4.6 bWAR and 5.6 fWAR, it was the third straight year and fourth time in five years that Cano ranked among the league’s elite at his position. Unlike 2010 though, Robinson’s 2011 production was no surprise. We expected him to be this great.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 17th, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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Sunday Night Open Thread

Raise some hell, Prince. (Matt Slocum / AP)

The Rangers clinched their second straight trip to the World Series with a blowout win last night, and the Cardinals have a chance to claim their third NL pennant in the last eight years with a win tonight. Shaun Marcum, who hasn’t made it out of the fifth inning in any of his last three starts (two in the playoffs, one in the regular season), is charged with saving the Brewers season. He’s allowed fewer than five runs in exactly one of his last six starts. So yeah, the odds are stacked against my adopted Brew Crew.

Anywho, here is tonight’s open thread. Like I said, the Cards have a chance to advance to the World Series with a win tonight (8pm ET on TBS, Marcum vs. Edwin Jackson), and the late football game is the awful Vikings at the slightly less awful Bears (8:20pm on NBC). And hey, there’s also the Walking Dead season premiere at 9pm (on AMC), so hooray for that. Talk about whatever you like here, anything goes.

Mailbag: Gardner and the Nationals

Aaron asks: There’s been some talk in Bill Ladson’s latest mailbag that the Nationals could make a run at trying to acquire Brett Gardner. I don’t see the Yankees being interested in dealing him, but if they were, who could they look to acquire from Washington?

The Nationals have been looking for a long-term solution in the leadoff spot and in center field pretty much all season, which is why they were connected to guys like Denard Span and B.J. Upton at the trade deadline. Gardner fits both criteria and on paper he’s a perfect fit for Washington, but the question is do they have the pitching to get the Yankees interested?

Just to get this out of the way, we can forget all about Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. That’s not going to happen unless the Yankees really sweeten the pot. It would be a backwards move if the Yankees traded a starting center fielder with three years of team control left for a reliever or two, so forget about that as well. Their bullpen isn’t exactly a problem. Looking at Washington’s 40-man roster, there’s only two names that make any kind of sense for New York: John Lannan and Ross Detwiler.

Although both are reasonably the same age (Lannan just turned 27, Detwiler turns 26 in March) and are left-handed, the two are pretty different. Lannan is a classic ground ball/finesse southpaw, sitting right around 89 with his two- and four-seamers while mixing in a curve, a changeup, and a slider. His ground ball rates have consistently been above 51% (54.1% this year) and his strikeout rates have been consistently below 6.0 K/9 (5.2 this year) in his career. He’s good but not great at limiting walks (3.7 BB/9 this year, 3.4 career), and right-handers hit him hard both this year and last, though his career split is even.

Detwiler, the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, is much more interesting. His big league exposure is limited (172.1 IP across four seasons), in part because he underwent hip labrum surgery last year. Detwiler’s a tall and lanky drink of water (listed at 6-foot-5 and 185 lbs.), and he lives and dies with a two-seam fastball that averaged 92 mph this past season. He also throws a changeup and a curveball. His peripheral stats (career 5.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, and 43.3% grounders) are very similar to Lannan’s with the exception of the ground ball rate, but I think there’s a little more upside here because he throws harder and is getting further away from surgery. Maybe I’m just blinded by the high draft pick thing, though.

Lannan is a Super Two and is arbitration-eligible for the second time this year, so his team controls his rights for another three years like Gardner. Detwiler is still in his pre-arbitration years and is under team control for another four years by my unofficial count. Both guys are back-end starters in the NL right now, so I can’t imagine them being any better in the AL East. Larry Rothschild has a reputation of improving his pitchers’ strikeout abilities, but you can’t count on that. The Yankees need pitching, but I can’t imagine they’re desperate enough to trade Gardner, a valuable but still flawed player, for one of Lannan or Detwiler. A 2-for-1 deal would be a bit more interesting, but I still wouldn’t pull the trigger.

Checking in on Brandon Weeden

Anyone out there remember Brandon Weeden? The Yankees made him their top draft pick in 2002, a second round pick they received from the Cardinals as compensation for the loss of Tino Martinez. His career in the Yankees organization lasted 60.2 IP and a little more than a year; he was traded to Dodgers as part of the package for Kevin Brown after the 2003 season. Injuries and ineffectiveness set in, and Weeden’s baseball career was over after 2006. That’s when he went back to college, and walked on at Oklahoma State and is now the Cowboys starting quarterback.

Tom Spousta of The NY Times checked in with the former Yankees farmhand, who is in the running for the Heisman Trophy this year, at age 28. “The opportunity was too good, and baseball was always my thing,” said Weeden, who said he grew up a Yankees fan in Oklahoma. “The day I signed the contract, I remember thinking, if this doesn’t work out, then I’ve always got college football. My goal was to make it to the big leagues the entire time, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.”

Saturday Night Open Thread

CC gonna do the other arm up once he inks his new deal?

It’s a little chilly out, but it’s an otherwise glorious evening here in New York. Hopefully you’re outside enjoying it, but if not, use this open thread to talk about anything your heart desires. The Rangers have a chance to clinch their second consecutive AL pennant with a win over the Tigers starting at 8pm ET on FOX (Holland vs. Scherzer). The Rangers are playing the Islanders, and the Devils are also in action. Anything goes, so have at it.