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The one big red flag with Robinson Cano's slow start

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This hopefully isn't the beginning of Robinson Cano's serious decline, but it might be what it'd look like.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I don't believe this is the beginning of the end for Robinson Cano. I don't, because I can't. Cano, tabbed to be a cornerstone of the franchise for a decade, will be paid $24 million from now until I'm an age I'd rather not calculate—and the idea of this going to hell after just a year is something I'm going to mentally block out as much as I can.

I mean, come on, it's Robbie Cano. All you have to do is look at the back of his baseball card to know he's going to be alright. That's what everyone says, from commentators to Jack Zduriencik and on down to manager Lloyd McClendon. After Sunday's win over the Red Sox—in which Cano went 0-for-4—Lloyd added to this popular refrain by saying "I'm not overly concerned because he's not striking out a lot."

Cano fanned twice in the game, and the 16.9 percent clip he's striking out this year would represent the highest mark of his career. If you're concerned, you have reason to be.

The source of Cano's strikeout woes go back to something we've discussed previously on this publication, his plate discipline statistics—though previously, it was in a positive light.

In that article, I noted Cano's propensity to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. It's actually something of a dirty secret for a player who, with a good eye and keen approach, has long been viewed as one of the better pure hitters in the game. From 2012-2014, he actually ranks in the top 50 in baseball (41st) at chasing pitches outside the zone.

This year, he's actually down a tick from where he was last year—and he's still the worst on the team. Yes, behind Mike Zunino.

If you couldn't already surmise, this isn't the problem. He's done this for a while, as he hasn't swung at less than 30 percent of pitches outside the zone since his rookie year. So if it's not that, what is it?

It isn't swinging at bad pitches, but swinging at bad pitches and missing.

Here's a look at Cano's contact rate over his career on all pitches (Contact-%), strikes (Z-Contact%) and balls (O-Contact%). You can see the issue.

CanoContact

As you can see, all three groups have dipped dramatically in 2015—but none more-so than the contact rate on pitches outside the zone, which has slid from 77.4 percent in 2014 (27th in baseball) to 68 percent (80th). When you think about this particular stat, and why it could be noteworthy—it should be obvious.

It isn't necessarily about about getting hits or putting the ball in play on bad pitches (though Cano has shown the propensity to do that), it's the ability that, if you're going to chase, you can at least spoil the pitch. Cano's been getting an extra chance—and giving the pitcher an extra chance to make a mistake—when most hitters wouldn't.

Why is this stat particularly interesting in the context of an aging player, the 'red flag' alluded to in the title? Because, as we mentioned in a post on Victor Martinez last fall, trends in O-Contact%—when combined with other skills—could be something of a bellwether for decline or late-career success. In that post, I included this chart, which was initially put together by Bill Petti on Fangraphs using data from 2007 through 2012. I honestly don't know how to compile such data, so I include it again:

BillPetiChart

As you can see, decline in O-Contact% is enormous.

For some anecdotes on the impact of the trend, Victor Martinez—once among the very best in the game at not whiffing at balls— has seen his O-Contact% rate slip 16 percentage points here in 2015. His wRC+ is down to 57—one hundred and nine points below where he was in 2014.

On the other side, Nelson Cruz is currently enjoying the highest O-Contact% of his career—and we're all enjoying the results.

In hypothesizing on why O-Contact% could be tied so closely to potential decline, Petti had this to say in his article on Fangraphs:

Hitters generally increase their contact rates through age 29. After that, contact begins to decrease, driven lower by the drastic decline of contact outside the zone. This coincides with the rise in swinging strikes, which also beings to ascend around age 29. This likely reflects the general aging of a hitter’s skills: Slower bat speeds force players to cheat more on fastballs, which leaves them more vulnerable to pitches outside of the zone.

It's hard to say with any level of certainty whether or not Cano's bad speed has slowed, or if he's cheating on the fastball—but we can see ourselves he's still capable of hitting the ball hard. Obviously there's more going on here than balls finding gloves, but that is playing a role.

McClendon and the Mariners have noticed, too, as the skipper also said Sunday that "statistically, you look at the numbers, and our analytical department breaks it down—Robbie Cano is one of the unluckiest hitters in Major League Baseball. He's really hit a lot of balls extremely hard that have been caught."

He's not wrong.

In checking the StatCast data available on Baseball Savant, Cano is actually tied for the league lead in balls hit more than 100mph, with 38. The problem is, for hitters who have hit at least 25 of them, Cano's .486 average on such balls is fifth-worst. Logan Morrison is actually dead last on this list, though it isn't impossible to have bad luck on such balls and still be productive—as Hanley Ramirez has a 120 wRC+ to go with his .447 average on balls hit more than 100mph.

Cano's average bat-on-ball velocity tells a slightly different story, as his 90.07mph is seventh on the team and 64th in baseball. But again, you can have plenty of success there, as he's actually a notch above fellow second baseman Brian Dozier (129 wRC+) and tied exactly with one Bryce Harper—the best hitter in the game right now.

Thing is, Harper also leads baseball in walk rate. And this serves as something of a lesson for Cano.

Again, there's more going on here than just bad luck—as the amount you put the ball in play matters a lot, and Cano's doing less of that than he ever has.

If things are going to turn around, there are a few options. He could just go back to being better at making contact on pitches outside the zone—which is not impossible, as he improved slightly over time last year. Or, he could do something he's never done in his career, and be more selective. Fortunately, based on Petti's research, this is something hitters generally improve on a bit with age.

Whatever it is, something has to change. The current mix, it isn't working—and it's attributable to more than just bad luck.