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Robinson Cano, fickleness and declining greatness

Checking in on whether the Mariners have 8 more years to pay to a Casey Kotchman clone.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As I sit here in the shiny, switch and button-filled Lookout Landing headquarters I struggle  to think of things that people will find relevant. Fortunately over in the corner I found a shiny red toggle hermetically sealed and labeled "In case of underperforming player on long-term contract break glass!". I did and now this article is taking forever because typing with blood seeping out of your right hand is hard and not advised.

The discussion on what 2015 Robinson Cano has been for the Mariners is an easy and boring one. Robinson Cano has been bad. Of major league 2nd basemen with >200 PA Cano's wRC+ of 76 ranks 20th of 25, right between Yangervis Solarte and Stephen Drew. There is no question he has massively underperformed. It may even be due to the onset of inevitable decline, which comes for us all. You, in fact, are declining as I write this. Have a beer.

The question becomes with these things not what is but what shall be. Are the last 3 months Robinson Cano's true talent level both for the rest of 2015 and, perhaps more crucially at this point, for 2016-18? There things get trickier. Let's start with a comparison:

Player A: 76 wRC+, 5.0 BB%, 16.7 K%, 24.0 LD%, 52.4 GB%, .100 ISO, -0.1 fWAR
Player B: 86 wRC+, 4.1 BB%, 10.3 K%, 19.4 LD%, 47.4 GB%, .139 ISO, 0.0 fWAR

Those are fairly similar players. Both play 2B. One walks a bit less but hits a few more extra base hits. But generally speaking both are trickling down the same channel toward replacement level's waiting torrents.

Player A: 2015 Robinson Cano.
Player B: 2008 Robinson Cano.

The key differences are there of course. In 2008 Cano was a 25 year old cost controlled player ascending into baseball's aristocracy. In 2015 he is a 32 year old aging 2B in the 2nd year of a 10 year, 1/4 billion dollar contract. We know enough about career arcs and the baggage that comes from things like huge free agency contract, showing up to press conferences with Jay Z, and being the biggest outside acquisition in franchise history to know that expecting people to stay rational during a slump is blindly naive. People complain when you fail. When you get paid to be the guy they complain more. I get it. I imagine Cano does as well.

Beyond the differences in career points however is the fact that 2008 Robinson Cano was that bad for an entire season. 600 bad plate appearances in 2008 did not keep Cano from posting 5+ WAR in 5 of the next 6 seasons. It seems premature to assume that 300 bad PA from Cano in 2015 means instant and irreversible decline.

So 2015's performance to date doesn't doom the Mariners to paying 200 million dollars for the next 8 years to a bad offensive player. The onus lies on Cano now to make good on that and prove his true talent is much more the 5.1 fWAR player he was just 9 months ago than the sub replacement-player he has been in 2015. The good news is there are signs that he's doing that. Consider this chart from Baseball Savant, a good website you should frequent. Or don't. That way I look smarter when I use fancy graphs in my writing.

Cano Exit Velocity

Unpacking this we see a few things. One is even with weekly data points and despite what has felt like an unending, miserable slog we are still just dealing with a small sample size. There are only 12 points on that graph. Secondly and the one I want to focus on is that for about a month (5/25 on the graph) Robinson Cano has been back smacking the poop out of the baseball. This improvement is reflective in his results-based numbers as well.

Since the 2 day lay off on June 7-8 Cano is batting .276/.306/.448.

Over the past week it's .348/.360/.565.

Of course baseball players are not computers that simply find malware and viruses, eradicate and proceed onward with 100% efficiency. True talent is neither ceiling nor floor and it would be dishonest and foolish to assume Cano is going to go on and provide the Mariners with 6 more All-Star caliber seasons as he did post-2008. But even if the rest of this year is bad it would probably still be too early to point and say "Boom. That is a bad, aged baseball player who's time has passed. The Mariners are dumb for signing him."

Baseball players are fickle. 2008 Robinson Cano happens. Prince Fielder has reversed a 3 year stretch of offensive decline to be one of baseball's best hitters. Albert Pujols has a wRC+ of 153. Between his 25-26 year old season Pat Burrell's SLG% dropped 140 points, then shot back up over .500 two years later.

Baseball players are volatile stocks. In an ideal world teams would invest in safe assets with predictable, high-yield returns. Unfortunately Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout clones are not readily available for purchase. Robinson Cano has been bad this year; that cannot be refuted. But a rainy weekend in July doesn't ruin a summer, and it doesn't mean more rain is on the way. Now let's get some sun.