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Greatness Personified

Let's celebrate Robinson Cano Day by realizing just how good Cano has been.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There are a couple things to celebrate today. For one, I finished my final college exam yesterday, which is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. But, more importantly to you, dear reader, is that Robinson Cano is once again playing like the MVP candidate that we all thought we were getting.

It's no secret that Cano's 10-year deal will likely be at least a couple years too long for M's fans, much less the Mariners front office, since they're the ones actually paying him $24 million to presumably tell rookies about the good ol' days as a 40-year-old designated hitter in 2023. That's what it took to get him, however, and the idea was that he'd excel for the first few years. That was the window.

And finally, it seems like this team is taking advantage of that window - with a bit of help from Mr. Cano himself.

Let's look at some of the changes from last year's iteration. Below are Cano's whiff rates, with the 2015 season on the left and the 2016 season on the right.

The difference is pretty clear. Look at the bottom of the strike zone - he's at least a percentage point lower across the board. Check out the top middle of the zone - where he missed 8 of the 74 pitches he saw there and swung at a year ago, he's whiffed on zero of his 19 swings this year. He's not missing above the zone, either, with a couple exceptions due to pretty small sample sizes.

The next difference is in how he's hitting the ball. For years, Cano has been very consistent, with his line drive rate fluctuating between 19.3% and a high of 26.0% over the last decade. He's hovered at right about 30% fly balls and just under 50% ground balls. That is, until this year came around.

Only 18.2% of Robbie Baseball's balls in play are line drives this season. His ground ball rate, which spiked after he joined the Mariners and caused much consternation amid his bad start to 2015, is down to a career-low 41.3%. And his fly ball rate is a whopping 40.5%.

For context, not only is that 15 percentage points higher than his rate a year ago, he ranked 125th of 141 qualified hitters in 2015 in fly ball rate; he's now 61st out of 194.

What does this mean? First, let's just watch one of his homers because we can.

Okay, ready? Here goes: Cano is hitting a lot of homers because he's hitting more fly balls and, probably, possibly, getting lucky with those. His HR/fly ball rate is up to a career-best 24.5%, which is a lot higher than his career 14.2% rate.

His exit velocity isn't markedly higher from last season, so it doesn't seem like he's gotten way stronger than a year ago. Rather, the answer is probably a couple things:

  • Cano is trying to hit more fly balls, and as a result, is hitting a lot of dingers - and without much of a corresponding drop in contact. Good!
  • Cano is getting some indeterminate amount of luck and some of those homers will turn into doubles. Not good! But really, all things considered, not that bad.

And on that note, how much of Cano's production will stick around? We've got some conflicting signs on this one. The good news is that Cano is playing the hero with a batting average on balls in play of just .284, well below the league average of .300 and his career mark of .322. I'd be surprised if that BABIP stays that low all season, though part of it is due to Cano's power surge turning hits that could have been doubles into homers.

The bad news is that Cano is 33. 33-year-olds don't tend to be playing their best baseball, and many are quickly approaching a cliff. Albert Pujols stopped being ALBERT PUJOLS! when he was 33.

Yet Cano is a transcendent talent, a once-in-a-generation second baseman with the ability to remake his game. He could well stay near the top of the league and age like George Brett, who was a force to be reckoned with through his age-37 season.

Just how elite is Cano? I'll leave you with this. There are three players in MLB history who have posted an OPS+ of 150 or higher at age 33 or older while playing second base (minimum 450 PAs). One of them is Rogers Hornsby, who won an MVP with the Cubs in 1929 at 33. One of them is Nap Lajoie, who remained elite through his age-38 season, albeit in a very different time (1913). And the final player is Robbie Alomar, who messed around and got a triple-double hit .336/.415/.541 in 2001.

Robinson Cano, as it stands, has an OPS+ of 168, which would make him (over a full season) the fourth member of this club. And if he can keep that up, he's poised to, some day, join another club that Hornsby, Lajoie, and Alomar all belong to: the Hall of Fame.

We're witnessing greatness personified right now, folks. Just like King Felix has reworked his game, so too has Robbie Baseball. Let's enjoy it while we can.

Go M's.