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In Rob We Trust

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The Mariners’ second baseman is walking more and hitting the ball harder, encouraging signs for the 35-year-old

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

During the summer of 2013, Jay-Z released his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. Rap fans may remember that summer for giving us new music from Kanye West, Mac Miller, and Wale, in addition to Jay-Z’s project. Baseball fans may remember it for being Robinson Cano’s last in Yankee pinstripes. But for those in the middle of baseball and rap’s Venn diagram, that summer produced a lyric that seemed specifically catered to our interests.

“Scott Boras, you over baby. Robinson Canó you coming with me!”

Those 11 words, off the song “Crown”, signified a rare crossover moment in MLB and rap history. Sure, legends of the game like Barry Bonds and Derek Jeter had earned several shoutouts over the years, but this one was so specific. Not only was Jay acknowledging Robinson Canó, who doesn’t have the type of mainstream fame that attracts casual baseball fans, he also directly called out his agent.

Just months before dropping the album, Jay-Z signed Canó to be the first athlete client of Roc Nation. In doing so, he not only brought baseball some street cred, he also dunked all over the sport’s biggest and brashest agent. This is like the sports agent version of snatching someone’s chain, and Jay immortalized it in a song.

In December of 2013, Canó signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. How much of that process Jay-Z was actually involved in remains hazy, but three things were abundantly clear.

1. Robinson Canó had just become a very, very rich man

2. By going out of his way to sign him, Jay-Z must have thought Robinson Canó was pretty cool

3. He was going to enjoy his riches in Seattle, and play second base for the Mariners

The sheer amount of years and dollars on that deal provided rightful points of contention for Mariner fans. Robbie was coming off his age-30 season, which, while productive, was still an age-30 season. Regression and disappointment seemed inevitable. While armchair GM’s across the Pacific Northwest hooted and hollered about the value of depreciating assets, many failed to address one thing.

The downtrodden Seattle Mariners had acquired a bona fide superstar.

It’s important to step outside of our fandom every once in a while to take stock of the Mariners at-large. To many outsiders, the M’s are that team that once had Griffey, and A-Rod, and Ichiro. The past tense is the most important part of that sentence. By bringing in Canó the Mariners were at least making an effort to compete with the giants of free agency, while also snagging a big name for the oft-forgotten franchise to market.

Four years and nearly 2,800 plate appearances since his first game at Safeco, the Mariners’ biggest acquisition of this decade is still reminding us why Jay-Z thought he was so dang cool.

Apart from his on-field production, the gravity of Canó is also somewhat responsible for Nelson Cruz’s presence in Seattle. After inking his four-year deal in 2014, Cruz said of him and Canó, “We’ve been pretty close. He’s also one of the reasons why I’m here. I think he was pulling for me the whole time. I was pulling for this right here, to be part of this.”

Imagine someone saying that about the Mariners in 2011 or 2012. You can’t, because nobody would have said that. With one stroke of his pen, Canó made Seattle at least somewhat of a sexy destination. Fast forward to April 2018, and “part of this” refers to an exciting baseball team still missing two members of its starting nine. That reason for Cruz being here is also enjoying quite a start to the season, with some peripheral numbers indicating sustained success.

Let’s start with the counting stats, though. Through the first 15 games of each of the last five seasons, here’s how Robbie has fared.

2014: .271/.333/.356, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 7 K/6 BB

2015: .290/.323/.452, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 10 K/3 BB

2016: .246/.313/.590, 6 HR, 14 RBI, 9 K/6 BB

2017: .220/.292/.390, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 6 K/6 BB

2018: .333/.484/.479, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 11 K/12 BB

Sure, his power numbers this year leave a little to be desired, but his slugging percentage has historically ticked up in June. The reasons for excitement come from the nitty gritty stuff. It’s easy to cry small sample size for an on-base percentage that astronomically high. It’s also easy to concede that his .417 BABIP and 179 wRC+ are due for steep drops.

Things like exit velocities and walk rates tell a different story though. Those figures tell the story of a hitter who has refined his approach in the first month of 2018. Canó has added things to make his game more well-rounded, like a restaurant amending its menu to appease the new neighborhood crowd.

Here’s how the All-Star second baseman’s hard-hit rate, opposite field percentage, walk rate, and O-swing percentage (percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) compare to his first years in Seattle.

Robinson Canó

Year Hard-Hit % Oppo % BB % O-Swing %
Year Hard-Hit % Oppo % BB % O-Swing %
2014 28.5 28.7 9.2 35.6
2015 32.4 22.6 6.4 32.4
2016 35.5 25.9 6.6 37.3
2017 36.9 24.9 7.6 34.9
2018 40.5 27 19.4 24.3
Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Any hitter will benefit from hitting the ball harder in more directions and practicing better plate discipline. This is especially true for a middle-of-the-order guy playing in a shift-happy era. It’s obviously very early in the season (less than 10 percent of the way through), but I’d rather be sitting here discussing encouraging numbers than trying to convince you that a set of troubling numbers will start to trend upward. Speaking of which….

I do not love his 54.1% ground ball rate or the fact that he’s striking out in 17.7 percent of his plate appearances. That ground ball rate has increased steadily every year since 2016, his last season with a slugging percentage north of .500. Two years of data make it something worth monitoring, but again, 2018 is in its infancy. I have faith that a hitter of Canó’s caliber not only understands the concept of hitting the ball in the air, but also how to go about doing that in games.

With Nelson Cruz back in the lineup, Canó should see a healthy diet of pitches to hit. More pitches in the zone could mean less walks and more strikeouts, or it could also mean more RBI chances so long as Dee Gordon and Jean Segura keep inhabiting the base paths.

Photo courtesy Yahoo Sports/Twitter

None of us love ten-year contracts for middle-infielders on the wrong side of 30. But all of us should love Robinson Canó. A massive part of the current team structure can be traced back to him. Whether it was recruiting Cruz, allowing for the Gordon in centerfield idea to take flight, or the front office trading for a proven double play partner, the seeds of Canó have allowed the Mariners to blossom. To hate on Canó is to pick the tiniest of nits, especially considering the M’s track record in picking up free agent hitters before him.

If Robbie picked up any advice from Jay-Z, I hope it’s this:

Either love me or leave me alone.