Robinson Cano isn’t done yet

The ill-fated trade that brought Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to Queens has been much maligned, as much for Diaz’s disastrous first year as Mets closer as for its cost, including uber-prospect Jared Kelenic. Much ink has been spilled on Diaz’s future rebound prospects already. Today, let’s take a look at the offer half of that trade.

Robinson Cano is arguably the greatest offensive second baseman of all time. In fact, it’s easy to forget just how good he was as recently as 2018: .303/.374/.471, a 135 wRC+, and his ninth consecutive season of 2 fWAR or more. In fact, Cano, in his career, has basically done nothing but hit. Across 2,185 games between the Yankees, Mariners, and now Mets, Cano has hit .302/.352/.490, for a 125 wRC+ and 324 home runs. For comparison’s sake, Chase Utley hit .275/.358/.465 (118 wRC+) across 1,937 games, Jeff Kent hit .290/.356/.500 (123 wRC+ and 377 home runs) across 2,298 games, and Joe Morgan hit .271/.392/.427 (135 wRC+) across 2,649 games, and Roberto Alomar hit .300/.371/.443 (118 wRC+) across 2,379 games. Cano compares favorably with every one of them.

That’s why it was, on the surface, so baffling that Robinson Cano in 2019 seemingly forgot how to hit. Cano’s .256/.307/.428 triple-slash and 93 wRC+ were all easily his worst marks since 2008. Of course, his 2018 with Seattle was shortened by a PED suspension, and 2019 was his age-36 season, so it was easy to conclude that his struggles in 2019 were a combination of the loss of those PEDs and age-related decline.

The numbers, however, don’t agree. Let’s look at some Statcast data.

For his career, Robby Cano averaged an exit velocity of 90.8 miles per hour. In 2019, his exit velocity was…90.8 miles per hour (47th in MLB). For his career, Cano’s hard-hit rate is 45.2%. In 2019, it was…46%. For his career, Cano’s barrel rate is 7.3%. In 2019, his barrel rate was…7.4%. His career fly ball rate of 18.4% nearly matches his 2019 rate of 18.2%. His career line drive rate is exactly the same as his 2019 rate: 27.5%. Yes, there were a few small deviations; Cano’s swing rate (50.8% vs. 53.4%) and whiff rate (18.3% vs. 19.6%) were slightly above his career norms. But by and large, Cano in 2019 was the same Robby Cano, hitting machine he’s always been: and Statcast’s .280 xBA, .450 xSLG, and .366 xwOBACON look a lot more Cano-like than his real-life triple-slash.

At the same time, though, even Statcast doesn’t think Cano was simply unlucky. Here’s his xwOBA by season, and the story it tells is…ungood.

So what happened? One theory could be that for the first time in his career, Cano saw opposing teams shift on him regularly – 26.7% of the time, more than twice his 2018 figure and easily a career high. However, Cano went to the opposite field as well as he ever had in 2019 (27.5% of the time), and perhaps as a result actually had a higher wOBA with the shift on (.327 vs. .302).

Maybe this chart will help.

Cano has never been a patient hitter. What he’s always had, however, are elite bat-to-ball skills. As we can see, over the past few years, that skill has begun to degrade on pitches outside the strike zone – but on a certain kind of pitch in particular:

In other words, Cano was chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone – and missing. That might be age-related decline, or a slump. But what was most interesting is what happened over the course of 2019. No, Cano never did start hitting those breaking pitches out of the zone again; he kept whiffing when he swung at them through the whole season. So instead, he just stopped swinging at them in the second half.

At the same time, he started swinging at more strikes instead.

Oh, and he wasn’t missing those.

In the second half of 2019, Cano very quietly hit .284/.339/.541 (126 wRC+) – right in line with his Seattle numbers. But he did it as a very different hitter. His pull rate spiked to 40.3% from 31.3% in the first half; his ground ball rate plummeted and he elevated the ball more. In other words, it looks a lot like he was doing what the brilliant Tony Blengino used to call “harvesting”: now, past his prime, pulling the ball in the air on purpose.

The thing is, that’s probably a good strategy. Cano might not have the elite bat-to-ball ability he once did, but even in 2019, when he struck out more than he ever had, his K% was only 16.3%. Intriguingly, as Cano laid off those pitches out of the zone and started focusing more on pitches in the zone over the course of the season, his K% actually decreased. Cano, the pull power hitter, was still able to get the bat on the ball – and hit it hard when he did.

So what is 2020 Robinson Cano? I’d argue that he’s probably fairly similar to the 2019 second-half version, who at least in results was awfully close to his Seattle version. There’s really nothing in the numbers which suggests Cano is done, or even close to it – and an awful lot that says otherwise. Now, harvesting can be a dangerous strategy, especially if Cano starts to precipitously lose bat speed. But at the same time, he had no problems getting around on fastballs or breaking balls in the zone in 2019.

A return to the .300/.350/.500 triple-slash lines of yore is probably unlikely, if for no other reason than Cano simply doesn’t have the contact ability to do that anymore. But Cano was still a hugely productive player in 2017 when he hit .280/.338/.453 for Seattle en route to a 3-fWAR season, and that looks an awful lot like his second-half numbers from 2019. That may not be worth Jared Kelenic, but it would look awfully good to the 2020 Mets.

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