A Bad Break for Cano and the Mariners

The Mariners own the longest postseason drought among major North American professional sports teams, and their chances of breaking that streak, which began in 2002, only got longer on Sunday. Robinson Cano was hit on the right hand by a pitch from the Tigers’ Blaine Hardy and suffered a broken metacarpal. While the full prognosis won’t be known until he sees a hand specialist on Tuesday in Philadelphia, the team will be lucky if he’s back before the All-Star break.

“They didn’t say anything about how long I might be out, but it is broken bad, so there might be surgery,” Cano told reporters after Sunday’s game.

Though they had merely been alternating wins and losses over the course of their past 11 games, the Mariners entered Sunday with a 22-16 record, matching their best start since 2004, and just 1.5 games behind the Angels in the race for the second AL Wild Card spot; with Seattle’s loss to Detroit and Anaheim’s win over Minnesota, the gap is now 2.5 games. Their Playoff Odds were at 13.9% entering Sunday. Without Cano for the foreseeable future, however, they’re down to TK.

The 35-year-old Cano has been the Mariners’ top position player thus far in terms of WAR (1.4) and second best in terms of wRC+ (128, on a .287/.385/.441 line) behind hot-starting Mitch Haniger. He’s been a remarkably durable player, averaging 159 games per year from 2007 to -17, visiting the disabled list only for hamstring strains in 2006 and 2017; he still played 150 game last year. That day-in, day-out durability has helped him rack up 2,417 career hits and 305 homers. Yes, he’ll be a Hall of Famer some day. He’s already seventh in JAWS among second basemen.)

Cano’s loss is a shame, first and foremost, for what it means to his team, but secondarily because he’s in the midst of a couple is-this-for-real trends about which we won’t get satisfactory answers for months. Inquiring minds want to know now!

First, Cano, who has generally been something of a bad-ball hitter, has been far more selective this year than ever before, laying off considerably more pitches both inside and outside the zone:

Robinson Cano Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2018 29.9% 65.4% 44.4% 60.4% 91.1% 78.9% 40.9% 9.3%
Career 34.0% 72.2% 51.3% 72.7% 93.4% 85.9% 45.2% 7.1%

Only in Cano’s somewhat abbreviated 2005 rookie season did he swing at fewer pitches outside the zone (25.7%), but he’s never swung at fewer pitches in the zone, or made contact with less frequency outside the zone. His swinging-strike rate is actually at a career high, up from 8.6% last year, and while his strikeout rate is up a bit (from 13.1% to 13.6%), he’s had higher rates both as a Yankee and as a Mariner. What he’s never done before is walk 12.4% of his plate appearances, which is nearly double his career rate (6.6%) and well above last year (7.6%) and his career high (9.5%, set in 2013).

Often a spike in walk rate from an older player is a sign that he’s compensating for a bat that’s slowed down, but if that’s what’s happening with Cano, he’s got a funny way of showing it. Yes, his .154 isolated power is his lowest mark since 2014, his first year in Seattle, but prior to getting injured, he had raised his slugging percentage 33 points over his previous three games by collecting extra-base hits in each one, including a three-run homer off Michael Fulmer on Saturday, just his fourth of the year. Checking out what Statcast has to say:

Cano via Statcast
Year Avg Exit Velo xwOBA Avg Launch Angle 95+ Launch Angle
2016 90.1 .358 11.6 9.6
2017 90.3 .369 7.4 9.2
2018 94.0 .416 9.6 6.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Cano’s average exit velocity, which was consistent from 2016 to 2017 even as his production took a dip (from 138 wRC+ to 112), is way up this year; it currently ranks 12th in the majors among players with at least 25 batted balls. His expected wOBA is way up as well, and his average launch angle is higher than it was last year. That said, the negative-61-point gap between his actual (.355) and expected wOBA ranks 177th out of 201 players with at least 100 at-bats, which is to say he’s been hitting the ball hard enough to be more productive. His speed (or lack thereof) may well be a factor.

Cano is still hitting a lot of grounders — 46.7% of all batted balls and, it turns out, 50.7% of the MLB-high 69 balls he’s hit with an exit velocity of at least 95.0 mph. In that far right column, you can see that his average launch angle on those hard-hit balls is lower than his overall average launch angle, or his hard-hit angle from last year. In fact, it ranks 33rd out of the 37 players with at least 50 such balls in play. So maybe there’s less to his hard-hit balls than meets the eye.

In any case, it could be a couple of months before we see which direction his production goes. Even with nondisplaced fractures of the fifth metacarpal, which generally don’t require surgery, these things tend to take a while. In 2012, Cano’s teammate Alex Rodriguez suffered one and was out 40 days. The Royals’ Alex Rios missed 48 days with a similar injury in 2015, and the Tigers’ Nick Castellanos 51 days in 2016. The Giants’ Madison Bumgarner had a displaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal, and he had a pin surgically inserted into his pinkie on March 26 and was placed on the 60-day disabled list. Granted, he has to build up his arm strength to the point of starting, but a hitter has to deal with the stresses that come with swinging the bat and making contact. Hand injuries suck.

As to what the Mariners do in Cano’s absence, the obvious answer would be to move converted center fielder Dee Gordon back to the keystone, where he won a Gold Glove in 2015, but the team has apparently rejected that option. That leaves Gordon Beckham as the mostly likely candidate, which, woof. The 31-year-old Beckham is a career .239/.303/.369 (81 wRC+) hitter and was worse than that in 2016 (.212/.294/.347, 71 wRC+) — so bad that he spent all but 18 plate appearances of 2017 stashed at Triple-A Tacoma. He’s as replacement level as replacement level gets, and the likes of utilitymen Andrew Romine and Taylor Motter are no better. Unsigned free agents from this past winter include Mike Aviles, Aaron Hill and Brandon Phillips, all of whom would at least need some amount of time to shake off the rust before joining the lineup. A trade would make sense, and while teams don’t tend to make a ton of deals this early in the year, this is Jerry Dipoto we’re talking about.

Per our Depth Charts, Cano’s projected WAR for the remainder of the year dropped about a full win, from 2.4 to 1.5, and none of those three players already in the fold figures to claw it back. And given where the Mariners, who entered the year projected to win 78 games but have already improved that to 83, are in the AL West and Wild Card races (2.5 out in the former and, again, 1.5 out in the latter), a single game worth of improvement could be a very, very big deal in the end.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 years ago

Can you imagine how Blaine Hardy would be vilified if Cano never makes it back and loses out on the HoF?

It won’t be quite Ray Chapman, but boy.

5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

I live in Seattle and the M’s are my team and in reading your comment my first reaction was “Who the hell is Blaine Hardy?” Then I realized he must be the pitcher who threw the ball that hit Cano. Which I had read at the top of the article and already forgotten.

So… no.

5 years ago
Reply to  Joser

Ironically, Hardy is from Seattle.