Robinson Cano at the Heart of Two Matters

If there’s good news for the New York Yankees, it’s that, while they’re behind two games to zero to the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, they haven’t yet started CC Sabathia. The flip side of that, though, is that the Tigers haven’t yet started Justin Verlander, and they’re about to, in Tuesday’s Game 3. The series is by no means over, as the Giants demonstrated in the Division Series round against the Reds, but it’s a little Verlander dominance away from feeling over, and Verlander is frequently dominant. Given the losses and the struggles and the Derek Jeter injury, these are challenging times for the Empire.

In Sunday’s Game 2, the Yankees were shut out 3-0 by Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers’ bullpen. This was a game in which Hiroki Kuroda was perfect through five innings, and still he never pitched with a lead. The Yankees, during the regular season, had the best team offense in baseball. It’s largely gone missing in the playoffs, and though they say pitching and defense wins championships, you also need at least a little hitting too. Sunday, the Yankees had none of it.

What this isn’t going to be is a complete and thorough Game 2 recap. Rather, this post is built around Robinson Cano, and two separate things involving him. The first that we’ll tackle happened in the top of the eighth. The setting: the Tigers are ahead 1-0, with a runner on first and two out. Austin Jackson singles to right, moving Omar Infante up to second, but then Infante rounds second, and Nick Swisher throws behind him. As Infante tries to scramble back to the bag, Cano applies a tag to his stomach. Infante, though, is ruled safe. He is not safe.

Sometimes there are bang-bang plays that are almost literally too close to call. This was not one of them, as Infante was clearly, inarguably out at second base. What that should’ve been was the end of the inning, with the Tigers ahead 1-0. Instead, the inning continued, with Avisail Garcia singling home Infante, and Miguel Cabrera singling home Jackson. The Tigers went to the bottom half in front 3-0, and that’s how the game ended. Joe Girardi was none too pleased in his post-game conference.

On the one hand, the win-expectancy swing of the blown call was just about four percent. After the blown call, the Yankees’ odds of winning stood at 26.4 percent. With the right call, the Yankees’ odds of winning would’ve stood at 30.7 percent. That’s not a big difference, and it was the Yankees who allowed the subsequent run-scoring singles. The blown call wasn’t the only reason the Yankees fell behind by three instead of one.

But without the blown call, it wouldn’t have become 3-0. Girardi was right when he said the call changed the complexion of the ballgame. Yes, it’s true that the Yankees were shut out. Given that, you could say it wouldn’t have mattered if the second-base umpire called Infante safe at home somehow, since the Tigers already had one run and the Yankees didn’t score any runs. But we can’t assume that the Yankees would’ve been shut out in every reality. All we know is that, with the blown call, the Tigers wound up winning 3-0. What we can’t know is what might have happened had something else happened. I’m not trying to argue that the Yankees got screwed out of a playoff game, but one has to acknowledge the potential implications of a bad call like this.

Hell, in Game 1, Cano was ruled out at first on a close play, when replays indicated he was safe. With the right call there, the Yankees would’ve taken an early lead. It’s been two games in the ALCS, and already we have at least two clear umpiring mistakes, one more egregious than the other. We don’t know what this series would look like had the calls been made correctly. And we never will; we’ll just know how this series goes.

I can’t imagine a writing topic less fresh than expanded replay in baseball, and I don’t want to dwell on it, but for the record, replays made it immediately evident that Infante was out at second, and Girardi spent at least 30 seconds arguing before going to the mound and removing his pitcher. Shortly thereafter, Girardi argued again and got himself ejected. Even the TBS broadcast booth argued in favor of expanded replay and you almost never hear that from announcers and ex-players. Ron Darling sounded straight-up embarrassed on baseball’s behalf. Here we had a play — a play that would look like a big play — that was ruled to be something other than what it obviously was, and it’s just difficult to explain why that’s acceptable.

But the Yankees got shut out. We can’t know that the Yankees absolutely would’ve lost had Infante been called out, but we can say that it would’ve been likely. Remember, their win expectancy with the right call still would’ve been just under 31 percent. They still would’ve had to send lefties up against Phil Coke, who was very good. Maybe Coke would’ve made the same pitches, and maybe the Yankees hitters would’ve taken the same swings and non-swings. Maybe it all would’ve ended 1-0, with the Tigers blanking baseball’s best offense.

Alex Rodriguez was booed, because Alex Rodriguez struck out twice, but Rodriguez also singled and lined out to the outfield. This was one of his better games, lately. The problem, as has been the case all postseason, is bigger than just Rodriguez himself. In the playoffs, Rodriguez has a .330 OPS, but Nick Swisher has a .426 OPS, Curtis Granderson has a .438 OPS, and Robinson Cano has a .216 OPS. Cano, as a matter of fact, has set a single-postseason record for consecutive hitless at-bats, with 26. That’s weird, because Cano is a good hitter. The all-time record for consecutive hitless at-bats in the playoffs, combined, is 42, belonging to Dan Wilson, who was not a good hitter. That number is well beyond 26, but Cano’s streak is active, and you expect a lot more from him.

All the right things are being said. To quote the intro to the linked article:

Robinson Cano, the Yankees’ star second baseman, maintained Sunday night that he still felt good at the plate. The team’s hitting coach, Kevin Long, maintained that Cano still looked good at the plate.

Were Cano just beginning his playoff career, he might be developing a reputation. However, between 2010-2011, Cano batted .333 in the playoffs with a four-digit OPS. He can’t be labeled as a choker now because of what he’s already done in the past. Additionally, one of the things that makes this slump so fascinating is that Cano ended the regular season on a tear. Over Cano’s final nine games, he went 24-for-39 with ten extra-base hits. Cano was impossible to get out, and then, for no rhyme or reason, he was impossible to not get out.

You can’t build one of the easy playoff narratives around Robinson Cano. You can’t say he can’t handle the pressure because he handled the pressure in years previous. He handled the pressure of the pennant race at the end of the regular season. You can’t say he entered the playoffs in a slump, because he entered the playoffs as probably the hottest hitter in baseball. Robinson Cano’s current hitless streak in the playoffs is pure, unfiltered baseball randomness, and most people don’t know how to deal with that. People hate being reminded that so much of baseball is random.

Let’s separate Cano’s immediate results from Cano’s box-score results. Here are several .gifs of Robinson Cano’s contact during this skid:

There’s some quality contact in there. In fact, the first .gif resulted in an out when Cano was actually safe. His hitless streak is worthy of an asterisk. But the point is that Cano hasn’t been popping everything up, or striking out, or rolling over on the ball and grounding to second. Cano has hit into some easy outs and he’s hit into some hard outs, and he just hasn’t gotten any shred of luck.

Now, in fairness, Cano hasn’t been showing pull power. There’s some possibility that something’s actually wrong, because Cano hasn’t really been driving the ball to right field. But he feels good, the coaching staff feels good, and the sample size here is very small. Between August 10 and August 19, Cano went 1-for-25. Between August 19 and August 27, Cano went 11-for-24. This strikes me as being a statistical slump that isn’t actually a performance slump. With Alex Rodriguez, there’s more legitimate reason for worry, because he’s coming back from an injury, and his contact rate since returning is well below his norm. Cano just stopped producing out of nowhere, and it looks to be random. It’s just randomness at a time when the Yankees could really use another bat to step up and produce runs. Raul Ibanez can’t do everything. Raul Ibanez can’t even do most of everything, the past week or so be damned.

Seems to me, as far as Robinson Cano is concerned, there’s not a lot to worry about. Cano would most certainly agree with that sentiment. There have been some tough outs, and there have been some tough called strikes against him to boot. Yet what’s done is done, and Cano can’t get these at-bats back, and the Yankees have needed someone besides Ibanez to hit. Instead, Robinson Cano owns the longest single-postseason hitless streak in baseball history. It doesn’t feel the least bit fresh to see the New York Yankees playing in the American League Championship Series. But for so many reasons, these New York Yankees aren’t like the usual New York Yankees.

We hoped you liked reading Robinson Cano at the Heart of Two Matters by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Phil Hughes has actually been pretty effective lately, and his fly ball tendencies play a lot better in Detroit than they do in the Stadium. The Yankee starting pitching would be a storyline in this post-season if the offense wasn’t completely wasting it. The only chance the Yankees have against Verlander is that Cano wakes up, he’s the only left handed hitter in the line-up with the bat speed and plate coverage to legitimately challenge non-mistake pitches by Verlander. Granderson or Raul might run into one, but they and the rest of the line-up will probably spend the rest of the night hacking helplessly like most of baseball does when Verlander is on the hill.


” but they and the rest of the line-up will probably spend the rest of the night hacking helplessly like most of baseball does when Verlander is on the hill.”

Actually, much of baseball hits quite well when Verlander is on the hill, just not the team playing the Tigers.


Well played sir.