Robinson Cano, Back to Punishing Mistakes

Did you, like many others, come into this season wondering what to expect out of Robinson Cano? Did you believe that reports of his demise might be greatly exaggerated? Well, if three games are any indication, wonder no longer. He’s hit four home runs in 14 plate appearances! I don’t really need to dive too deep into his wRC+ (it’s 340), or many other stats at this point in the season, because they’ll simply reinforce for you that he’s been pretty impossibly good in 27 innings of baseball. The “I don’t need to hit the ball in the field of play” second baseman has a BABIP of .000. The point of this piece, then, is to tell you how and why Cano has been good, and the specific parts of his plate approach that are assuaging some of the fears people had about him last season.

Cano’s 2015 featured, at root, two halves. Every season of every player’s career features two halves, but Cano’s were relevant in that his production was starkly divided between the two of them. There was pre-July 1st Cano, he of the .105 ISO and 71 wRC+. And then there was post-July 1st Cano, he of the .209 ISO and 157 wRC+. Second-half Cano was literally 100% better than first-half Cano when compared to league average.

If you’re reading this, you probably know that everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong in that first half. Here’s Jeff mainly talking about him hitting too many ground balls. Here’s Dan going in-depth on how his hitting mechanics were a little messed-up. Here’s an interview in which Cano says a stomach parasite sapped his strength. There was obviously a lot going on, and his first-half performance was probably all of those negative forces coming together in the form of terrible baseballing.

The second half of 2015 was a complete turnaround, however. He started to hit more line drives and fly balls. He went to the opposite field at something closer to his career rates. His home run/fly ball rate and BABIP regressed toward (and surpassed) his career norms. His first half probably wasn’t as bad as it looked, but his second half was a pretty effective inversion of that. Players in their early 30s who play poorly for extended periods while on massive contracts tend to be placed under a microscope, however, so questions about Cano’s partial 2015 failures followed him into 2016.

He’s answered those questions pretty effectively in the early going. And, while we shouldn’t take anything away from what Cano’s done so far, we also need to ask some questions of how the Rangers approached him in their just-concluded opening series. Sure, we should remind ourselves that it’s just three games, but the very obvious way Texas pitched to him could act as a bit of a warning for those teams about to face him. So how did the Rangers approach him? The answer was, unequivocally, “witin the zone.” Take a look at Cano’s in-zone rate and rate of first-pitch strikes from 2013 to 2015 as compared to the series against the Rangers:

Robinson Cano Zone/F-Strike%, 2013-2016
Zone% F-Strike%
2013-2015 45.5% 58.9%
2016 71.8% 71.4%
SOURCE: FanGraphs

Even though it’s a crazy small sample size, was this series a case of Texas thinking they could challenge him in the strike zone? Or did the Rangers simply made a lot of mistakes over the plate to Cano? Let’s take a look at the home runs to find out! Here’s the first of the season, a 0-1 fastball from Cole Hamels:

Set up outside corner low, left it in the middle of the plate. A mistake, punished. Here’s number two, a first-pitch fastball from Tom Wilhelmsen:

Again, set up low and outside, left it middle-in. Another mistake, punished. How about a third, a 1-1 changeup from Colby Lewis:

Lewis probably wanted this pitch down, but it hung a little bit and ended up right at the belt in the happy zone. That’s a mistake. Finally, here’s the fourth, a first-pitch changeup from Shawn Tolleson:

This was a very similar pitch to the Colby Lewis changeup, just 3 mph faster: looking at the PITCHf/x data, the two changeups were just five-to-six inches apart on both the horizontal and vertical axes. The interesting thing is that Cano hit the second one slightly more toward center field than the Lewis pitch (which was slower), in essence cloning his swing and timing from the previous home run. Another belt-high mistake pitch, another home run.

Overall, the Rangers didn’t execute their pitches, and Cano ended up killing them. It’s early in the season, so there might still be a little rust with respect to pitchers locating effectively. There appears to be no rust with Cano taking advantage of those lapses. Finally, beyond Cano’s swing execution, there’s one last piece to this. Let’s set it up with a very relevant section from Jeff’s rundown last May of Cano’s possible issues:

“Cano’s at a career-high rate of first-pitch strikes, and he’s at a career-worst rate of pitches seen while behind in the count. This is a partial explanation for his struggles: Cano’s fallen behind a little more, so he’s had to expand a little more, and sit on pitches a little less. Cano definitely isn’t being pitched around. But he’s not making the pitchers pay for it.”

In the series with the Rangers, Cano wasn’t pitched around. He saw 71% first-pitch strikes. But he was also ultra-aggressive early in the count: out of the 12 balls he put into play during the series, nine were on the first or second pitch of the plate appearance. Maybe Cano realizes that he fell behind a lot last year. Maybe he knows pitchers are trying to steal a first-pitch strike on him. Except — in just the first three games of the season — he’s back to making pitchers pay dearly for it.

We hoped you liked reading Robinson Cano, Back to Punishing Mistakes by Owen Watson!

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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