The Mariners have not gotten the production they were expecting from Robinson Cano so far. I know, bold statement. Surely the Mariners prepared themselves for paying Cano handsomely well into his decline years, giving him $240 million over ten years starting with his age-31 season. Still, nobody could have anticipated the steep drop in total offensive production he has endured the first year and a half of the deal. It would not be the first time an elite hitter fell off quickly on the elder side of 30, but is his decline simply due to mean, old Father Time? The overall numbers, as well as some of his results on a more granular level, certainly support that narrative.
If you have read this far, you know enough about Cano’s difficulties not to need his basic stat line spelled out for the hundredth time. Obviously he hasn’t hit as well, especially for power, as he did in New York. As you would expect, his ability to hit long fly balls has dwindled in the same manner:
This data comes courtesy of Baseball Heat Maps, and though it only covers the 2007 season onward, the change is obvious enough. His average distance on fly balls is noticeably shorter than both his career and his last few years in New York, which would make sense for a hitter losing the strength and athleticism of his younger self.
If he’s not hitting the ball as far because of age, you would expect his batted-ball rates to be suffering as well. Much ink has been written on how many more ground balls he has hit in the last year and a half; we’ll get to that. Here are his hard, medium and soft contact rates, found on FanGraphs’ player page for Cano:
His Mariners years fall below the most recent peak years he had in New York, but this year his hard-hit rate is back above his career average, as well as his 2011 season rate in which he put up tremendous numbers.
So we have a declining hitter who is hitting fly balls for a shorter distance, but is still hitting the ball hard enough on average to approximate his former performance levels. He’s also putting more balls in play on the ground, though nothing I have learned about aging leads to hitting the top of a baseball more often than the bottom of it. Christopher Rinaldi pointed out in the Community Blog a few weeks ago that Cano hasn’t gone to the opposite field as much this season, but if you include last season as well, there’s not as appreciable a change in pull versus opposite field rates from his Yankee career. Here is a look at the types of batted balls he’s hit to each for more clarity.
Remember that the hard/medium/soft delineations come from a BIS algorithm that does not include exit speed. I suspect that the decline in hard-hit rate may be due in part to the decreased number of fly balls and line drives, rather than simply a decreased ability to create force. Also, since his overall hard-hit rate isn’t that far off from his career numbers, this has the signs of a case of altered swing mechanics creating more ground balls, especially to the pull side. Canvassing video over the past few years for clues in his swing, this starts to make even more sense as the true culprit.The Yankees timeframe covers Cano’s last three seasons in the Big Apple for comparison. Everything you would associate with a negative change shows up here: fewer line drives and fly balls everywhere except for more liners to the opposite field, and despite an unchanged hard-hit rate to center, a lower figure to left and right fields. His batted balls are coming out on a lower trajectory, and to the sides of the field without as much force behind them.
Here is a swing from Cano’s 2012 season:
And here is one from June of last year:
Both of these swings are on similarly placed pitches, both fastballs up in the zone. The 2014 pitch is a few inches higher, but they are close enough to show some important differences.
The first is the way the hands take the bat to the ball. Notice how in the 2013 version, there is more of a loop to his hand path; the first move is down before they start moving forward. In the 2014 look, Cano’s hands start pushing directly toward contact. This makes his swing much more level, which is not as conducive to hitting high line drives and deep fly balls. You can really see how this works over three frames in the swings:
The other noticeable inconsistency is where the barrel travels in relation to the hands. It’s a little subtler, but in the 2013 swing you can see how the barrel drops slightly more under the hands as it comes into contact. In the second look, the barrel stays closer to the same level as the hands, coming around them more so than underneath them. When the barrel works around the ball on a flatter plane, you have a sure-fire recipe for more pull-side ground balls.
These aren’t just two cherry-picked swings either. Here’s another swing from this year on a low and outside pitch, followed by a low pitch in the Yankee era.
Former Cano digs the ball out and lifts it into the outfield, whereas latter Cano looks like he’s forcing his hands down all the way through the swing. Both balls end up in the air, but the Yankee swing obviously looks much more beneficial for a guy who should be looking to drive the ball out of the park on occasion.
From the pitcher’s view, this difference is still apparent. This time we will see a 2013 swing and a 2015 swing, cut off one frame after the left arm gets fully extended.
The finish of the swing is easier to compare from this angle, which is pretty clearly different despite similar pitch locations. Yankee Cano again shows more lift in his swing, resulting in a higher finish. Mariner Cano’s hands do come up through contact a bit more than the previous swings we looked at, but not nearly to the same degree as the Yankee version. The flatter finish in the 2015 swing is the product of the barrel coming around the hands, as well as the more downward plane his hands take toward the ball. Again, all signs point toward lower-trajectory hits, with the flatter barrel making an early swing more likely to yank the ball to the pull side. The bat staying more vertical used to allow Cano to lift the ball, as well as giving him a better chance of driving it toward the middle of the field.
What we cannot know is why this change has happened. I don’t know if this has been a conscious change or just falling into bad habits. The fact that this struggle has gone on for a year and a half with a fairly big change occurring simultaneously certainly raises a lot of questions. One interesting side note makes me even more intrigued to follow Cano’s season is Edgar Martinez’s recent hiring as hitting coach. I know absolutely nothing about Howard Johnson as a hitting coach, so this is not to say that he didn’t do a good job. But it’s hard not to be excited about a guy I have heard has an excellent perception of the swing, particularly regarding hand path, get a crack at helping Cano get back on track. He definitely has proof of concept:
Of course, it remains to be seen how well he can work with players as a coach. Doing a thing and understanding a thing do not automatically qualify you to teach a thing. Color me intrigued though. Maybe it’s just noise or coincidence, or maybe he’s already made an impression. The hiring was announced on June 20, and here are swings from each of June 21 and June 22:
There’s a little more of that old lift to his swing, and the barrel is a little more vertical. The second is a bit flatter with the bat, but it’s a product of the pitch location more than a swing issue; he doesn’t look like he hooks the ball nearly as much. To be clear, Cano has still shown a number of swings in the past week that look like everything he’s done in the past year and a half. On top of that, it’s extremely hard for even the best hitters to make mechanical changes in the middle of a season. For Cano’s sake, and for the Mariners offense’s sake, hopefully he (and Martinez?) can figure out a way to set himself back up for some better production at the plate.
To the main point of this piece, yes, Cano is getting to an age where a down month raises concerns and a down season sounds the panic alarm. Based on what I see, there’s still enough of a reason to believe he has the ability to be the mythical power and contact guy the Mariners need in their lineup. A mechanical issue can be fixed, and it’s just too hard to believe Cano’s strength and ability could have eroded so quickly. The problem is that fixing it is not always as easy as it sounds.