Back in June, Tom Verducci ran an article on how Robinson Cano’s improved plate discipline has developed him into a star this season, citing that one of the goals Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long assigned Cano was not to swing on the first pitch. He also mentioned that 35-45 walks was a goal for Cano this season, with a focus on waiting for better pitches to hit and crushing them for extra bases. Identifying what is a ball and what is a strike, then putting damage on the pitch is something that Cano wanted to achieve this season.
Now that September is coming to a close, we can investigate how Cano has been able to achieve Long’s goals for him. In 2009, Cano saw first pitch strikes 62.8% of the time, but this season that number has fallen to 58.8%, suggesting that Cano is not swinging on the first pitch as much. Cano has smashed his career high in walk rate, which is at 8.2% compared to last season’s 4.5%, while he has eclipsed his walk target with 55 walks this season. All of this has resulted in a .318/.378/.530 line, MVP-like numbers and a huge improvement from .271/.305/.410 in 2008.
However, if we dig deeper into Cano’s plate discipline numbers, the adjustments made may not be so obvious. Cano is actually swinging more this season (52.2%) compared to last season (51.6%) despite seeing pitches in the strikezone much less (43.0% this season compared to 49.6% last season). Add this to the fact that he is swinging at more pitches in the zone (Z-Swing% from 72.6% to 73.7%) but also many more pitches outside of the zone (O-Swing% from 30.9% to 35.9%). It is no wonder then that his SwStr% increased from 4.7% to 6.8% of pitches while his strikeout rate increased from 9.9% to 12.5% of at-bats.
Take a look at Cano’s contact percentage off fastballs in 2009 vs. this season in 2010:
If there is one thing about Cano’s hitting that has declined this season, it has to be hitting the fastball. Cano is making much less contact against RHP fastballs this year compared to last, but that is mostly due to the fact that he is swinging less at them (compare Swing% in 2009 with Swing% in 2010). We can’t say for certain that Cano should be swinging at more RHP fastballs, because keeping the bat on the shoulder for a fastball might allow him to sit and wait for a better pitch to hit. However, Cano is definitely swinging a lot more at LHP fastballs this season (again, refer to 2009 vs. 2010 for Swing%), and the left-handed hitter is whiffing on LHP fastballs down and inside, but making solid contact on high LHP fastballs in the zone as well. Not surprisingly, Cano is not gaining run value off fastballs like he used to, with a wFB/C of 1.58 fastball runs above average last season compared to a wFB/C of 1.06 fastball runs above average this season.
But what Cano has lost in offensive value by sitting on RHP fastballs more and swinging at (and missing more) LHP fastballs, he has gained far more in every other pitch type. His pitch type values have increased for sliders, cutters, curveballs, and changeups as a tradeoff from the drop in fastball value. He sees the fastball on roughly 60% of all pitches, but has gained far more value in the 40% of the other pitch types. Most notably is how he has improved drastically against sliders, going from a wSL/C of 1.48 slider runs above average last season to a whopping wSL/C of 4.52 slider runs above average this season. Take a look at how he makes contact off sliders last season compared to this season:
What you see here is a young hitter maturing against chasing the up and inside slider from RHP, while he is making more and more solid contact against sliders that reach the middle of the strikezone against both RHP and LHP. Look at his Swing% against sliders in 2009 vs. that of 2010, and you can make the inference that Cano has adjusted against the slider greatly this season in order to attain the increase in offensive value.
As a result, Cano has become arguably the best slider hitter in the game in terms of wSL/C. Which leads me back to Cano’s increased walk rate. Cano is walking and striking out more partly due to the fact that he goes deeper into an at-bat, averaging 3.48 pitches per PA this season as opposed to 3.40 pitches per PA last season. This may not sound like a lot, but getting deeper into the count has allowed Cano to see more two ball and three ball counts. Just 22% of pitches last season were with two or three balls in the count, a number that has slightly increased to 24% this season.
To summarize the analysis above, Cano has changed his approach to at-bats this season by waiting for better pitches to hit, increasing his pitches per PA and walk rate. But he has actually swung more, despite pitchers pitching around him more often than not, causing him to increase his strikeout rate. Cano is still a beast against fastballs, just not as much as last season. But what he loses by sitting on RHP fastballs and swinging more at LHP fastballs (trying to make solid contact but whiffing against fastballs out of the zone at other times), he gains on every other pitch type, especially sliders. He is much more disciplined against sliders now, and I believe it all has to do with getting deeper into the count and diversifying his swinging tendencies by pitch type.