The Cano Decade

Hey, Tony Blengino here. You might remember me from such Mariner classics as “MMIX – Negative Run Differential Theater” , or “2010 – A Spaced Odyssey”. For some years, I was a scout with the Brewers, and in more recent years I was an assistant to the GM with the Mariners. While I’m between baseball adventures, I’ve been given the privilege of writing on the storied pages of FanGraphs. I know the bar is high here, and I’ll do my best to reach it.

Alas, I am no longer a Mariner, but I was one long enough to help assemble a crew of talented, relatively inexpensive youngsters that made the Robinson Cano Era possible. This article will not attempt to say whether a 10-year, $240M commitment to Cano is a sign of the apocalypse, the gateway to a golden era in Mariner baseball, or something in between. There will be plenty of other articles for that. In this one, I will simply take a look at the player’s potential aging curve, from a couple of different perspectives — one historical, one more qualitative. Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go — Robinson Cano is pretty good. Clearly the best bat on the free agent market, and certainly a sturdier asset than Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton were at the time they entered the free-agent market. He has been remarkably consistent, and remarkably healthy throughout his career. He provides offense at a position where it is not plentiful. But where does Robby Cano fit in with other offensive 2Bs in baseball history, and how did they age? Let’s take a look.

The first six columns list the players’ number of cumulative standard deviations above the average of league regulars’ OBP and SLG through age 30, through their first nine years as a regular, and for their respective careers. The next three columns list the players’ OPS+ through age 30, through their first nine years as a regular, and for their careers. The next column lists the age at which each player had their last “good” season, and the last column lists their three-year peak.

Hornsby Rogers 25.22 29.18 21.02 24.48 35.10 38.60 177 179 175 35 27-29
Lajoie Nap 8.85 12.15 17.61 21.51 19.01 23.57 166 167 150 38 27-29
Collins Eddie 19.38 12.70 17.94 12.30 32.90 15.08 154 158 142 39 26-28
Morgan Joe 13.36 2.71 13.36 2.71 29.08 6.63 132 132 132 39 30-32
Carew Rod 11.07 4.89 13.19 6.43 29.82 7.10 132 132 131 37 29-31
Robinson Jackie 3.38 2.22 14.47 6.43 15.76 6.18 127 134 131 37 31-33
Doyle Larry 7.26 10.74 7.08 10.68 9.33 12.36 128 130 126 32 23-25
Utley Chase 5.95 6.34 9.13 7.54 130 126 126 26-28
Grich Bobby 7.83 3.00 10.26 5.49 15.39 6.52 125 127 125 35 30-32
Cano Robinson 4.34 9.54 4.34 9.54 125 125 125 28-30
Gehringer Charlie 3.19 3.89 5.24 4.90 14.69 8.53 119 123 124 37 32-34
Kent Jeff -2.37 2.88 0.06 5.62 2.83 10.63 112 122 123 39 30-32
Lazzeri Tony 4.17 5.90 4.17 5.90 3.99 5.23 127 127 121 29 23-25
Gordon Joe 1.00 5.26 0.28 7.65 -0.83 7.65 125 124 120 33 26-28
Whitaker Lou 5.77 -1.39 5.72 -1.25 13.24 3.33 108 109 117 37 34-36
Alomar Roberto 8.19 2.53 7.04 2.00 12.31 4.38 117 118 116 33 31-33
Sandberg Ryne 1.99 6.86 1.99 6.86 2.93 9.26 115 115 114 32 30-32
Biggio Craig 7.63 -0.16 9.32 0.69 8.93 -1.03 120 123 112 35 27-29
Frisch Frankie 5.03 4.73 4.46 4.40 7.33 2.10 116 116 110 34 23-25
McAuliffe Dick 6.10 2.75 6.10 2.75 5.76 1.85 113 113 109 33 25-27

Before we do any meaningful analysis, let’s agree to largely ignore Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie and Eddie Collins. Robinson Cano’s a really good offensive player, but he’s not those guys. On the other end, let’s agree to ignore Dick McAuliffe. He was a nice, underrated player who even played SS for a few years in the offense-starved ’60’s. Cano is better than McAuliffe. It’s in the midst of these two extremes that we can learn a lot about the potential future of Robinson Cano.

It should be noted that the numbers in the first six columns are not adjusted for home park. This means that Cano’s + SLG numbers are likely be a bit inflated by Yankee Stadium’s cozy RF fence, and that Joe Morgan’s + SLG numbers are likely deflated by the spacious Astrodome in the early days of his career. No matter — these figures not only give us a good sense of the respective offensive impact of each player, they also separate each player’s skills into OBP and SLG-based subsets which may age differently.

Through age 30/first nine full-time seasons of the players’ careers, we can make the following observations re: Cano’s career vis-a-vis the others:

  1. Cano’s OBP relative to the league is fairly unremarkable in this company, ranking ahead of only Lazzeri/Sandberg/Gordon/Kent among this group.
  2. Cano’s SLG relative to the league ranks quite high in this company, ranking behind only Hornsby/Lajoie/Collins/Doyle among this group.
  3. Cano’s OPS+ ranks smack in the middle of this group.
  4. Cano is peaking right now; if he posts a 2014 stat line resembling 2012 and 2013, his peak period will likely be from ages 29-31. Rod Carew peaked exactly then, and Morgan, Grich, Kent and Sandberg all peaked at ages 30-32. It’s also a fairly high peak for this group, with only Hornsby/Lajoie/Morgan/Carew/Collins/J.Robinson clearly exceeding it.

Let’s take a look at what this group of players went on to accomplish after age 30, starting with a look at the OPS+ columns. As you might expect, most players’ OPS+ declined between age 30 and the end of their career. Jackie Robinson is an obvious exception — he didn’t enter the majors until age 28, for obvious reasons, so his career lacked a growth phase. The other three players whose OPS+ increased in the second half of their career were Gehringer, Kent and Whitaker. Kent became a totally different player in his thirties, while Gehringer and Whitaker had common, OBP-based strengths that led to improvement over the second half of their careers. A handful of other players saw their OPS+ hold steady, Morgan, Carew, Grich to name three. Three more guys with high BB rates and significant OBP leanings in their overall profile.

In fact, after their age-30 season, the 18 players listed above whose careers are over had combined for 137 STD above average OBP and 111 STD above average SLG. After nine seasons as regulars they had combined for 159 STD OBP, 130 STD SLG. At their careers’ end, these players had combined for 258 STD OBP and 168 STD SLG. Only 57 STD SLG added after age 30, only 38 STD SLG added after year nine, for all 18 players combined. And a whole lot of that is Rogers Hornsby, all by himself. The bottom line — for Cano’s present power to last for much longer would be basically unprecedented among great offensive 2Bs.

Let’s look at the player who is likely the most comparable to Cano, Ryne Sandberg. Both players are more SLG than OBP-based. Cano is a better pure hitter, neither walks as much as their peers in this group. Both peaked around the same age. Both had a growth phase to their careers in which they were simply solid regulars while they gained strength and grew into their potential. Both saw their power augmented by a specific region of their home park — friendly Yankee Stadium RF/RCF for Cano, friendly Wrigley LCF for Sandberg. You will notice a preponderance of 32s, 33s, 34s in the “Last Good Year” column — which reads 32 for Sandberg — for all but the elite on this list, plus a few others with OBP-centered skillsets. One should expect Cano to become more of a 20ish homer guy in Seattle than the 30ish homer guy he was in New York, before too long.

Before moving on to another way of looking at Cano’s future, lets’ quickly compare him to Chase Utley, who just completed his ninth year as a regular, but who at 34, is four years older than Cano. At age 30, Utley had a higher career OPS+ and a far superior OBP history compared to Cano, albeit with a bit less power. Utley hasn’t been nearly as healthy nor as consistent as Cano, however, and he had an earlier and lower peak than Cano. Utley’s career OPS+ is 126 at present, and trending down, while Cano’s is 125, and might nudge up a notch or two before beginning its descent. Utley and Cano are likely to be very similar players qualitatively when all is said and done, but Cano will have a clear counting-stats advantage.

And this is one final point to be made in the historical analysis of these players. Take a look at Craig Biggio — 120 OPS+ at age 30, 123 through nine years as a regular. He wound up way down at 112, largely because of his chase for 3000 hits, during which he declined substantially as a hitter. With Cano under wraps for ten years, his milestone chase could become a similar problem down the road.

History says that Cano will ride out the end of his peak period in 2014, begin a solid decline phase with some .300ish, 18-20 HR seasons, than begin a deeper secondary decline phase during which he accumulate hits — and outs. By age 35, there will likely be a severe disconnect between Cano’s salary and his production. At the end of the day, he’ll get his 3000 hits, and his plaque in Cooperstown, but very well might watch his career OPS+ drop below 120 in the process.

Now let’s take a totally different approach to how this might all go down. What differentiates good hitters from not-so-good hitters? Largely, it comes down to their performances in these categories:

  • K rate
  • BB rate
  • Popup rate
  • LD rate
  • Hard Fly rate
  • Hard Ground rate

Very few hitters excel at all of these, but a good hitter has learned to piece together a portfolio of solid performances in more than one of these areas. High-average hitters tend to have low K and popup rates, and solid LD rates. Power hitters obviously have high Hard Fly rates. These skills vary in terms of predictability — LD rate is likely the flukiest, but the best hitters for average, like Robinson Cano, tend to run high LD rates. So how does he measure up in these areas, and what do the trends say?

  • K rate: Over a full standard deviation better than MLB average, trending steady
  • BB rate: For the first time was 1/2 STD better than MLB average in 2013, trending positively
  • Popup rate: 1/2 STD better than league average, trending positively
  • LD rate: Over 1 STD better than league average each of last three seasons, trending steady
  • Hard Fly Rate: In league average range, trending slightly negatively
  • Hard Ground Rate: Over 1 STD better than MLB average, trending steady

This is a picture of a high-average MLB hitter, at or near the peak of his game. His power numbers are pumped up a bit by his home park — other players with his homer totals have much higher Hard Fly rates, but Cano helps himself by staying healthy and on the field, keeping his counting numbers high. Does he have the best batted ball profile in the game — no, he’s not Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, or even David Ortiz, but he’s right there in that next tier. He’s pretty good at just about everything, with no glaring weaknesses.

Every player’s time comes to an end, however. How will it end for Robby Cano? For many players, it ends when the Hard Fly rate collapses, with big numbers of batted balls sliding into the immediately adjacent “Can of Corn” bucket. For speed players, whose BABIP routinely outperforms their batted-ball quality, the slightest decline in their raw speed can have disastrous consequences. K rate can skyrocket for a variety of reasons. Significant LD rate drops can be the final straw. Combinations of more than of these can trigger a decline — Adam Dunn‘s already high K rate exploded, and his once-stratospheric Hard Fly rate fell into a less elite bracket, and here we are. Vernon Wells‘ K rate exploded. Placido Polanco’s LD rate luck finally ran out. Ichiro went from a thoroughbred to just a fast guy, and the BABIP that had long forged his excellence cratered.

To see what the end holds for Cano, we need to find a player who had a similar skillset, but who has declined substantially since advanced batted-ball data became available. Let’s try Player A, who in 2011 possessed these fundamentals:

  • K rate: Over 1 STD better than MLB average, trending positively
  • BB rate: In league average range, trending steady
  • Popup rate: Over 1 STD better than MLB average, trending steady
  • LD rate: Over 1 STD better than MLB average for fourth straight year, trending steady
  • Hard Fly Rate: In league average range, trending sharply negatively
  • Hard Ground Rate: In league average range, trending negatively

This player, Michael Young, at age 34, had a superb offensive season in 2011, with a .338/.380/.474 line. That’s a line that Cano could conceivably put up at some point in the next few seasons. In 2012, his Hard Fly rate continued its decline, his BB rate fell off, but most vitally, his LD rate precipitously dropped into the league average range, and has remained there since. That single factor turns a Michael Young from a batting title contender into a guy hitting an empty .277. This happened at age 35. Derek Jeter’s LD rate plunged, and he became a different, non-elite offensive player at age 36.

Robinson Cano has a diverse offensive skillset that should serve him well as he enters his decline phase. But let’s face it, he is about to enter it, and it’s called a decline phase for a reason. Might as well end with some crystal-balling:

  1. Cano has already had his best season.
  2. He will never hit 30 homers again.
  3. He won’t ever hit his career-best .342 again, but he will bat at least .330 one more time in his career, and will have multiple future .300 seasons.
  4. He will hit 50 doubles in a season.
  5. His legendary durability will take a hit, beginning sometime in the next couple of seasons.
  6. By age 34 or 35, Cano will cease to be a star, and will hit for a decent average, with few extras.
  7. He will then hang around to reach milestones and collect his handsome paycheck.
  8. He will reach 3000 hits and someday be deservedly enshrined in Cooperstown, while the equally deserving but comparably counting-stat-poor Chase Utley and Bobby Grich will not.

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Eno Sarrismember
10 years ago

Welcome Tony. Great debut post!