Being a fan of the Yankees has its perks and drawbacks. The major perks are obvious: a perennially competitive team, ownership that cares deeply about winning, and fans that invest themselves in the team – even if half of them are mouth-breathing idiots from Westchester, New Jersey, or Long Island. Some of the disadvantages are also pretty obvious: being loathed by fans of 29 other teams, endless questions about how one can possibly root for a team that spends so freely, and occasionally having no choice but to listen to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. To be a Yankee fan, one must guiltlessly embrace the perks and have retorts at the ready for the inevitable scorn.
Over the last few years, I’ve discovered a more subtle disadvantage to being a Yankee fan: the quiet but relentless inculcation of memes and myths into my brain. If you called this “brainwashing,” you wouldn’t be that far off. It happens all the time. Joe Torre had a mystical ability to manage personalities in the clubhouse (how’s that working for the Dodgers so far?). Mariano Rivera’s ability to “save” games has been the key to the Yankees extended dominance (not a catcher with a 124 OPS+, or a shortstop with a 121). Alex Rodriguez isn’t clutch (his postseason OPS is over 100 points higher than Derek Jeter’s). Jeter is, at worst, an average defender and is more likely excellent (just… no). It’s easy to subscribe to all of these. Lord knows, I’ve believed each of them at different points. But as I watched the games, looked at the numbers, and started thinking for myself a little bit, I began to wrinkle my nose at some of these ideas. Many of the things we assume to be true as Yankee fans are the creations of employees whose paychecks are signed by George Steinbrenner, of obvious homers, or of people who just aren’t all that bright to begin with. It takes work and a discerning eye to separate Yankee fact from Yankee fiction.
I say all this because I’m worried that Yankee fans are in the midst of another brainwashing session. As you may know, Robinson Cano is off to a torrid start in 2010, hitting .348/.400/.661. After going 4-for-13 with three homers and a double against the Orioles in late April, his line stood at .407/.444/.790. Naturally, the usual suspects on YES and WFAN began declaring that Cano is making “the leap,” that amorphous, you-know-it-when-you-see-it transformation from a good player to an elite one. At one point, someone (I think Michael Kay) mentioned that Cano is finally turning into what Yankee fans have been waiting for – a second baseman prolific enough with a bat and slick enough with a glove that he can rightfully be called the best at his position. The only thing more spectacular than Cano’s hitting in late April was the volume and quality of the praise heaped upon him. Cano was making “the leap.”
As a fan of Cano and the Yankees, it pains me to say that we might be jumping the gun with this proclamation, but I’m going to do just that. A close look at his numbers suggests that while Cano has likely made some small improvements, they’re not nearly substantial enough to result in a season dramatically different than 2009.
Let’s look at each of Cano’s triple-slash stats (AVG/OBP/SLG) individually and see if we can determine whether he has, in fact, made “the leap.”
Inexplicably, Cano has always been labeled as a future batting champion (he hit .278 in the minors). Nevertheless, his .348 batting average in 2010 is impressive but not totally out of line with his career norms. He’s definitely benefiting from a .345 average on balls in play (BABIP), but as his line drive percentage (LD%) shows, he’s hitting the ball harder than ever. His BABIP should regress a little, causing his average to decline as well, but there’s no reason he can’t settle in at a .320-.330 average. But these are more or less wasted words, because batting average isn’t all that important, and it’s also not where Cano’s numbers have increased the most in 2010.
Cano’s OBP currently stands at .400, which is an excellent number for any player but is especially impressive for a hitter as historically undisciplined as he is. The question becomes: is this change for real? Has Cano finally developed a more discerning eye at the plate? The answer, I think, is yes and no.
“No” because his OBP remains bolstered by a high batting average. It’s not quite as pronounced as it was in 2006, but it remains true that the main way Cano reaches base is via a hit. Also disconcerting are his swing statistics. Cano is actually swinging at the most pitches out of the strike zone (O-Swing%) since his 2007 campaign, but making less contact with them (O-Contact%) than over the past two seasons. He’s also making the least amount of contact with strikes in his entire career (Z-Contact%). These numbers do not indicate a fundamental change in the way Cano approaches or executes an at-bat.
“Yes” because his walk rate (BB%) has increased more than a little bit. As we get closer and closer to a 200 plate appearance sample size, it seems more and more likely that this small change is for real. Of course, this development is somewhat counteracted by a sharp jump in strikeout rate (K%). As a result, his walk-to-strikeout ratio (BB/K) remains right around his career norm, which suggests that we won’t see a big difference in the OBP department. I would guess that he’ll finish the season with an OBP between .350 and .360, because the underlying indicators simply don’t suggest that he’s suddenly become a patient hitter.
While Cano’s OBP certainly stands out, it’s his slugging that has really opened some eyes this season. His .661 SLG ranks fourth in baseball – absurd for a second baseman. Unfortunately, however, it appears to be true that this performance is also somewhat of a mirage. It’s obvious that Cano is putting the ball in play less this season than ever before, as shown by his increased walk and strikeout rates. So far, that patience has been rewarded with 16 extra-base hits, but the numbers suggest that this is unsustainable. Specifically, Cano’s HR/FB rate (23.7%) is off the charts. Nearly one out of every four balls Cano hits in the air is leaving the ballpark. To give you some context for how nuts that is, look at the HR/FB for baseball’s top five home run hitters in 2009: 20.1% (Pujols), 23.1% (Fielder), 25.4% (Howard), 26% (Reynolds), 22.2% (Gonzalez). Considering that Cano has never topped 13% before, we can say with almost absolute certainty that this will not continue. I do expect that he’ll hit for more power than ever before this season – his GB% has been steadily declining and his FB% rising – but I’d put the upper limit on his homers at 30.
Cano has clearly changed his approach in 2010. By walking and striking out more, he’s become more of a slugger than the singles and doubles hitter he used to be. But I think all the data suggests that even if he does become more of a power hitter, there’s a pretty clear ceiling on his performance because he’s still not particularly patient or discerning. He has simply benefited from some slight improvements and tremendous luck. If I had to guess, I would say that his line at the end of the season will be .325/.360/.540. That’s certainly awfully good, but is it enough to threaten Chase Utley as the game’s best second baseman? I don’t think so.