Friday, July 24, 2009

Risky Robby

Leading off the bottom of the 5th inning last night, Robinson Cano slashed at the first pitch he saw from Vin Mazzaro, sending it bending down the left field line and into the corner. It hit off the wall, just inside of the line and as the ball bounced directly to Matt Holliday and the cameras panned back to Cano, he was just rounding first, and I knew he was dead to rights at second.

It was part of that innate feel you develop as a fan. If you know who's at the plate, you've got a pretty good sense of how long the ball needs to rattle around before an outfielder gets his hands on it for your guy to get to second or third. You know when a balls rolls up to the wall and Jeter is running, he's thinking about a triple (and so are you). With that clean carom, it would have been a tight play even for Brett Gardner.

Replays showed that Cano paused for a second to see if the ball was fair or foul off the bat (understandable), and started down the first kind of slowly, which would have been fine if he was going to settle for a single. But inexplicably, as he was nearing first base, he broke into a full sprint, only to be gunned down at second about literally two full strides at the least. In the second picture on the right, it looks as if first base coach Mick Kelleher yelling at him to stop. That's probably because Holliday had already released the ball and Cano could have turned back.

As you can see, he was at barely in the fame when the ball arrived to Mark Ellis at 2nd base, and was out by 3 full strides.

This is an isolated incident, and it might seem like I'm dwelling on a baserunning mistake for way too long, but I think lends some insight into his lack of discipline at the plate and in turn his inability to hit with runners in scoring position.

His baserunning mistakes (he's 16 for 34 in SB in his career) say more about his level of risk aversion than his speed on the basepaths. The same can be said for someone with a lack of discipline at the plate. They are willing to swing at pitches that are harder to hit, thus increasing the likelihood of failure.

Cano has the 13th highest swing percentage in the Majors with 51.7%, but makes contact 91.2% of the time, which is 7th highest, where the leaders in that category (Luis Castillo, Marco Scutaro) have some of the lowest swing percentages in the game. Think about how good you have to be at putting the bat on the ball to rank so highly in both of those categories. He makes contact with 79.5% of the pitches he swings at out of the zone.

My contention is that his lack of plate discipline is what is eating away at his production with runners in scoring position and men on base in general. He's at .205 w/RISP this year as opposed to .356 without. For his career, he has a .743 OPS men on base as opposed to .895 with the bags unoccupied, and the former includes 14 intentional walks.

My half-baked theory goes like this: Pitchers are more reluctant to give a batter a pitch to hit with men on base, especially early in the count, but Cano goes up swinging like he always does, and puts the bat on the ball, but makes poorer contact as a result. His BABIP bears this out, as it is .297 with men on as opposed to .338 with the bases empty. We usually cite BABIP as a statistic to explain away fluky performances, but this is over his entire career, 2765 plate appearances. There are no more flukes at that sample size.

It's easy to imagine how good Cano could be if he was just more selective at the plate, but as Bill James has pointed out, it's not easy for a hitter to change his approach:
I think it is easier to learn plate discipline than it is to learn speed or to develop a strong throwing arm—but not much easier. A player who lacks plate discipline at age 18 will usually lack plate discipline at age 30. But not always; some players can adapt well to the challenge of learning to lay off certain pitches.
Robinson Cano is an excellent player as he is. Don't get me wrong. He's probably my favorite Yankees' position player and I love watching him take a ball 6 inches off the plate into the home bullpen as much as the next guy. But he will never be a scary, middle of the order type presence unless he can be more selective and make pitchers throw him balls in the strike zone with runners on base.

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