Have We Already Seen the Best from Robinson Cano?

Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

Yes, Robinson Cano is a stud -- but here are a few things to consider before using a top pick on him.

This just in: Robinson Cano can play the game of baseball. Cano finished the 2012 season as the number one ranked second baseman on ESPN's Player Rater, and finished as the 17th best player overall. Cano set career highs in a multitude of categories including homeruns (33), runs (105), Isolated Power (.238), Slugging (.550), and OPS (.929). Cano, who recently turned 30, is in the midst of his prime, and will have the added motivation of securing a lucrative long-term deal while playing in the final year of his contract during the 2013 season. We've seen what the motivation of a contract year has done for guys like Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton from a production standpoint. So given the dire state of the position, draft Cano without hesitation right? Perhaps as early as the first round? I say no, and the reason is due to some troublesome trends beginning to emerge in Cano's game.

Cano's GB% (groundball percentage) has increased for three straight seasons, from 44.2% in 2010, to 46.7% in 2011, to 48.7% in 2012. As a result, Cano's GB/FB (groundball to fly ball) ratio reached a career high of 1.89 last season, which means Cano hit almost two groundballs for every fly ball. Typically, it's difficult for players, even the league's best power hitters, to hit 25+ homeruns with a GB/FB ratio over 1.80.

Perhaps the reason for the increase in GB/FB ratio can be attributed to the way teams are now pitching to Cano. Cano has seen fewer fastballs over the past three seasons, while getting a heavier dose of curveballs:

Season

Fastball Percentage

Curveball Percentage

2009

62.8%

7.8%

2010

57.4%

9.8%

2011

56.7%

11.3%

2012

55.3%

11.8%

With aging teammates Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez now shells of their former selves, pitchers appear to be content to let anyone but Cano beat them. This belief appears to be supported by the percentage of pitches Cano has seen in the strike zone the past five seasons, which has decreased from 53% in 2008, to 49.6%, 43%, 41.5%, to a career low 40.6% in 2012.

Whether it's the result of Cano being overly aggressive, or perhaps the beginning of a declining skill set, Cano's contact percentage has declined for four consecutive seasons as well, from 90.5% in 2009, to 86.9%, 86.5%, to 82.8% in 2012. Additionally, Cano's SwStr% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at and misses), has increased from 6.6% in 2010, to 7.1% in 2011, to 8.3% in 2012, so there appears to be an upward trend in the ‘swing-and-miss' portion of Cano's game, which potentially could threaten his ability to continue to post .300+ averages going forward.

I know what you're thinking, "Well if all that's true, then how did Cano manage to hit .313 with 33 homers last season?" Look no further than Cano's .326 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and 24.1% HR/FB ratio (the percentage of fly balls that result in a homerun). League average BABIP is typically around .300, players typically establish their own baseline over their career based upon a number of factors including batted ball profile, speed, etc. While Cano's 2012 BABIP of .326 is well above league average, Cano's career BABIP entering 2012 was .321, so I'm comfortable that Cano's floor is probably still in the .290 neighborhood. The HR/FB ratio on the other hand, that's an entirely different story.

A batter's HR/FB ratio typically stabilizes over the course of their career, with deviations greater than 3-4% typically regressing back towards the mean in the following season. The league's best power hitters typically post ratios between 20-25% during any given season. To put Cano's 24.1% HR/FB ratio into perspective, consider that Ryan Braun (22.8%), Jose Bautista (20.0%), and Mark Trumbo (20.6%) all finished with lower ratios than Cano. Prior to 2012, Cano's career HR/FB ratio was 12.4%, however, since the Yankees moved into their new ballpark, he's managed a HR/FB ratio of 17.1% (2009-2012), still well below the 24.1% he posted last season. There is a strong possibility that Cano's 24.1% falls closer to his previous three year average (17.1%), in fact, if someone set the over/under John Sterling "It's a home run from Robby Cano! Don'tcha know!" calls at 26, I'm taking the under next season.

One final point to consider, while Cano has never shown significant platoon splits in his career, he struggled versus left handed pitching in 2012.

Season

vs. LHP

vs. RHP

2009

.309

.326

2010

.285

.337

2011

.314

.296

2012

.239

.359

Granted, we're talking about one season, and only 243 at bats, but small sample size or not, it's something to keep an eye on as Cano gets older.

Look, Cano is still a stud, and a near lock for 155+ games, a .290+ average, 90+ runs, and 90+ RBIs, but I'm no longer sure he's a lock for 25+ homeruns unless something drastically changes in his batted ball profile. Without that power, guys like Dustin Pedroia (one year removed from a .307 AVG / 21 HR / 91 RBI / 102 R / 26 SB campaign) and Ian Kinsler (one year removed from a .255 AVG / 32 HR / 77 RBI / 121 R / 30 SB campaign) could challenge Cano for the top spot at the position given the advantage they hold over Cano in the speed department. While it's true both guys are coming off of down years by their standards, both are similar to Cano in terms of age (Pedroia 29, Kinsler 30), and I think both represent better values, especially considering you're probably going to have to burn a first round pick to secure Cano's services. I would target one of the elite, five category outfielders with my first round pick (i.e. Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Matt Kemp, or Andrew McCutchen), and would target a Pedroia or Kinsler in the third or fourth round (adjust for type and size of league) to fill in as my second baseman.

Sources:
www.fangraphs.com

www.espn.com
www.baseball-reference.com
www.cbssports.com

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