Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Happened to Cano's Power?

Cano's having another excellent season despite middling power numbers
Robinson Cano went yard in Seattle's 5-0 win over the Texas Rangers last night, crushing a solo homer off Rangers starter Nick Martinez in his first at-bat of the game. The long ball, Cano's only hit of the game, was just his 12th of the year. That puts him on pace to finish the season with 15, his fewest since 2008 and a far cry from the 28 he averaged over his last five seasons in New York. His .143 ISo would be the second-lowest of his career, ahead of only 2008's .139 mark.

Obviously the Mariners were hoping for a bit more pop when they signed him to that crazy 10-year, $240 million contract last winter. Cano has shown some lately with five home runs since the start of August, but it's too little, too late for someone who managed only two through his team's first 64 games of the season.

So what's going on with Cano? The natural inclination is to blame his power drop-off on the switch from Yankee Stadium, a park perfectly suited for his pull-power stroke, to the offense-depressing wasteland known as Safeco Field. But Cano actually has more dingers at home (7) than he does on the road (5), so that's not it.

Rather, what appears to have happened is that Cano altered his swing, focusing on hitting to all fields as opposed to hammering everything to right field. This shift is evident in his splits, which reveal that Cano has become a phenomenal opposite-field hitter this year, but at the expense of success on balls he hits to other parts of the park.

2013 Pull .385/.385/.754
2014 Pull .313/.313/.646

2013 Middle .351/.347/.554
2014 Middle .360/.357/.434

2013 Oppo .387/.379/.548
2014 Oppo .459/.453/.682

So as you can see, what Cano's essentially done is reverse his strengths. In 2013, playing half his games at a park that rewarded lefthanded fly ball hitters, he was lethal when he used right field. Now, playing in a park with fences that are extremely difficult to clear, he's become more of a line drive spray-hitter. Rather than try to make his strengths work in his new digs, he's adjusted to his surroundings and become a different, albeit still great, hitter.

This modification is reflected in Cano's batted ball distribution, which shows a career-low fly ball rate and his highest ground ball rate since 2007. For the first time in his career he's hitting more than twice as many ground balls as fly balls, and when you do that it's very difficult to hit home runs.

The trade-off has resulted in more base hits for Cano, who's sporting his lowest strikeout rate in five years and batting .326, which if he sustains it will be his highest average since he hit .342 in 2006. Those extra hits, combined with his solid walk rate, are fueling his .394 OBP--a career-best and the third-best mark in the American League.

So while Cano's days of threatening 30 homers appear to be over, he's still every bit as effective at the dish as he was in 2012 and 2013--when he slugged 33 and 27 home runs--after adjustments for league and park. His 147 OPS+ this year is almost identical to the 148 mark he posted in both those seasons. He's still the best second baseman in baseball, an elite hitter, obvious All-Star, and intriguing MVP candidate.

Considering Cano hit only one home run each in April, May, and July, that's pretty freaking impressive.

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