Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cano Can Still Rake

Cano collapsed in the first half last year (Fox Sports)
Apparently, Robinson Cano isn't happy in Seattle. Good thing he only has eight years to go on his current contract, which he signed prior to the 2014 season. Last time I checked, the Mariners were giving him 240 million reasons to be very, very happy.

Maybe it's because they haven't made the playoffs since he got there (they recently fired their GM, so there's a lot of uncertainty around the team right now, too). Maybe the weather's getting him down. Maybe he hates Starbucks.

I don't know. All I know is, happy or not, he's continued to produce. Even when he has one of the worst first halves I've ever seen.

Somehow, he still ended up with tremendous numbers. Somehow, he righted the ship after taking on water for three months. Cano has always been a better second-half hitter, but he'd never had a first half as ugly as this.

It all began innocently enough, with a tough opening week for the All-Star second baseman. Seeing as how plenty of players start slow--they're still getting their timing back and adjusting to better quality pitching than they faced in spring training--nobody noticed. They certainly couldn't have known it was the start of a three-month malaise.

That bad first week quickly snowballed into a bad first month, which saw Cano hit just .253/.292/.374 with one home run and six RBI in April. It was his worst April since 2008--his worst season--so that should have been a sign that his struggles were far from over.

At the time, though, it seemed to be nothing more than a slow start. Cano had been so consistently good for so long, enjoying a decade of uninterrupted brilliance (excluding '08), that his poor April barely registered. Anyone can have a bad month--it just so happened that Cano's was the first one, when there are no other stats to mask it. Besides, his month wasn't even that bad. Sandwiched in between a pair of sluggish weeks was an 11-game hit streak, over which he batted .409. He'd be fine. Did I mention that Cano usually starts slow?

His May was even worse. After starting to pull out of his funk in early May, Cano went ice-cold, batting his weight with just two extra base hits over the month's final three weeks. When the calendar flipped to June, Cano's slash stats were even worse than when May began. A third of the season had passed, and he had two home runs and 16 RBI to show for it.

By this point the fans and media were growing restless. "What was wrong with Cano?" they asked. "Where had his power gone?" "Am I crazy to drop him like a hot potato from my fantasy team?"

Historically, April and May have been the worst months of Cano's career, so there was hope that he'd get back to his old self in June, especially as the weather warmed. At the very least, positive regression to the mean would give him a boost. He couldn't possibly be any worse.

Except that he was. Cano had almost as many hitless games (11) as games with hits (14), which dragged his average down below .240. He struck out 22 times against a mere four walks. And his once prodigious power? Nowhere to be found.

It was incomprehensible that a perfectly healthy Cano could enter July hitting just .238/.277/.344 with four home runs and 24 RBI. Alarm bells were going off everywhere. His power had evaporated, he was striking out more than ever before, and his walks were down. This wasn't just a slump--this was a 32 year-old second baseman falling off a cliff. Dave Cameron said as much when he wrote Cano had the lowest trade value in baseball.
Cano flipped a switch in July and was fine the rest of the way (NY Post)
Yet, even in the midst of that deep-freeze, there were still signs that Cano would turn it around. Grantland's Jonah Keri noted that Cano was flashing one of the 20 best exit velocities in baseball. He was still hitting the ball as hard as ever--those rockets just weren't translating into hits. His BABiP was .277, nearly 50 points below his career average and almost 60 points off his 2014 mark. As long as Cano kept smoking line drives, it was only a matter of time before they began to fall.

And fall they did. Cano kicked off July with a 4-for-5 day--his first four-hit effort of the season--which included a double and a homer. Two days later, he rapped out three more hits, lifting his average up to .250. With nine hits in the week leading up to the All-Star Game, including three of the the extra base variety, he'd suddenly caught fire.

Without a Midsummer Classic or home run derby to compete in, Cano was able to get some much-needed rest and clear his head for a few days. It seemed to do him some good, for when the second half began he looked like the Cano of old. After swatting two home runs his second game back, against his former team in his old home park, he was off and running. He clubbed three more dingers before the month was out. When July ended, his OPS was 100 points higher than when it began.

Cano was just getting warmed up. After batting .337/.398/.622 in July, he raked at a .351/.403/.491 clip in August. He hit safely in 22 of 28 games that month, compiling a dozen multi-hit performances along the way. One of those was a five-hit day at Fenway Park; another was a four-knock night in Chicago. His OPS rose another 40 points in August as his batting line swelled to a respectable .283/.330/.416.

With Seattle playing out the string in September, Cano continued to mash. Saving his best for last, he recorded at least one hit in all but four of his final 42 games, blazing to the finish line on a 16-game hit streak. He also kicked his power up a notch, blasting seven home runs over the season's final month.

When the dust settled, Cano had batted .330/.383/.536 over his final 82 games, with 17 homers and 55 RBI. With even a normal first half, he would have finished with MVP-caliber numbers instead of the very good ones (.287/.334/.446--21--79) he wound up with.

Cano's remarkable turnaround was largely fueled by a bounce back in BABiP, which was .351 from July 1st onward. It's also possible that he benefited from a lineup change. After batting Cano third and occasionally second throughout the first half, Lloyd McClendon started hitting him cleanup after the All-Star Break and left him there. Cano had been hitting .252/.291/.384 before the switch but immediately went on an eight-game hitting streak, batting .333/.389/.528 the rest of the way.

So when baseball resumes in a few months, the Mariners would be wise to bat their best player fourth. He's far from done, and he's still worth every penny.

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