You don’t have to dig too deep to find an article on Robinson Cano’s early-season struggles. Everywhere from regional newspapers to ESPN.com, the extremely wealthy 32-year-old’s inability to hit baseballs is a hot topic. Rightly so, one would surmise, seeing as the guy’s hitting .253/.295/.337.
I still included Cano in the second tier — also known as the New Orleans Tier — of my May second-base rankings. (Spoiler alert: The tiers for next week’s June rankings will be named after Kurt Russell films.) In fact, I had Cano ranked second overall, and not a single commenter took umbrage with that ranking.
Like me, I assume everyone else probably just thought Cano was off to another slow start like last year — the difference, of course, being that last year he was at least getting on base. At this point, I’m starting to wonder whether he really belongs in that second tier at all. Let’s find out, shall we?
David Schoenfield’s ESPN.com piece that I linked to above does a good job of briefly summarizing several of Cano’s problem areas at the plate. The aspect that I’d like to dive into is Cano’s awful results against offspeed pitches, which ties into his rapidly declining strikeout-to-walk rate.
Regarding his waning ability to hit offspeed stuff, a quick glance at tabular data can give you a pretty good idea. Here’s “prime Cano” numbers, taken from 2012:
That guy crushed slow stuff. Unfortunately, that guy isn’t really around anymore:
In his prime, Cano was one of the absolute best offspeed hitters in the game. So far in 2015, he has just one extra-base hit against change-ups and splitters. That’s an important note — he’s still producing against breaking pitches. It’s not the movement of a slider or curveball that’s causing the problems. It’s an inability to react — or possibly to recognize in the first place — when a pitcher is changing speeds.
I phrased those last couple sentences carefully, because Cano’s been so thoroughly befuddled by offspeed pitches that it very nearly does not matter whether a pitcher throws those pitches in the zone or not. Through the season’s first seven weeks, Cano has taken a hack at just 58% of change-ups and splitters in the strike zone. At the same time, he’s swinging at 55% of those same pitches that miss the zone.
This isn’t a new problem for Cano. This particular decline started last year — albeit in such a manner that it wasn’t a bright red flag, until he continued the plunge in 2015. Here, just look at the graphic. It makes this point far better than my words do:
So, yeah. It doesn’t really matter where the pitch is thrown. If Cano gets a change, he’s swinging about half the time and taking it about half the time. I can only speculate as to the explanation — perhaps he’s sitting dead-red, trying to pull a few pitches over the fence to boost his flagging power numbers. Maybe he’s failing to recognize offspeed stuff out of the pitcher’s hand.
As one might expect, this has had a negative effect on his K:BB ratio. His walk rate sits at just 5.3% — his worst since 2009 — while he’s striking out in a career-worst 16.3% of his plate appearances. I guess that’s what happens when you swing at half the offspeed pitches you see outside the zone, while also taking half of the ones you see in the zone for called strikes.
Still, it’s impossible to count Cano out entirely. He’s one of the greatest hitters of the last decade. The guy hit over .300 six seasons in a row, while launching at least 25 bombs in five of those years — with much of his success coming against the very pitches that trouble him so today. Furthermore, as I said earlier, Cano had a slow start to last season as well, before finishing as the No. 5 fantasy second baseman.
However, there’s a big difference between his early-season power outage from last season and his early-season everything outage this year. Much like he’s sitting on one homer this season, Cano only had two by this time last year. Last season, though, he was hitting for a .330 AVG, compared to the .253 mark he’s at right now.
There’s a number of negative trends in the 32-year-old’s data over the last couple years, and they go far beyond any arguments about playing in a less-favorable home park. He’s the No. 44 second baseman in fantasy over the last month, and he’s at No. 33 on the year.
I don’t think he should.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.