Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Would You Like To Take A Walk?

Since he bumped the woeful Tony Womack out of the lineup in 2005, Cano has quickly become my new favorite player, and the leading candidate in the “Next Yankees Jersey that Matt Buys” contest. Among other things, his left-handed swing is just one of those fun things to watch in baseball. I clearly remember Robinson's second MLB homer, because it was against the Red Sox. With the Yanks trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth, Cano smacked the first pitch he saw into the bleachers in right-center. I was hooked.

Last season Cano bounced back from a rough start and a hamstring injury to compete in a down-to-the-wire batting race with teammate Derek Jeter and the Twins’ Joe Mauer. Though he finished third, Cano proved the ability to use his sweet stroke to keep his batting average up. As many saber-friendly columnists have written about him, Cano needs to keep hitting line drives for hits in order to sustain his usefulness, as he has traditionally shown an inability to walk. His highest OBP in the minors at any extended stay was a .356 rate in half a season at AA Trenton in 2004. In the majors this trend has continued, as Robinson recorded just 34 walks in 1,004 at bats between 2005 and 2006.

Part of the reason for the lack of walks has been the number of pitches he sees per at bat. This has improved thus far in 2007, as Cano has raised his typical P/PA from 3.18 (career) to 3.74 (2007). His walk rate has improved considerably as a result- to 10.6 PA/BB (2007) versus 29.7 PA/BB (career). While Cano’s power has been lacking so far this season, he had the same number of extra base hits (2) that he had through the first eleven games of 2006.

In the meantime, Cano has shown an extra-ordinary ability to make contact when he swings. According to my calculations, in 2007 Cano has seen 185 pitches, and has swung at 90 of them. While this is a high rate, he has only missed while swinging on 16 of those pitches (an 80% contact rate), and has put the ball in play 37 of 90 swings (the other 37 are fouls, obviously). By comparison, Bobby Abreu- noted patient hitter and Cano’s mentor on the Yankees, swings at 38% of the pitches he sees, but makes contact with 80% of those. In addition, Cano is swinging at the first pitch a lot less (24% this season) than previously (35% career), but still way above his mentor’s career rate (a staggeringly low 14% for Abreu). For what it’s worth, Cano’s 13 first pitch swings this season have resulted in five fouls, three swinging strikes, and five balls in play: three flyouts, a double, and a groundout.

As a minor leaguer Cano was ridiculed for having a soft bat at the plate and hard hands in the field, and minor league observer John Sickels famously (among bloggers anyway) predicted that Cano would struggle, if he ever got to the majors. Clearly Robinson has made some adjustments as he started playing on the grand scale, but doubters were not convinced, having the “he doesn’t walk” complaints I alluded to above. It looks like he is again making adjustments and is improving his patience as well as his walk rate. However, I hope that Cano’s newfound ability to take pitches does not have long-term effects on his line-drive rate, which would impact his usefulness even more than an inability to walk. It will be telling season for Cano, as his third season officially dubs him as a “veteran,” and his long-term outlook should become clearer. I know that I’ll be excited for each at bat.

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