Anatomy of a player: Robinson Cano

While the Yankees pulled themselves over the .500 mark with a win on Sunday, their second baseman Robinson Cano is off to a dismal start at the plate. Cano is hitting, and I use that term very lightly, .154/.214/.256. That is the line you would expect from a pitcher, not a second baseman who has hit no worse than .297 in his three years with the team. What is going on here? Is this just a horrible streak of bad luck for Cano or will he struggle along all season?

When something like this happens to a batter, his groundball/line drive/pop-up rates are a good first place to look. Cano’s groundball percentage is just a tad lower than his numbers from previous seasons at 49 percent and his line drive percentage is right in line at 17.6. But his infield pop-ups are an alarming 14.7 percent, compared to last year’s 4.8 percent. It appears that Cano is getting under a lot of balls and hitting easy pop-ups as a result. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some PITCHf/x data to see where Cano might be having trouble.

Here’s how Cano has handled fastballs in 2007 and 2008

2007

2008

In 2007, Cano feasted on fastballs, especially fastballs that were away from him (remember, Cano bats left-handed so balls that have a negative x are on the outside part of the plate). This is very unusual for left-handed batters, who tend to hit better on balls that are middle in; most seem to prefer the ball down in the zone. Cano had great success going the other way with these balls away from him even if they ended up being only singles. Also, while Cano did swing at a lot of balls up in the zone, he tended to foul most of these off or swing and miss.

In 2008, Cano is not doing much with the balls on the outer half of the plate. He has very few hits to the opposite field, which seems to indicate that he is pressing and trying to pull this pitch instead of going the other way with it. Notice how few balls he has had to hit on the inner part of the plate this year. This makes sense because if he is trying to pull everything, pitchers should be working him away. As for the balls up in the zone, Cano is actually making more contact this year than last year but many of those have gone for the weak pop-ups we noted before. If he continues to pop this pitch up, the only remedy is for him to stop swinging at those pitches.

These issues become even more pronounced when we look at how he has done against change-ups this year.

Cano simply can’t lay off low and away change-ups from right-handed pitching. While he is making contact with these pitches, he is often rolling over and weakly grounding out. The change-up from a right-handed pitcher moves away from a left-handed batter and it appears that Cano is getting fooled often by these pitches and swinging even when the ball is far outside the strike zone. It also points to the possibility that Cano isn’t picking up the ball quickly and thinks fastball only to swing and realize the pitch was a change-up away from him. Again, because he is getting himself out on this pitch, he is seeing a pretty hefty diet of off-speed pitches away. Cano needs to lay off this pitch if he is to get better pitches to hit.

While it is extremely unlikely that Cano is going to keep hitting this far below the Mendoza line, it definitely appears that something significant has changed in his approach this season. First and foremost, Cano simply has to be more selective at the plate. His problem isn’t swinging and missing at pitches but putting way too many balls in play when the pitch is a foot outside the zone. When he becomes more selective, pitchers will have to come in to him and then he can effectively pull the ball the way it appears he wants so desperately to do. Unless he can make these corrections, he is going to have a long season.

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