Prior to the season, I wrote the following about Robinson Cano’s 2008:
Basically, a grounder is less likely to produce an out than a flyball, but outfield flyballs yield more runs. I would argue that Cano’s decline can be found in this point. Cano hit significantly fewer ground balls and more flyballs than he did in years past. Most Yankees fans know that when Cano has everything working, he is hitting line drives and ground balls right back through the middle. The decrease in ground balls definitely hurt him. Furthermore, Cano saw a sharp decrease in HR’s per flyball, suggesting that the flyballs that he was hitting were less dangerous than in years past. Essentially, Cano hit fewer grounders and more flyballs without gaining the run production that increased flyballs would give a hitter whose swing is not faulty. One other point to notice is that Cano’s O-Contact% and FB% saw a significant increase, affirming the point that pitchers were throwing Robbie fastballs out of the zone, and he was more than willing to just put them in play rather than fouling them off or laying off of them.
This all essentially confirms the mechanical issues discussed above. Cano was flying open and jerking his head, leading to a multitude of soft popups. Rather than take those pitches up the middle or the other way, Robbie played into the pitchers hands by attempting to pull everything. Bad mechanics, rather than bad luck, were what killed Robinson Cano’s 2008.
So what happened in 2009 to correct these flaws? On the face of it, the numbers suggest that Cano did not dramatically improve in the areas that hurt him in 2008. He hit even fewer groundballs in 2009, made even more contact out of the zone than before, and continued to see a steady diet of fastballs. Conversely, his BABIP went back to his career levels, his K-rate was a career low, while his IsoP and HR/FB were career high’s. Was Cano just luckier in 2009?
I think not, and believe that we can explain his bounceback in the same terms that we addressed his awful 2008. Cano continued to expand his zone in 2009, but was more comfortable going with the pitch on the outer half. In fact, he made even more contact on those pitches than usual, leading to him striking out less. Increased and better contact on those pitches led to more of his fly balls leaving the ballpark than in the previous season, meaning he finally saw the benefits of trading ground balls for fly balls. New Yankee Stadium certainly helped, but his IsoP was almost as good on the road as it was at home. To sum up, I believe that Cano saw a BABIP increase because he was making better and more consistent contact on pitches on the outer half and out of the strike zone, leading to more homers and general power on fly balls than he got last season. Kevin Long worked particularly hard with Cano in the offseason regarding reaching that ball on the outer edges and going the other way with it, and I believe it paid off.
Note: After I finshed this post I had a discussion with Greg Fertel of Pending Pinstripes, who pointed me towards xBABIP, which is supposed to determine how much of the BABIP can be attributed to luck. Cano’s xBABIP was .315 this season and .313 last (compared to a .286 BABIP), suggesting that he may have just been unlucky all along. I would counter by pointing out that xBABIP does not factor in the elements that I discussed, in that HR/FB is not a portion of that calculation, and the power of the fly balls cannot really be tested. As I noted in the article from March, I think Cano’s struggles were easily diagnosed, and I went back and looked at some old highlights to confirm my suspicions. However, I did want to provide all of the information, so just know that xBABIP may suggest that my conclusion is not entirely accurate.