Steve Goldman recently wrote an interesting post over at Pinstripe Bible about the Yankee lineup and the best place in it for Robinson Cano:
A career .306/.339/.480 hitter, Cano freezes up with runners on base. This was clearly demonstrated last season, when he batted only .255/.288/.415 with men on and .207/.242/.332 with runners in scoring position. Conversely, leading off an inning he hit an incredible .441/.459/.797. Batting with the bases empty, he hit .376/.407/.609. While Cano hasn’t been this extreme every year, he has been fairly consistent in this regard. He’s a career .256/.291/.398 hitter with runners in scoring position, .280/.312/.425 with men on, and .331/363/.528 with the bases empty.
This doesn’t mean that Cano isn’t a good hitter, but that he simply has limitations. To get the most out of Cano, a manager might keep him out of RBI spots. Now, when you have one of the best offenses in baseball, your whole batting order is an RBI spot. That’s why the second spot in the order is a place he might prosper. Even if the Yankees get another .400 OBP from their leadoff man, Cano would be batting with the bases empty 60 percent of the time, do his best hitting, and be on base for Mark Teixeira, A-Rod, et al. The downside is that you might get a few extra Cano double-play specials when the leadoff man does reach base.
Basically, Goldman suggests that the 2 slot in the order would be a good fit for Cano, being that it is not an “RBI spot” and would maximize what you can get from him. I think this idea has two flaws. Firstly, Cano will only be batting with the bases empty 60 percent of the time in his first at bat. After that at bat, all subsequent at bats will likely have the guys at the bottom of the order hitting before him as well as the leadoff man, meaning he will be in more RBI spots than Goldman suggests.
More importantly, the Yankees should not be ordering their lineup to do what is best for Cano while disregarding what is best for the club. I am quite certain that Cano’s career .339 OBP makes him a bad fit in the 2 spot, as you want someone in that slot to reach base for A-Rod and Teixeira. Rigging the lineup to help Cano in a way that will hurt the two sluggers does not seem like a great plan.
Furthermore, Goldman’s overall point presupposes the idea that we should expect Cano to continue to fail in “clutch” spots going forward simply because he has done so in the past. To steal a thought from Fack Youk, there’s a big difference between “hasn’t” and “can’t”. Just because Cano has not been able to perform as well with runners on in the past does not mean that he cannot. As Greg at Pending Pinstripes notes:
It is very evident that, to date, Cano has been very unclutch in his career. This doesn’t signal that he will be unclutch going forward. Another conclusion on clutch hitting from The Book is:
For all practical purposes, a player can be expected to hit equally well in the clutch as he would be expected to do in an ordinary situation.
This thought made me curious as to whether there was something changing in regard to Cano’s approach with runners on base that we could point to and say, “That is why he fails in the clutch.” Thankfully, SG over at RLYW looked at this issue recently. He examined luck factors, batted ball data, and pitch type, and found the following:
Honestly, I expected to see more of a split here in the underlying data, but it’s just not there. Cano’s results to this point with runners on base are markedly worse than his results with the bases empty, but it’s not because of any obvious change in his approach in the two scenarios, unless I’m missing something here or not considering something that I should be. I guess this is encouraging, because it means we really shouldn’t have any reason to think that Cano will continue to hit as poorly with men on base as he has so far.
Greg at PP had similar results in his study linked above, suggesting that nothing in the observable data reflects a change in approach by Cano with men on base. I would like to put forth an alternative theory, although I do not have much evidence to support it due to my inability to split certain data sets into bases empty v. men on base sections.
After Cano’s awful 2008, I made the following assertion:
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.
This point was supported by Pitch F/x research done by Josh Kalk and the batted ball and swing data, and I am quite confident in its accuracy. Cano bounced back in 2009, and the data showed me the following:
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.
Cano’s spray charts, linked in the 2009 post, suggest that this interpretation of Cano’s performance has some merit to it. To state my conclusion succinctly, I believe Cano’s poor 2008 was the result of attempting to pull everything, and that his turnaround was the result of a focused attempt to take pitches on the middle and outer portions of the plate the other way.
What does this have to do with our discussion of clutch? Well, I would posit that Cano may have his 2008 issues regarding pulling the ball whenever there are runners on base. As Kevin Long and most other coaches would tell you, a player that attempts to pull everything is simply trying to do too much, attempting to change the entire game with one swing. That mindset snowballed on Cano in 2008, as the more he struggled, the more he attempted to alter things by crushing the ball. It may be possible that he always has that “trying to do too much” mindset when there are runners on base, and therefore fails to focus on taking pitches the other way and gets pull happy. If this is in fact the problem, some more work with Kevin Long might be able to solve it. (Anecdotally, because it does not really mean much in the way of proof, I would like to note that Cano’s 2008 numbers and his career numbers with men on base are very similar).
This is simply a theory, and I myself am not entirely convinced of it. I would just as soon believe that there is absolutely nothing behind Cano’s struggles with men on base, and that we should expect him to perform to his overall career averages regardless of the situation going forward. However, if you do believe that something must be changing with runners on base, I think this is as good a theory as any, and does have some factual underpinnings in terms of the 2008 data.
What are your thoughts on the issue?