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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?

21 Responses to “Why Does Cano Fail In The Clutch?”

  1. This is silly. The same logic would have had us batting Arod ninth in the playoffs because he had not been clutch before then. I think Cano will just get better and better in pressure situations as he matures. That said, he is still a back of the lineup hitter until he can show plate discipline for a few years.  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I think the fact that Cano has had such issues over his entire career makes it a bit different than the A-Rod situation. However, as I said in the post, just because he has not performed in the clutch does not mean that he can not. I was just trying to identify why he has not until this point.  (Quote)

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  2. What do Cano’s splits look like regressed to the mean? Cano only had 184 AB with RISP last year, so there’s certainly room for variance to take over. 143 of his AB’s led off an inning.

    I think your theory has some merit but I also think that too much credence is being lent to small sample sizes.  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I do agree that SSS is an issue. That said, this has been an issue over his entire career, and he has more than a seasons worth of AB’s with RISP and 2 seasons worth with men on, and the numbers are significantly worse than those with the bases empty. It is not an enormous sample, but a season or two’s worth of data should be enough to draw at least tentative conclusions.  (Quote)

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  3. I don’t know about it being a “small sample size.” I mean, sure if you only look at last year then it’s a SSS. However, it’s not something new to Robbie. He is entering his age 27 season I believe, and this is supposed to be his peak of his career. I am not saying that Cano isn’t great; I don’t believe he gets enough credit for as good as he is. He does have certain areas he struggles in though, and I think there is a legit chance that he doesn’t ever get to the superstar level that many (myself included) believed he would get to.  (Quote)

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  4. The one aspect about having Cano bat second is that all these Yankees fans that do not want Johnson batting second because he will clog up the base paths, will have someone faster and would allow Johnson to drop in the batting order.

    Jeter
    Cano
    Teix
    A-Rod
    Granderson
    Posada
    Johnson
    Swisher
    Gardner  (Quote)

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    JMK aka The Overshare Reply:

    Dusty? Dusty Baker? Is that you?  (Quote)

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    Rob in CT Reply:

    The problem with this, aside from vastyly overrating speedy guys, is that Cano is *not* a good baserunner. He’s probably better than Nick Johnson, but I can’t imagine he’s NEARLY better enough to justify the OBP hit.

    I think Steve Goldman would concede he was just throwing something against the wall to see if it stuck. Toying with an idea. Buried in that post, he notes that it makes even more sense with Swisher (very good OBP, aslo some RISP struggles).

    But Johnson is even better. Jeter-NJ-Tex-Arod should be the front four. After that, I’d play around a bit depending on whether the opposing pitcher is lefty or righty (against righties, I might go Granderson-Posada-Cano-Swisher-Gardner/Winn).  (Quote)

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  5. Hi Moshe..I ninth 7 or 8 also works…if he is 2sd nobody on 8 or 9th inn. yanks down by 1 or 2 runs.. big guys coming up…his pressure would be the same as if he has to drive one in.. get on in that spot or drive them in.. he does not walk and in tough spots swings at any thing. no way he could ever hit on top.. never.. girardi again last year played around with fifth and second he stunk.. no more exper. take the pressure off let him hit where he is in his zone..I have a motto never put a person in a spot they do not belong in.. you will regret it time and again..so we have the greatest #9 hitter of all time ,,works for me..  (Quote)

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  6. NUTS. This is a very good / excellent young player who is highly productive.  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    Thanks for the input. He’s an excellent young player who is highly productive AND has been bad with runners on base for his entire career. No shame in noticing that.  (Quote)

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    bornwithpinstripes Reply:

    i think now that melky and abreu are gone his game is more focused and will have a great year.  (Quote)

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  7. Great article, Moshe. I’d like to think that there’s really not much correlation to his numbers with men on and men in scoring position, akin to how A-Rod was a “choker” in the playoffs. That said, the numbers would suggest there’s some type of mechanical/approach problem. If he felt undue pressure in 2008 and pulled balls too often, and in RBI situations in 2009 reverted to the same form, this may be an incremental battle. He knows how to hit, he makes solid contact but he is impatient. Pitchers know he’ll Vlad-swing and might be giving him less to hit in RBI situations, knowing he could get the pitcher out of the jam being too aggressive. I realize this sounds preposterous—pitchers generally do not wish to walk guys or stay out of the zone when men are on base. But knowing Cano’s struggles and his general tendencies, perhaps not giving him good pitches to hit, in addition to his mechanical/nervous issues could be the reasons.

    /rambling  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I dont think its preposterous. I think certain guys are known for helping the pitcher out in a big spot, which incentivizes pitching out of the zone. I’d like to drill into the data further, but Im not sure I have the necessary splits.

    PS: When’s your blog starting?  (Quote)

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    JMK aka The Overshare Reply:

    I wonder if the Bloomberg software has the answers?

    Re the blog: Steve H and I have the domain and host purchased.

    http://www.mystiqueandaura.com/

    However, neither of us are remotely tech savvy, so I’m going to bug a buddy of mine this weekend to get the WordPress software all integrated and the e-mail addresses all set up. I thought it would be a much simpler process (even for my beta brain), but the hope is we’ll have everything set up by mid-next week at the latest and content up shortly thereafter. I already have about four pieces written. Trust me, they’re not scholarly. It’s juuust above dick-and-fart jokes.  (Quote)

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    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    I look forward to it. That’s a great blog name.  (Quote)

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  8. Don’t know if tracking pitches could help figure this out, but it looks to me as if Cano is unclutch because when the bases are empty pitchers come over the plate a lot more often. Since Cano swings so early in the count, he’s often getting good pitches to hit and can do something with them. With runners on pitchers become more careful, are careful to leave fewer pitches over the plate early in the count. Cano is still swinging at one of the first few pitches, but the pitches aren’t as good.  (Quote)

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  9. Take a look at Casey Blake’s stats with RISP and nobody on base. For 6 of his 7 years he was much worse with RISP.  (Quote)

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  10. Moshe – Do your stats show that Cano does not swing at more pitches out of the zone with RISP?  (Quote)

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  11. I cannot help but feel that there should be either a statistical correction due to previous bad luck, or an improvement based on coaching and K-long showing him how his approach with runners on in ’09 was very similar to his overall approach in ’08, and failed him similarly (if that is the case). What’s almost scary to think of is, not only can cano get better as all hitters can going into their primes, but that cano’s weaknesses are not only stark, but also would appear to be quite correctible, which could lead to an extreme increase in production. Cano’s probably never going to evolve into a hitter who OBPs .400 or better (at least not consistently), but if he somehow manages to apply his rate stats with the bases empty over all his plate appearances, he could be a pretty consistent .330/.360/.580 hitter who is good for 30+ dingers a year. Scary.  (Quote)

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