Robbie Cano and the second half

 It doesn’t take a sabermetric analyst to tell you that Robinson Cano had a terrible first half of the 2015 season. His lack of appearance at this year’s Mid-Summer Classic can tell you a portion of the story on its own. The perennial All-Star has been exactly replacement level this season based on fWAR. His bWAR is a tad more forgiving at 0.4, but the point of the matter is simple: the Seattle Mariners did not pay $24 million for a replacement level player.

There have been several excellent articles written about Cano’s first-half struggles. Some aimed at pointing to an age-related decline likely being a factor in 32-year-old’s slump while others have been perplexed at how Cano simply isn’t getting results despite having one of the best hardest-hit rates in baseball.

As Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill recently pointed out, Cano has hit 97 balls at a rate of 95 MPH or better this season. That’s more than Mike Trout or Albert Pujols, the latter partaking in a late-career resurgence at the plate. Cano’s hit rate on those pitches is almost 15 percent lower than Trout’s, though, and if he had another 15 extra-base hits on the year, his overall performance would look much better.

The second baseman’s power numbers dropped dramatically in his first year at Safeco, but his wRC+ was only slightly less in 2014 than in 2013 at 136 and 142 respectively. Cano’s home and road splits tell a different story however as he posted better OPS, ISO, wRC+, wOBA and extra-base hit numbers at home than on the road. He did hit nine home runs on the road as opposed to five at home.

Looking at Cano’s batted ball data there isn’t anything in particular that stands out in 2015 compared to last year. Keep in mind we are still dealing with a smaller sample size for the current year. There are two things worth noting though.

As mentioned, Cano is hitting more than his fair share of balls hard and at a 6.2 percent rate higher than last year. Typically, hard-hit balls result in base hits. At least, the idea is that if one hits a ball really hard, a fielder won’t be able to make an out. But making a blanket statement like that suggest that there’s a strong correlation between a high batting average and high hard hit rates.

There is a stronger correlation between a higher batting average and a high contact rate. That’s how players such as Buster Posey have so much success: they don’t swing and miss much, and when they swing, they make it count.

Cano has actually been swinging at slightly fewer pitchers outside of the zone and slightly more at pitches that are in the zone. One concern is that he’s making contact on about five percent fewer pitches overall — he’s also swinging and missing at about two percent more pitches as well, with both marks in comparison to last year’s numbers.

The bigger concern though, is that the second baseman has seen his walk and strikeout rates go in opposite directions this year. His walk-rate is down from 9.2 percent to 4.6 percent while is strikeout rate is up from 10.2 percent to 17.3 percent. Plate discipline skills tend to improve with age, but Cano’s have deteriorated fast. In fact, he’s been noticeably bad in at-bats throughout the season.

Cano has been pitched around less with Nelson Cruz hitting behind him and has even admitted throughout the year that he’s been seeing better pitches to hit than last year. He just hasn’t been hitting them.

It certainly doesn’t help when your BABIP is down from .335 to .290. Cano’s career mark is .322 so last year’s mark may be a bit high. But we actually can attribute some of his failure’s this year to bad luck. If his BABIP is even 15 percentage points higher, his slash line could look a lot better.

Another thing Cano hasn’t been doing as much this year is hitting the ball the other way. He seemed to make a living last year of dumping a pitch off the plate into left field after working a count. His opposite field rate is about nine percent less in 2015, still nearly seven percent less than his career mark. This could be a result of pitcher’s making an adjustment to him. After all, that’s how Cano excelled last year: adjusting to how he was being pitched.

I wouldn’t expect that Robbie is simply failing to make adjustments. His track record would strongly suggest otherwise and is why many have tried to point to his true talent level as reason for optimism in the second half.

A rather alarming stat is how bad Cano has struggled with hitting the fastball. He has historically produced a wFB (weighted fastball runs above average) around 10 during his career. That number in 2015 is -2.9.

Pointing only to the fastball struggles is misleading as he’s been down against off-speed stuff as well, but the last time Cano hit fastballs that poorly was in 2008 with a -16 wFB. His 2008 season shares an oddly specific commonality to the first-half of 2015: he produced exactly 0.0 fWAR.

There are actually a few similarities between the two season beyond wins above replacement — not to suggest WAR is the be-all-end-all, but it tends to paint a decent picture. Cano’s wRC+ in 2008 was 86, one point higher than it was entering Friday’s games. His BABIP was a career-low .283, not too dissimilar from the first-half .290 mark. However, his slash line was better across the board, particularly in terms of batting average and slugging percentage.

That was also the last year he hit fewer than 20 home runs before 2014 with 14, identical to last year’s number. That’s about the pace he’s at now after two long balls on Saturday, but hitting home runs, or lack thereof, isn’t the issue at hand. Few were complaining last year when Cano was reaching base nearly 40 percent of the time. It’s when he’s not picking up hits or walks the lack of power production becomes further magnified.

The good news is that Cano has historically performed better in the second half of the season based on his career number. The problem is that hasn’t been the case in any of the previous three seasons. It was the case, though, in 2008. His wRC+ nearly doubled in the second half. If we are to believe that this season is an anomaly in the same vein as 2008, then there obvious reason for optimism. After all, we know Cano is better than he has performed.

Recently, Cano admitted that he has been battling a stomach virus since October that he thought had been treated. He goes so far as to say that he’s been sapped of energy and also mentions the loss of his grandfather as having impacted his performance.

It’s often easy to forget that these high-performance athletes are humans, too, and considering the combination of health problems — both mental and physical in this case — alongside heavy expectations, there could be very human reasons behind Cano’s first-half performance.

Unearthing some more information on what the second baseman is struggling with physically could be useful, but for now there’s not really any way to gain anything meaningful to quantify the effects.

The truth of the matter remains simple: what Cano will be in the second half and beyond is still unclear. I’m of the opinion that he will rebound some and we’ll  see his wRC+ finish around 100, or league average. Asking him to improve his wRC+ by 10-to-12 points shouldn’t be unreasonable.

Potential good news for 2016: Cano finished 2009 with a 3.6 fWAR in 2009 after his replacement level 2008. Meaning, he figured it out. The difference is that he wasn’t dealing with an energy-draining health issue. He’s also 32 going on 33 instead of 25 going on 26. Only time will tell.

Perhaps the All-Star break was the needed rest for the star to recover some. We’ll have to see if his performance changes over the next week or two. Maybe the remedy is a 15-day stint on the disabled list for simple rest and recovery.

There’s a very good chance that Cano will return to something resembling his former self. Whether it’s in the second half or next season. Though another six WAR season may be beyond his reach.

The problem is that in the time the Mariners spend waiting on Cano over the next couple weeks, it may be too late to save the 2015 season.

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Tyler Carmont

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