Sizing up a Robinson Cano rebound

In a matter of days Robinson Cano will have completed his  third Spring Training as a member of the Seattle Mariners. The excitement and shock of the surprise free agent signing has settled into a reality that one of the game’s top players chose to make his home in Seattle. In fact, the reality of the ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’ nature of professional sports has also settled in with some expressing doubt about the rest of the slugger’s career after a down season.

Certainly nobody expected Cano to be a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate for the duration of his contract — ten years is a long time — but to be doubting his future performance this early on is surprising. Some of the concern is warranted though since Cano isn’t 28-years-old anymore and for the first-half of 2015 he looked like a shell of his regular self. What does this mean for his 2016 season? Let’s take a deeper look.

The 33-year-old’s 2015 season is a tale of two halves: the first-half Cano that was among the worst position players in baseball and the second-half Cano who out-performed Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt. We can see the differences in the following chart.

 Robinson Cano’s 2015 Statistics
Position PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+ ISO BB% K% HR 2B fWAR
First-Half 369 .251 .290 .370 .290 83 .118 4.6% 17.3% 6 23  -0.4
Second-Half 305 .331 .387 .540 .348 157 .209 8.5% 14.1% 15 11 2.5

If you didn’t know any better, you’d say that each half belonged to an entirely different player. For a player who had accumulated 30.0 fWAR in the previous five seasons, such a slow start seems unprecedented. But, when we apply the information that we now have, it starts to make more sense.

Last July, it was revealed that Cano had been battling a stomach virus since August in the previous season. That in and of itself could explain the first-half slump. Cano mentioned that he hadn’t been able to eat normally and didn’t have any energy.

If we go back to September of 2014 we can see where his offense tailed off, likely due to the virus. His 104 wRC+ for the month plus a couple October games was his lowest of the season since April. Cano’s power also took a hit as his .133 ISO for September was significantly less than his .211 mark for August. When we look at the left-hander’s monthly splits for the first-half of 2015 we see a similarly decreased power output. There were also increased strikeout and decrease walk rates, uncharacteristic of the well-disciplined second baseman.

So, with the stomach virus in the rearview mirror, Cano should have been in the clear, right? Wrong.At the end of the season the six-time All-Star would end up having surgery to repair a sports hernia injury. It’s likely that the injury stemmed from a strained abdomen Cano suffered in late July.

Surprisingly, the injury seemingly didn’t impact his offensive performance given the excellent numbers put up. Where the injury was noticeable was in the field as Cano appeared limited some at second. Undoubtedly the two-time Gold Glove winner was in significant pain, but the second-half performance should relieve any doubt that he wasn’t committed to the franchise or wanted out of Seattle.

It’s also worth mentioning that Cano was dealing with the loss of his grandfather early in the season, who was an influential figure in his life. I’m not going to pretend that I could know what his mindset was like during that time. But it’s safe to say that it may not have been within the confines of the diamond. Understandable and expected.

Now we can move on to the upcoming season, where a healthy Cano should be able to pick up where he left off in 2015.

Both the ZiPS and Steamer projections like Cano to rebound back to a 3-4 fWAR player. It’s fair to expect some hesitancy in thinking he will immediately return to the top-calibre player he was before this past season. Especially since he’ll turn 34 in October. But he still projects as the top second baseman in the game and really, he’s still Robbie Cano.

One of the big reasons why a rebound shouldn’t be an issue is the return of Cano’s bat in the second half, but another reason is that really, the bat never went anywhere; the results did. In the first-half he posted a hard-hit rate of 34.7 percent, which was higher than his career mark of 32.8 percent. The problem was that all those line drives were generating outs instead of hits, and this was reflected in his .290 BABIP in the first-half compared to his career .323 mark.

This isn’t to say his first-half performance was entirely bad luck, really, he struggled. What it does say or tries to say is that Cano’s results should have been better than they were. I touched on this back in July while offering some optimism for Cano’s second half.

Assuming Cano produces a BABIP closer to his norm — the .348 mark he posted in 2015’s second-half seems a tad high — he will also have the benefit of hitting in a more well-rounded lineup.

While I don’t buy in to the theory of lineup protection being a significant variable in hitter performance, it does stand to reason that if more runners are on base, there should be more hittable pitches available to a batter. This isn’t a runners in scoring position thing, either.

Nori Aoki and Ketel Marte are the probable candidates to hit at the top of the order and the likes of Chris Iannetta and Leonys Martin project to hit at the bottom of the order. All told, that should offer improvement in terms of on-base percentage compared to what we have seen in year’s past.

To be honest, and this can be said about every player, if Cano is healthy he will perform. All signs point to that being the case. There’s too long of a track record here to ignore. Some age-related decline could be expected for 2016, but other than that and should everything else remain equal, I’m expecting Cano to bounce back to the player he’s capable of being. Maybe he doesn’t have another six-WAR season in him, but I’d take the over on 4.0 fWAR being his ceiling for 2016.

If Seattle is to end the longest playoff drought in the majors, you can bet that No. 22 is going to have a big say in making that happen.

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Tyler Carmont

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