Robinson Cano’s power vanished in 2014 without a clear explanation. Most believe that he will be valuable even if the power does not return. I think Cano’s risk going forward is greater than meets the eye.
After sporting an ISO of at least .199 every year from 2009 to 2013, Cano posted a mark of .139 in 2014. There is reason to believe that this power outage is permanent. Robinson Cano was a different kind of hitter in 2014. His ground ball percentage was 53% (up from 44% in 2013), and his average HR/FB distance plummeted from 292 to 278. Cano was mostly incapable of hitting fly balls to his pull side, which is where his home-run power used to be, despite swinging at more pitches middle-in. Cano’s aging bat may be unable to turn on major-league pitching the way it used to. As noted elsewhere, Cano’s 2014 power numbers had little to do with the move from Yankee Stadium to Safeco. His problem was that he hit the ball in the air less frequently, with less authority, and to the wrong side of the ballpark.
Aging may have played a role, but it is unusual for an elite slugger’s power to disappear at age 31 without something else going on. Perhaps Cano was dealing with an injury. Perhaps his amazing run from 2009-2013 was fueled by PEDs. We don’t know. But consider the similarities between Cano’s pre-elite 2008 line and his line from last year:
It’s easy to forget that Cano was a replacement level second baseman in 2008. BABIP (along with the changing run environment) is mostly what separates his 2008 replacement level performance from the five-win version of Cano we saw in 2014. The stability of last year’s BABIP may be the key to Cano’s value going forward—a terrifying thought for the Mariners, who presumably did not intend to invest $240 million in the vagaries of BABIP.
There is conflicting data on what to expect from Cano’s balls in play in 2015. For example, ZIPS predicts .323—not so bad. Jeff Zimmerman’s xBABIP formula predicts .299—much closer to the 2008 disaster scenario. Neither of these predictions fully accounts for shifts, and Cano’s performance against them in 2014 is concerning. His BABIP was .388 against the shift and .303 without it. This is disconcerting because Cano displayed no such shift-beating prowess before last year, and his 2014 spray chart suggests no change in his approach that would justify any BABIP spike. To the contrary, last year Cano hit an alarming number of grounders to the right side of the infield, which should have favored the shifted infield defenses. It appears that Cano got lucky—perhaps very lucky—with his 2014 balls in play. My money is on something closer to the xBABIP prediction for 2015.
Cano went from an elite slugger to a BABIP-fueled slap hitter in a short period of time. His 2014 output was akin to an early-career Ichiro, except unlike Ichiro, we lack assurances that Cano will maintain the high BABIP. If the power is truly gone and the BABIP craters, he’s toast—or at least something closer to league average. The risk of collapse is higher than most want to believe, if for no other reason than this same risk was once realized by the same player.