Let me be clear from the start: Robinson Cano is an excellent baseball player. Prior to his arrival in the major leagues, the standard take on Cano was that his glove would not play at second, but his bat would not play anywhere further down the defensive spectrum.
Cano has proven the analysts wrong on both counts, as his glove rounded into shape at second, and his bat would play at any position — even DH (if Victor Martinez can do it… but let’s not go there again). From where I sit, with Chase Utley in decline, Cano has a good claim to being the best second baseman in baseball (depending on what you think of the relative merits of his fielding relative to Dustin Pedroia’s).
But while I roll my eyes when my fellow small-market fans start a round of whining about Yankee X being “overrated because he is on the Yankees,” (cf. my love for Jesus Montero) this phenomenon may have taken hold with Cano. Whatever the reason, starting at the end of 2011 season and extending into the post-season commentary and beyond, I began noticing a wave of “whatever problems the Yankees might have, at least they have Robinson Cano, one of the awesomest hitters in baseball” on broadcasts, articles, and Twitter.
Stuff like this happens every year with different players, so I was going to let it go, but then I read Jayson “Lost Nix Brother” Stark’s recent article on the best 3-4 combinations in baseball. Inspired by the Tigers adding Prince Fielder to Miguel Cabrera in the middle of their lineup (and understandably putting that combination on top), for his second-ranked combination, Stark chose Cano and Alex Rodriguez from the Yankees. I am not going to get into the “rankings” and comparisons of 3-4 combos (although that would be a task worth taking on itself), but rather want to point out Stark’s comments on Cano, which really summed up much of the recent attitude regarding him:
If A-Rod were still in his prime, we might even place this twosome ahead of Cabrera and Prince. But that’s an ‘if’ larger than Mount Kilimanjaro. A-Rod turns 37 in July, with a degenerative hip all his own, and he’s had a sub-.850 OPS in back-to-back seasons. So who knows — it’s possible he could even be supplanted in the cleanup slot by Mark Teixeira at some point. Nevertheless, Cano’s stature has now grown so immense, he compensates for all of A-Rod’s glitches. He’s a shooting star who appears ready to ascend to the Yankees’ exalted No. 3 hole, because, simply put, he has become the most powerful force in one of baseball’s scariest lineups. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is saying something.
That’s right, A-Rod is in decline (and, Teixeira is, too), but by himself, Robinson Cano lifts the Yankees middle-of-the-order onto a status with a bunch of other .400 wOBA combinations. I realize that pinning subjective labels like “overrated” onto players and claims is to a large extent a pointless task given the vague and mobile nature of the targets, but this has been bugging me for a while and something had to be done while the trail of the “shooting star” was still visible. In short: Cano is a tremendous player, and the Yankees still have a very good offense. But Cano is not one of baseball’s very best hitters, at least based on the evidence we have so far.
Again, Cano is very good, but given that those making such claims from Cano are doing so (I suspect, given their other work) based less on projections (to which I will also get, don’t worry). For one thing, Cano really seemed to become the Justin Verlander of hitters (“OMG he’s so historically awesome, you only see performances like this every season!”) during 2011. You know, when Cano was one of the three or four best hitters in baseball. Wait, I mean he was the 30th-best out of 145 qualified MLB hitters with a 133 wRC+. But that’s probably because all those guys from the National League are in there, right? It’s not like he had only the 12th-highest wRC+ among American League qualifiers, behind non-meteorites like Alex Gordon, Alex Avila, and Paul Konerko, right?
But, hey, he was clearly the best hitter on the 2011 Yankees’ incredible offense. You know, except for Curtis Granderson, who was worth more than win more than Cano as a hitter (43 versus 32 runs created above average). That is probably just a quirk of linear weights-based metrics like wOBA, I can see how writers would have missed that Granderson had a far superior season. The only hitting categories in which he did better than Cano in 2011 were: on-base percentage (.364 to .349), slugging (.552 to .533), isolated power (.290 to .231) and home runs (41 to 28). Overwhelming snark aside, would it be churlish of me to suggest that some people might have been seduced by the still-apparently-not-without-its-charm powers of batting average, in which Cano held a .302-to-.265 advantage over Granderson?
There is another, better way of looking at this, of course. After all, what Stark and those like him are really looking for when they make statements like he did about Cano is not what they did, but what they are going to do in the near future — their “true talent.” After all, Cano was pretty clearly the Yankees’ best hitter in observed performance in 2010, and over the last three seasons he has been just ahead of A-Rod and Mark Teixeira, both of whom are older and in decline. Indeed, once goes through the process of regression, age adjustment, and so on for the various components on the way to estimating a player’s true talent — a “projection,” Cano probably is the Yankees’ best hitter.
Take Dan Symzborki’s 2012 ZiPS projections (which in their current form uses OPS+, which is good enough for now, although wOBA/wRC+ or other linear-weights based metrics are obviously better). ZiPS does indeed list Cano first at with a 121 OPS+ (Teixeira has a 122 OPS+, but let’s not quibble for now) for 2012, and although that is not far ahead of Granderson’s projected 118 OPS+ and Alex Rodriguez’s 115 OPS+, it is still right up at the top of a very good offense.
Remember, I am being generous to Stark and his colleagues: in 2011, Cano was out-hit by many players that do not seem to have received “shooting star”-level hype recently, including one of his own teammates, so it might be more generous to about true talent. In that respect, Cano is arguably the best hitter on what is still an excellent offense, despite the aging of some key contributors. But does that mean he is a primordial force of nature unmatched by few others? That is the issue here — not Cano versus the other Yankees (my point above was that it would be odd to pick out Cano’s 2011 as incredible on a league level when he was not even close to having the best season on his own team), but Cano as incredible versus the rest of the league.
Dan Szymborski, ZiPS’ creator, goes one team at a time, so we do not have a listing of all the player projections ranked by OPS+ just yet, but here are just a few of the non-”shooting star” (as determined by press hype) players (other than team-mate Mark Teixeira) I found quickly glancing through the 2012 ZiPS projections who have with an OPS+ projected higher than Cano’s 121: Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer (he may yet garner “shooting star” status, but don’t hold your breath on Gordon or Butler), Matt Holliday (maybe unfair to put him on here, as he’s awesome, but he’s incredibly underrated), and Zombie Carlos Beltran. I do not think any of those players would receive the hype that Cano has from Stark and his colleagues, but they all project as better hitters. Even if it is pretty close (and given the uncertainty of projections, that has to be kept in mind), I do not think that those players would be described having an “immense” stature as hitters.
To repeat: Robinson Cano is an outstanding baseball player. He’s a very good hitter. He hardly ever walks, but makes up for it by making very good contact and hitting for good power. Doing so while playing second base does make him very valuable. But when I read that his offense by itself is some meteoric force, I have to wonder if it does not come from the same realm of literary inspiration as the Hall of Fame cases for Jim Rice and Jack Morris, given how Cano’s hitting ranks in terms of both observed and projected performance.
Despite the aging of their stars, the Yankees project to have a very good offense in 2012. But that is because they have very good hitters at almost every position (A-Rod and Teixeira are declining, but they are declining from some pretty impressive heights), not because the rest of the team is being dragged along by Cano’s celestial bearing.
Let’s keep some perspective: Justin Verlander is an excellent pitcher who had a great 2011, but it was hardly one the greatest ever, it was only the greatest since Zack Greinke’s 2009, which was far superior. Robinson Cano is a very good hitter and might be the best second baseman in baseball overall, but basedon recent performance and what we can estimate based on it, he does not rank with Cabrera, Fielder, Pujols, Votto, and the rest of the “best hitters in baseball” pantheon, not even close.
I will now prepare for the vindictive comments after Cano puts up a .420 wOBA in 2012.