MLB: Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees

Life is tough for a second baseman. Making the double play turn as second base while some enormous base runners bear down on you, attempting to blast you into left field takes its toll on the body. Second base occupies a strange strata in the baseball universe – is it a defensive position? Sure helps. Is it an offensive position? You can hide someone who might not be quite good enough for shortstop there, sure.

For whatever reason, the number of great offensive second basemen throughout history is shorter than one would assume. Joe Morgan stands alone as possibly the greatest second baseman of all time. Roberto Alomar was recently inducted into Cooperstown for his legendary defense and oustanding offensive game.

If you look at the top second baseman since the mound was lowered in 1969, you see many familiar name. Dustin Pedroia, Alomar, Ryne Sandberg, even Alfonso Soriano.

All of whom trail Robinson Cano as offensive players. Through their age-30 seasons, only five second basemen can claim a higher OPS+ than Robinson Cano in the Live Ball era (1920 and up). Only one, Soriano, hit more home runs though Cano might pass him before the season ends. The man named after Jackie Robinson ranks 9th in WAR among similarly-aged 2B during the Live Ball era.

Quite simply, Robinson Cano is one of the best second basemen of the last half century. Despite playing for the storied New York Yankees, this feat seems somehow overshadowed. A free agent at the end of the season, Cano is sure to receive a pay check consistent with his exceptional skills and accomplishments.

I spoke to Robinson Cano about how he approaches his work between games, playing with legends, and staying consistent in the latest edition of My Approach.

Drew Fairservice – Do you put in a lot of video work to learn about the opposing pitcher each night?

Robinson Cano – Honestly not, not a whole lot. I look at how a guy pitches us at home or on the road. A lot of pitchers pitch differently, depending on the ballpark. But I don’t watch much video.

DF – When you do watch video, what do you look for?

RC – I look at my at bats against him before. How he pitches me at our place or at their place. I look at the last at bat or our last game.

This is an interesting distinction for Cano to make. Very few players seem as perfectly suited to their home ballpark as Robinson Cano. He has the quick bat and pull power to take advantage of the short porch at Yankee Stadium (both the old and new versions) and the gap power to exploit the deep power alley in left-center field when the situation demands it.

When studying his numbers, you see he is basically the same player at home and away. Since the start of the 2011 season, he hits .306/.370/.542 at home with 49 home runs. On the road? .308/.369/.524 with 38 home runs. He is one of the top road hitters in baseball, sporting a .377 wOBA since 2009 on the road, among the ten best in all of baseball. The only real difference is the few extra home runs hit down the right field line at New Yankee Stadium.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Pitchers might try to get him out differently at home and on the road but it doesn’t appear to work.

DF – There is so much out there with iPad apps and the like. Do you like to study on your own this way?

RC – When we first came up there wasn’t this kind of stuff. I just watch video in the video room with coordinator. Not too much different you can find out if watch it the night before or the day of [laughs].

DF – What kind of adjustments have you made as you go through the league year after year?

RC – The biggest thing in the big leagues is working harder and harder every single day. Growing up in this organization, we have a lot of superstars around the clubhouse. You don’t need film, you just need to watch how they work and how hard they work if you want to learn what it takes to be a superstar and put up the kind of numbers they put over their careers.

It’s easier when you come up with an organization like this compared to an organization with young kids. I have the chance to watch Alex (Rodriguez), Jeter…back then it was Giambi, Bernie Williams, Sheff (Gary Sheffield). Not too many guys are blessed to be around superstars that know about the game, and have been around the game, for a long. To ask all of those guys a question, it really helps.

DF – Do you have a standard routine in the cage or do you tackle specific things in your pregame work?

RC – I do the same thing every day in the cage. I do the same routine because I feel like there is no need change., Even if you’re not doing well but if you’re constantly tinkering and messing around, you’ll be changing all the time.

In speaking with opponents and teammates about Robinson Cano, one comment continued popping up in different forms. Longtime teammate Derek Jeter said it best when asked about Cano, that when Robby gets “locked in” he’s as good a hitter as there is in baseball.

This home run against Cleveland at the Jake shows Cano staying back and inside an offspeed pitch, hitting it a long, long way to right field.

Cano outlines the consistency with which he goes about his daily business, a luxury as player this talented can afford when other players must constantly struggle to stay competitive. Sometimes, if his timing gets off slightly or his mechanics slip out of sync, he might look as though he’ll never hit again. He starts rolling over and grounding out to his opposite number at second base.

But Cano sticks with what works for him and, seemingly overnight, it all clicks. When it clicks, Cano hits. He hits offspeed stuff the other way for home runs and he pounds sinkers 430 feet to center field.

DF – You’re drawing more walks this year than ever before – was this a conscious decision or just taking what you’re given?

I know I’m a free swinger. If I see something over the plate I’m going to go for it. I have more walks but still go to the plate ready to swing. You need to take advantage when they throw it over the plate.

At 10.1%, Robinson Cano’s walk rate is higher in 2013 than ever before. One Yankees writer swore before the season that if Cano reached 80 walks, he would eat his hat! After making this blogger look nervously at his headwear for a few months, the walks dried up for Cano after he walked nearly 15% of the time in both June and July. His numbers haven’t suffered as his 144 OPS+ this season matches his overall numbers since the Yanks moved to their new stadium in 2010.

While there will be no hats eaten (Cano hasn’t walked in September, sitting on a career-best 62 thus far) the production keeps on coming from the Yankees best hitter.

DF – Do you ever guess?

RC – No.

DF – Without guessing, how do you attack a top-end pitcher like Justin Verlander, for example?

RC – There is nothing you can really guess on with him because all his pitches are just so good. You just need to take advantage when he misses with one of them.

DF – Do you just pick a speed to look for when you dig in against him?

RC – In this game, you just have to go and see what you get and take advantage of any pitch thrown over the plate. If you’re facing a sinker guy you can look for the sinker but you need to be ready to swing. You see guys that are smart at the plate but there are some pitchers who are smarter than you. They can read if you’re back or it your swing is back and then know and realize what you’re looking for.

Veteran left-handed reliever Darren Oliver described trying to retire Robinson Cano as a “chess match”, which Cano says in as many words above. Other players and opponents repeatedly mentioned Cano’s ability to reach any pitch and “line to line” abilities. Below is a video of recent Robinson Cano game in which he picked up three hits in three very different ways.

The first is a fat fastball on the inside half and up that Cano absolutely tattoos to deep center field. The next is a fastball in a better spot which Cano simply drops the head of his bat on for a double to the wall. The third is another double this time a slider down that Cano stays back on and again drops the bat head with his short, compact swing. Cano is keenly aware that pitchers will try anything to get him out.

He’s just a really good hitter so it’s hard for them to pull it off. The aforementioned Darren Oliver has been one of the very best lefty relievers in baseball over the past five years, yet Cano has six hits and a hit by pitch in 15 plate appearances against three strikeouts versus DO. The wily LOOGY has tried everything, starting Cano with fastball away the bulk of the time then going to breaking balls or staying with the hard stuff as the situation warrants.

No matter what he throws or how well he sequences his pitches, Oliver has left four pitches over the middle of the plate and Cano has three hits on those pitches. Try as he might, Oliver cannot fool Cano in the strike zone. A chess match, indeed.

DF – How do you approach an at bat once you get to two strikes?

RC – Just trying to stay back even more. You don’t to make the same long swing when you one or no strikes. You choke back a little bit and try to make contact.

DF – Who do you think has the best approach in the game?

RC – There’s a lot of guys. There isn’t just one guy who can say who has a good approach. There are plenty of guys with a good approach. I don’t know…there are a lot of guys I like to watch they go about their business and they way they play the game. You look around our locker room or in the dugout sitting down and you just try to watch and get better.

Robinson Cano lives the Yankees Only lifestyle, it appears.

Some stats via Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and ESPN Stats & Info

The best of MY APPROACH featuring Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera, Manny Machado, Jose Bautista, Pablo Sandoval, Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, and Tim Lincecum.