Will Robinson Cano Rebound in 2009?

In a season of relative disappointments for the Yankees, none was bigger than Robinson Cano.  After two seasons where he averaged 4.7 WAR, he dropped all the way to 0.6 WAR in 2008.  Both his hitting and fielding performance suffered last season, each dropping nearly 2 wins from 2007.  While the Yankees have imported a lot of talent (and spent a lot of money) this offseason, a re-emergence from Cano would provide a big boost as New York attempts to rejoin the playoffs after a one year hiatus.  But will Cano rebound?  What is a realistic expectation for his 2009 performance?

After two seasons near the top of the list in offensive value for second baseman, Cano dropped to well below average last season.  How can we explain such a precipitous fall, and is there reason to believe he will recover in the upcoming campaign?

Because Cano doesn't walk very much - he earns a free pass in less than 5% of his plate appearances - almost all of his value at the plate comes when he makes contact.  That means there are three possible explanations for his drop in performance:

  1. He could make contact less often
  2. When he does make contact, the balls could turn into hits less often
  3. Hits that previously were homers and doubles could become doubles and singles

We can look at the statistical record and see if any of these explanations might apply to Cano's 2008.

Contact Rate

To check whether Cano made contact less often in 2008 than in previous seasons, we can look at what percentage of his plate appearances ended with him putting the bat on the ball, which we'll call his contact rate.

Contact rate is simply the number of times a plate appearance ended with Cano making contact, divided by his total number of plate appearances.

Here's Cano's contact rate for the past 3 seasons:

Year Contact Rate
2006 0.85
2007 0.80
2008 0.85

There's been very little change there, and certainly no major drop that might explain his overall performance hit.

It's important to recognize that contact rate is generally not a very good way to measure offensive performance.  Hitters who hit for a lot of a power tend not to have very good contact rates (see Adam Dunn, for example) because they're trading contact for power.  The same is true for players who walk a lot.

The only reason we're looking at contact rate here is that Cano tends to get most of his value from putting the bat on the ball, and he doesn't strike out that much.  Because we're looking only at his contact rate from season to season, and not using it to compare to other hitters, we're pretty safe.

Batting Average On Balls In Play

Our second possible reason for Cano's lack of success involves whether the balls he put into play in 2008 fell in for hits less often than in previous years. 

This measure is known as batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, and describes how often a batter gets a hit when a fielder has a chance to make a play.  For our purposes, having a chance to make a play means any fair ball that doesn't leave the park.

Cano's BABIP over the past three seasons was:

Year BABIP
2006 .363
2007 .331
2008 .286

Now this has possibility.  We see a 45 point drop from 2007 to 2008, and an almost 80 point drop from 2006 to 2008.

Studies have shown that the average BABIP tends to hover somewhere around .300 and that batters tend to have some influence over their BABIP - although nowhere near as much as you might think.

Since the average BABIP is near .300, and very few batters maintain values above .330, we can guess that Cano was somewhat lucky in both 2006 and 2007. (As an aside, when we use the term lucky, we really mean we can't explain why it happened.  Luck is likely only one of multiple reasons).  And we can similarly guess that he was somewhat unlucky in 2008.

A drop in BABIP will almost certainly cause a drop in overall batting average, and we saw that with Cano in 2008, as his batting average fell from .306 to .271.

Isolated Power

Our final area of exploration is whether Cano was less likely to get an extra-base hit in 2008 than in previous seasons.  If balls that used to be homers are becoming doubles, that will decrease his overall offensive value.

To check if this was the case, we'll look at something called isolated power (ISO).  This is a rate stat that quickly captures how many extra bases a player generates per at-bat. The formula for determining isolated power is slugging percentage minus batting average.

Cano's isolated power numbers since 2006 are:

Year ISO
2006 .183
2007 .182
2008 .139

Again, we see a pretty substantial drop from 2007 to 2008.  This means when Cano did manage to get a hit in 2008, it was much more likely to be a single than in previous years.  Having a higher percentage of singles means Cano is less likely to move runners along, and therefore will reduce his offensive value.

Summary

So we can see a couple of statistical signals for why Cano had such a disappointing season in 2008, but can we determine why?  Not only did Cano get fewer hits when he made contact, but those hits were much more likely to be singles.

It's hard to figure out what might have caused these changes in performance.  As far as we know, Cano was healthy for most of 2008, although it is possible that he was fighting chronic injuries that never were reported.  That seems unlikely, as it's hard to believe that something like this would be unreported in New York.

Another possibility is that pitchers finally realized that Cano is not going to take many pitches and therefore they could stop throwing as many strikes.  This doesn't seem to be the case either.  There doesn't seem to be a noticeable difference in the number of strikes Cano saw from season to season.

Unfortunately, we're only able to tease out symptoms of what was wrong with Cano, but not figure out the root cause.

What can we say for 2009? 

Well, using a concept called regression towards the mean, which basically means that people tend to fall towards average, we can predict that Cano will have a better BABIP in 2009 than in 2008.  So we should expect some improvement to batting average right there.  But we shouldn't be looking for him to repeat 2006 or 2007 again, either.  Our best guess for batting average for 2009 should be between .290 and .300.

The drop in isolated power is more troubling to predict.  Generally, we'd expect someone with Cano's track record to rebound, but loss of power can be difficult to explain.  That said, based on how he's performed in the past, we can expect more extra-base hits than in 2008, and a corresponding increase in value.

Projecting Cano to return to his levels of 2006 is unrealistic.  Yankee fans can expect a better performance than last year, and hope to get similar value as in 2007.

That should be good enough to be between half a win and one win better than the average hitter (not just second basemen), and shore up what was a very weak spot in the Yankee lineup last season.

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