Robinson Cano's Improving Plate Discipline

Stephen Dunn

Cano has long been a great contact and power hitter, but he's recently become a more disciplined hitter as well.

Did you know that Robinson Cano is good at baseball? If you didn't know that, well, let me tell you: he's good at baseball.

Cano's strengths as a hitter lie in his fantastic contact ability. Since his rookie season in 2005, Cano has hit above .300 in six of eight seasons. Starting in 2009, he saw a power spike as well; he went from hitting 14-19 home runs with a .140-.180 Isolated Power to hitting 25-30+ home runs with a .200-.240 ISO.

Hitting .300 with 30 home runs as a second baseman is impressive on its own, but recently, Cano has coupled those strengths with a new one: patience as the plate.

Cano was always a free swinger in his early years, as evidenced by a measly 2.9% and 3.5% walk rate in his first two years as a major leaguer. That rate slowly rose over the years, and spiked last year to almost 9%. This year, albeit in a small sample, Cano has walked 9% of the time. Consider his walk rate since 2007:

Season BB%
2005 2.9%
2006 3.5%
2007 5.8%
2008 4.1%
2009 4.5%
2010 8.2%
2011 5.6%
2012 8.8%
2013 9.0%

Of course, when measuring plate discipline, it's important to remove intentional walks from the equation. With these removed, Cano's improvements look slightly less impressive, but still notable:

Season BB%-IBB%
2005 2.7%
2006 3.0%
2007 5.1%
2008 3.6%
2009 4.2%
2010 6.2%
2011 4.0%
2012 7.3%
2013 6.4%

However, we shouldn't stop at walk rate. With PITCHf/x data, we can look even more closely at Cano's plate discipline, using individual pitches rather than entire plate appearances as our unit. The best indicator of good plate discipline, as I see it, is swing rate on pitches outside the zone, or O-Swing%. Patient hitters with a good eye avoid swinging at pitches outside the zone. In the early part of his career, Cano did not do this, but he's made huge strides in recent years. Observe:

Season O-Swing%
2007 40.4%
2008 37.2%
2009 34.7%
2010 34.2%
2011 36.8%
2012 32.4%
2013 31.7%

These numbers go a long way towards explaining why Cano has been walking more often. Swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone means more balls which means more walks. Logic.

Let's go even deeper. With this PITCHf/x data and the awesome heat maps tool at BaseballHeatMaps.com, we can see which pitches Cano has swung at and not swung since 2007. Because Cano saw the largest drop in O-Swing% after the 2011 season, we'll use that as our dividing point.

First, against right-handed pitchers:

Cano_heat_map_rhp_medium

As you can see, from 2007-2011 Cano had a fairly large and circular heat map. He especially swung at a lot of pitches outside the zone and high, but had areas of high swing rates in almost all areas outside the zone.

Since then, we can see that Cano has become more patient overall, most notable on high and inside pitches. He is swinging more at pitches on the low and inside corner, which is understandable given his ridiculous power on pitches in that location. Overall, against righties, Cano has clearly learned how to avoid pitches outside the zone.

Against left-handed pitchers:

Cano_heat_map_lhp_medium

The pre-2012 heat map is slightly less uniform against lefties, and shows some weaknesses for Cano at laying off pitches inside and high. Since last year, however, Cano has done a much better job at avoiding those high and high and inside pitches, which are very tough to hit against lefties, instead swinging at more outside pitches.

You'll also notice Cano's extremely high swing rates on pitches on that very low and inside corner off the plate. If you doubt Cano's ability to hit these pitches well, consider the following GIF:

Clip0041_1

Robinson Cano was already a great player. He could hit for contact, hit for power, and even play good defense. Now, he has plate discipline. Not only will this lead to more walks and a higher on-base percentage, but swinging at better pitches will lead to better-hit balls and more home runs, and a lot of money very soon.

Stats come from FanGraphs and heat maps come from BaseballHeatMaps.com

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