An undeniably huge principle of sabermetrics is the aim to eliminate biases and instead focus on the measurable aspects of the game. This is relatively easy for me to do because I just don't care deeply about that many baseball teams. I care about all of them to a degree, and I love good baseball games no matter who's playing, but there are few franchises that I really identify as "my teams." If you read my other work, you might know that the Diamondbacks are a large part of my baseball life, but I've never been shy in admitting that the Seattle Mariners are my first baseball love. So just like the rest of you jaded, broken-hearted M's fans out there, I was both elated, perplexed and concerned when the organization inked Robinson Cano to an incredibly large contract over the winter. 70 games into the 2014 season, I thought it might be apt to revisit the topic.
The motivations for signing Cano were obvious, if not fully calculated. Diminished tickets sales and television ratings were a natural outcome given the team's lack of competitiveness over the years prior. Felix Hernandez clearly wanted some help and there was certainly room in the Seattle marketplace for another star player considering Ichiro's departure in 2012. But more than anything, the team needed an offensive spark, especially in the power department. Kyle Seager and Kendrys Morales were doing all they could in 2013, but it was never going to be enough with internal options. They needed to look outside the organization if they wanted to turn the offense into something resembling a functional unit, like they had done when taking a run at Prince Fielder in 2012. This time they focused their gaze on Cano and actually got a deal done, although it immediately had the potential to become a massive overpay at ten years, $240 million. The Mariners got their man, though, and it doesn't seem as if the back end of the contract concerned them.
These kinds of deals are well-known. The team is willing to overpay hugely on the back end of the contract to secure the player at reasonable prices on the front end. While the year to year salary remains the same, the production is expected to decline over the life of the deal (see: Pujols, Albert). In the first third of the deal, the player is expected to produce surplus value. In the middle third, he should produce something close to what he's being paid and in the final third, well, the team just gives the player money for whatever production may occur. Considering Cano signed the deal at age 31, the team was looking for him to keep up his slugging ways for three or four more years before really falling off the cliff. If he were a 6-win player in 2013 at the age of 30, there was no reason to think he wouldn't still be a massively productive player just one season later. As Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections highlighted, the Mariners had plenty of reasons to remain hopeful on Cano.
Preseason ZiPS Projections over the life of the contract
If we assumed that a free agent win cost $6.5 million last year, and that inflation stays somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% annually, here's what Seattle would be looking at in terms of production relative to their costs (based on ZiPS):
Preseason ZiPS Projections, broken down by salary and production
*Note: $/Win assumes 5% inflation
I'm hardly the first person to point these things out, but the deal had only a slight chance to be of a fair value to the Mariners from the beginning. Cano would likely need to exceed the projections by a small margin and/or stay almost completely healthy for all ten years. There is some precedent for this, but it's still a pretty big roll of the dice by an organization that hasn't been rolling them well for a while now.
Then something happened: over the first 70 games of this deal, Robinson Cano's power completely dried up. Yes, he has doubled his home run total in June, but unfortunately that's from two homers in April/May to a whopping total of four on the season.That's right, four, as in the number of wheels on Robbie's McLaren 12C. And as you might imagine, the lack of power has significantly altered his production and value. As it stands now, the 50/50 blend of Steamer and ZiPS projections now forecasts Cano to finish the season as a 4.8-win player, not the 5.5-win player that was ZiPS alone had forecast before the season. Let's run the same calculation we did above, predicting a very similar rate of decline, and see how things look for Seattle in the end.
Adjusted projections, broken down by salary and production
*Note: $/Win assumes 5% inflation
That's certainly a different picture and not one that's likely to elicit a positive reaction from Mariners fans like myself. Of course, this is just 70 games, but as many notable sabermetricians have explained in the last two weeks, we probably shouldn't bet on a drastic turnaround. Cano has racked up enough plate appearances for us to believe there's more to his lack of power than just randomness. After 300 PA's, we have to conclude that there's something concrete going on, whether it's SafeCo, a change in approach or something else. As his rest of season projections suggest, he's due for an uptick in home run rate, but nothing on the magnitude that would suggest that he's a player who will be cranking out 30-HR seasons again.
And this is the grey area of the unknown: is 2014 a down year for Cano or truly the beginning of a steep decline? No one will doubt his natural hitting abilities, but if he's not hitting for power, he becomes a much less palatable option for $24 million a year. Is this season an outlier on his age curve or is this the new normal with further slips to come?
I surely don't know the answer to that, but I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel on Robbie. Given his track record, I think it would be short-sighted to suggest that he's done putting balls in the gaps and over the fence. If there's one overaching takeaway from the discussion of projections this week, it's that we shouldn't exhibit recency bias and over-weight his most recent performances. After all, he's been pretty incredible over seven of his eight major league seasons. To discount those would be a disservice to Cano and all that he's accomplished.
But on the other hand, Robinson Cano isn't about to get any younger and a decline was inevitable. For Seattle, I'm sure they were hoping that Cano's run as five-plus-win player would hold out a few more years, but that appears to be in serious jeopardy. He's an incredibly talented player and all of his peripherals are holding up, so perhaps the power can return and his value will rise again. If not, the Mariners' questionable call just took a significant turn for the worse.
. . .