The Seattle Mariners are one of a number of teams that have seriously underperformed expectations this season. According to the playoff odds posted at FanGraphs, the Mariners' odds of earning a spot in the postseason have dropped from the 69.8 percent they had pre-season all the way down to 27.9 percent. That level of slippage puts them in a group with the Red Sox and Athletics, whose poor play you have likely heard about. The reasons for the Mariners slide to the bottom of the playoff odds chart are many: the bullpen, a considerable strength in 2014 (2.60 ERA, 3.24 FIP), has fallen into a middle-of-the-pack group (3.63 ERA, 3.93 FIP), the defense is below average by both defensive runs saved (DRS: -2), and ultimate zone rating (UZR: -8.5), and the offense needs to do a much better job of getting on base, a problem that has been persistent for the last few years. Their team OBP of .298 ranks 27th in the league. Making outs at that rate will have a real negative impact on run scoring. It is to the point that acquiring a player like Mark Trumbo and his 98 wRC+ was actually a considerable upgrade over what they had. All told there are plenty of problems with this team.
One glaring issue in the middle of the Mariners' offense is their $240 million, 32-year old second baseman, Robinson Cano. Cano, who performed very well in his debut season on the West coast (5.1 fWAR, tied for 2nd among second basemen), has been a replacement level player in his second season in Seattle thus far. The concern with signing Cano to such a long term deal at his age was the evidence of second basemen tending to see their production fall off quickly as they entered their thirties. The demands of the position just wear players down. However, as Dave Cameron showed a few years ago, that may not be true for a player like Cano. Regardless of how he fits the aging curve, the primary reason for Cano's sudden descent to replacement level production this season has been his remarkably poor contribution on offense; he is a little worse on defense and on the base paths, but not to the same extent as at the plate. Coming into Wednesday's games he holds a .239/.278/.320 line, which is good for a 69 wRC+. The good news is that we are just over two months into a six month season, so there is plenty of time for Cano to turn things around. And the primary projection systems expect that to be the case: Steamer's rest-of-season (RoS) wRC+ for Cano is 120, and ZiPS expects 117. With that said, it is worth looking into what, if anything, has changed with Cano, to attempt to determine how (and maybe why) his offensive value has disappeared.
The way that pitchers approach hitters often tells us what they think of a batter, and can foretell a batter's production. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight (previously of Baseball Prospectus) did a lot of the grunt work to show this relationship, and Ben Lindbergh of Grantland (also previously of Baseball Prospectus) wrote an excellent article outlining the idea. The basic idea is that if pitchers are attacking a batter with a lot of pitches in the strike zone, and specifically close to the center of the zone, it suggests the pitchers think the batter is an easy out. Conversely, throwing away from the center of the zone suggests that the pitchers are concerned with the batter's ability. I do not have the data that Arthur used for his work, but looking at the percentage of pitches Cano has seen in the strike zone (PITCHf/x zone percent) suggests that pitchers are not any less afraid of him than they have been in the last few years. His zone percent this year is 45.4 percent, which is on par with his average rate from the last three seasons (~45.1 percent). The problem is that Cano is making contact on those pitches less often: contact rate on pitches in the strike zone is at 90.7 percent, down from his career mark of 93.6 percent (and last three season average of 93.1 percent). For what it is worth, he is also making contact less often on pitches outside the strike zone. He is swinging at a typical rate, but just coming up empty. This also helps explain why Cano's strikeout rate (16.9 percent) is up five percent from his career rate. A change in contact rate like this could be due to seeing more breaking pitches, but there is no evidence to support that this is the case for Cano. As with location, pitchers are approaching him in a way that is similar to what they have done in the past but he is missing.
Cano has typically been a hitter who knows the strike zone and takes walks at an above-average rate. Yet this year his walk rate is an awful 5.1 percent. This problem is not really because he is chasing more pitches outside of the zone, as his swing rate at said pitches is only up a bit from his career rate. The one thing in Cano's plate discipline that has changed is his first-pitch strike rate, which is up five percent from his career norm. Cano, a product of the Yankee system, was likely trained in the approach of seeing a lot of pitches--although his pitches per plate appearance averages have always been slightly lower than the league average--to get the starter out of the game and get into the mushy, meatball-throwing bullpen. But, pitchers have taken notice and responded by taking advantage of hitter patience and getting more first pitch strikes. Cano has directly seen the impact of this, and found himself down 0-1 in 131 of his 242 PA, 96 of which involved him taking that first strike. What's more is that only 33 of his PA have gone to three ball counts, and one of those was intentional. Hard to walk much if you don't even get to three balls very often.
I want to get back to the contact part of Cano's season. Yes, he is making less contact, but the next problem is that when he does put the ball in play it is being recorded as an out more often than is typical for him, or even your bog-standard major leaguer. Cano's career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .322, but this year he is at .280 (the typical rate for a hitter is ~.300). That is a striking difference. This unluckiness, if we can call it that, comes despite the fact that his batted ball rates show that not a lot of his contact is soft. The data at FanGraphs show his Soft% at just 14.8, which is actually a few ticks lower than his typical rate. By the data kept at Baseball-Savant, for players with at least 100 at-bats, Cano's average batted ball exit velocity has been 91.04 mph, which ranks 26th in the game, placing him amongst players like Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Andrew McCutchen, and Jason Kipnis. Now, these data must be considered cautiously, as we do not know the quality of the measurements being made, but if we take them as fine, this is good news for Cano. Consistently hitting the ball hard typically leads to positive offensive outcomes.
With that good comes the bad news that since joining the Mariners Cano's ground ball rate has dramatically increased. This season he is hitting the ball on the ground 52.7 percent of the time, which is right around his mark from last season (52.6 percent). That is 26th-highest rate in the game, and is eating into his line drive and fly ball rates. Couple this high ground ball rate with the preponderance of plate appearances in which he is staring out at an infield shift waiting to gobble up his next ground ball, and you can see why hits have been hard to come by for Cano. His wOBA on ground balls this season is unsurprisingly low given that that is what he has been doing most of the time and I am writing about him because he is performing poorly. But it is perhaps worth noting that his .157 wOBA this season is well below his career mark (.226) and the typical league average of ~ .213. The fact that he is hitting a lot of ground balls is not the entirety of the problem, he hit a lot of ground balls last year but managed to produce more with them (wOBA: .215). It is getting that higher level of production that has eluded Cano to date.
All told, this gives an idea of how Cano has played poorly. I have described a set of somewhat interconnected results that show his weak performance, but why those results have come about remains to be determined. Slower reaction time or worse eyesight due to natural aging? An injury or two? Dislikes Lloyd McClendon? Who knows. It is most likely just a spate of randomness that should even out. Bad months can happen as a function of random variation and while Cano's performance through this point in June remains concerning, the expectation remains that he will produce at a solid rate the rest of the way this season, and for at least the next few seasons. Given his age and home ballpark, we are unlikely to see another 140 wRC+, 30+ home run season. But 30-35 doubles, 10-15 home runs, and average defense at second base are certainly to be expected. If that is going to be the case he needs to get back to driving pitches in the strike zone for line drives. It is way, way too soon to pronounce Cano's time as an effective player finished. In fact it would be quite foolish to do so. Some good old fashioned BABIP regression should help him get back on the above average side of things, and hopefully soon. Having him as the positive contributor he has been throughout his career is imperative for the Mariners to turn this collection of parts they are calling a team into a contender in the West. To some extent the contract they gave Cano signals that they think their window to push for the playoffs is now. But if he got old as quickly as it looks like he has and cannot return to his old mashing ways then the Mariners will be stuck with an albatross and the Yankees will look even more intelligent for having let him go.
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