As of last night, we have officially had a changing of the guard. After setting up camp at the top of the WAR leaderboards for most of the season, Justin Morneau has finally been displaced. Now it’s Robinson Cano leading all of Major League Baseball with +4.0 wins of value added, as the Yankees second baseman is carrying his teammates.
Offensively, not much has changed with Cano, as the surge in his numbers is basically tied to a higher than usual BABIP (.382) and his extra base hits flying over the wall instead of bouncing off of it. Last year, 36.7 percent of his hits were of the extra base variety, and he’s at 36 percent this year – the distribution of those XBH, however, have tilted toward home runs. It’s hard to say that either of those spikes represent a significant improvement, and not surprisingly, the ZIPS rest-of-season projection suspects that Cano will hit at basically his 2009 level for the rest of the year.
There exist other numbers, however, that suggest Cano has indeed turned himself into a better over all player. The big strides he has made have not been at the plate, but rather in the field. I saw Cano play quite a bit in 2002 when he was assigned to low-A Greensboro, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that he was a defensive disaster. His footwork was laughably bad, and while he showed athleticism, there were just no fundamentals that suggested he was even on the path to becoming a big league middle infielder.
He wasn’t much better by the time he got to the majors, in 2005, as he posted a -21.2 UZR in his rookie year. Despite hitting well for a second baseman, he gave back nearly all of his value by failing to convert outs behind his pitchers. Again, I figured it was only a matter of time until Cano was shifted to the outfield, where his athleticism could play well and his inability to react quickly would be of less importance.
To his credit though, Cano has put in a tremendous amount of work, turning himself into a competent defender. No, he’ll never win a gold glove, but his +2.3 UZR to date this season is no longer the kind of shocking number that makes people question the system itself. While a couple of months of UZR data isn’t large enough to make any conclusions, his UZR since the 2006 season is just -12.4, or about -3 runs per year.
Cano probably won’t continue to have 40 percent of his extra base hits fly over the wall, nor will he be able to keep his BABIP at .382. He can, however, continue to play a decent enough second base, and he should take pride in that fact, because he got there through sheer hard work. Even when the offensive numbers inevitably regress a bit, Cano will still be one of the game’s best second baseman, and that’s a testament to just how far he’s come as a player.
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