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Robinson Cano: First Round Pick?

In the preseason I wrote about why I didn’t think Robinson Cano was worth a first round pick. Before we look back at my reasoning and before I decide whether I feel similarly for 2014, let’s figure out if I was right.

The technical answer is probably that I was right, but in practicality, I was dead wrong. Cano finished as the 26th most valuable player in our end of season valuations, and he finished 13th on ESPN’s player rater. So yes, technically Cano did not produce like a first round player. But of the players you might actually have considered taking over Cano in the first, only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen turned out to be more valuable. If you took Cano in the first, you were probably pleased with what you got from him. You were certainly happier than the owners who took Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Albert Pujols, and Justin Verlander.

Above I linked to my original article on Cano, but, in summation, I didn’t like Cano for three reasons.

  1. I didn’t think 2012’s power surge was sustainable.
  2. I was concerned about him turning 30.
  3. I was concerned about his struggles against lefties.

Power

I turned out to be right about the power. From 2010-2012, Cano’s fly ball rate dropped from 36% to 31% to 25%, but he posted a career high 33 home runs in 2012 despite the career low fly ball percentage thanks to a HR/FB rate that was almost double his career rate prior to that season. The concern about his power in 2013 was twofold. First, it seemed very likely that his HR/FB rate would come back to earth. And second, what if his declining fly ball trend continued? If both of those things happened, it was possible Cano would end up with fewer than 25 home runs for the first time since 2008. But ultimately Cano ended up in the 26-29 HR range I predicted with 27 HR thanks to a rebound in his fly ball rate.

Going forward, I continue to be concerned about Cano’s power. His average home run and fly ball distance decreased by about five feet from 2012 to 2013. And I worry that his fly ball rate could decline again. As the chart below shows, Cano was hitting fewer and fewer fly balls as last year wore on until a late season rebound on soft stuff. But he struggled more and more to get hard pitches up in the air, which is important because over half the pitches he sees are fastballs.

Age

Age, of course, also continues to be a concern. Cano isn’t getting younger, and the chart below showing the research of the witch about the aging curve for second basemen isn’t promising.

2B Aging Curve

Lefties

Cano struggled mightily against lefties in 2012, and it was going to be impossible for him to be worth a first round pick unless his power didn’t regress or unless he bounced back against same-handed pitching. As you can presume, he did bounce back against lefties. Here is a chart detailing Cano’s performance against lefties since 2009.

It’s obvious that BABIP was a big part of Cano’s struggles against lefties in 2012. The BABIP returned to the high end of Cano’s range last year, but the production didn’t come all the way back. As you can see, Cano’s numbers against lefties last year were well below what they were from 2009-2011. It seems far more likely that the upside in Cano’s performance against lefties is what he did last year given that the BABIP can’t be much higher. And if the BABIP against lefties falls at all, his numbers against lefties could once again slide dramatically.

Ballpark and 2B Depth

These are the other two factors to consider when evaluating Cano for 2014. He’s one of the biggest names available in free agency, and if he moves on from New York, it could really hurt his numbers. Yankee Stadium had the 7th most hitter-friendly basic park factor last year and the most hitter-friendly HR as L park factor┬áin 2012. Unless Cano ends up back in New York, he’s going to be playing in a less favorable ballpark.

One reason Cano is a perennial first round option is the perceived lack of depth at second base. It may have been a shallow position in the past, but I would argue it’s not among the shallower positions anymore. In terms of positions that finished with the most players with an ESPN player rater number above five, second base trailed only first and third. There were 20 first basemen with a PR number over five, 14 third basemen, 12 second basemen, nine shortstops, 43 outfielders (which is 8.6 per slot in five OF leagues), and five catchers.

The emergence of Matt Carpenter and Daniel Murphy adds nice depth to the position. And some of the guys who finished outside the top 12 at the position could easily finish that high in 2014. Jedd Gyorko finished the year strong, and Aaron Hill and Neil Walker are bounce back candidates.

Conclusion

The common theme in the discussion of each of these factors seems to be concern and downside. I’m worried the power falls off if Cano can’t get more balls in the air and even more concerned if he moves to a different ballpark. I’m worried about his age. His upside against lefties is limited and the downside obvious. I’m encouraged by the state of the second base position. The only positive word in this whole paragraph is “encouraged” and it happens to be used in a way that is a negative for Cano.

Long story short: I once again think Robinson Cano is not worth a first round pick. But that doesn’t mean he’s not worth a second round pick.