Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tuesday Recap

Robinson Cano, Yankee second baseman and my favorite player, went 1-4 against the Boston Red Sox last night in a 6-4 loss. His average is down to .277, and his on-base percentage (OBP) is a meager .316.

No fan- not even a spoiled Yankee fan- has a right to expect a better hitting second baseman than Cano, and let that be a caveat to everything that follows. Because in one critical way, I'm starting to feel like a potential hall-of-famer has become a lost cause.

Forget that his average is well below his season-ending marks of .320 and .319 in '09 and '10. He still has plenty of time to bring it up, and batting average isn't always a great indicator of performance. It's the OBP that's more concerning, and the root of that problem is his strange inability to take a base on balls.

This year, Cano has walked in just 3.8% of his plate appearances. That's 12th-lowest in the majors. With a lesser player, you might interpret that number as an indication that pitchers constantly challenge him by throwing strikes. Not so- Cano actually sees the 35th fewest strikes in baseball. His excellence with the bat means pitchers avoid throwing him strikes, pitching around Cano at the exact rate, coincidentally, as David Ortiz. But though the two players face the same ball-strike ratio, Ortiz walks 10% of the time and has a .390 OBP.

Instead, Cano's low walk percentage reveals a free swinger who has trouble resisting pitches outside the strike zone. The model here is Vladimir Guerrero, another natural talent who currently holds the league's lowest walk rate at 2.5% and has been at or near the bottom of that category for his entire career.

When a player never walks, it diminishes his value. Nobody would deny that Cano is one of the four best hitters on the Yankees (along with Mark Teixeira, A-Rod, and Curtis Granderson), but compare the respective numbers: despite having similar or lower batting averages, all three players are at least 28 points above Cano in OBP. Because they're more selective, they're also rated higher in every overall offensive metric.

But let's forget players of equal quality. Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher, and Russell Martin are all, without question, inferior hitters. But each has a higher OBP than Cano. It gets worse: Jorge Posada is hitting a disastrous .195, but his OBP is only ten points lower! None of these guys hit for the same kind of power, so it would be wrong to say they're more valuable, but it's still insane that someone like Jeter gets on base more often, and it demonstrates the essential problem: Cano isn't maximizing his ability.

To go slightly deeper into the stats, Cano swings at 40.5% of all pitches outside the strike zone, ninth-highest in baseball. The league average is 29.5%. Last year, he swung at 36% of pitches outside the zone, but posted a very good .381 OBP since he hit for a higher average and took more walks (and was also a bit luckier on batted balls). This year, pitchers are more content than ever to pitch around Cano and take a risk that he'll show some rare discipline. It's paying off- his overall performance has sharply declined.

In a perfect world, Cano would improve his selectivity and become a more valuable commodity. But you have to wonder- are his natural abilities predicated on being a free swinger? Would he lose his greatness if he started playing cautious? And maybe it's a self-selecting problem; maybe because he can hit just about anything, he's learned to swing at just about everything.

As with incorrigible flailers like Vlad Guerrero, I get the sinking feeling we'll never know.

Here's what happened Tuesday:

-Thanks to the heroics of a febrile Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks mounted another late comeback to beat the Miami Heat 86-83 and even the NBA finals. After being criticized for supposedly shrinking under pressure, LeBron James scored just 8 points, none of which came in the tense fourth quarter. It wasn't a big deal, though, since unlike many professional athletes, James doesn't have an ego.

-In one of the best pitchers' duels of the year, Carlos Carrasco led the Cleveland Indians to a 1-0 win over Francisco Liriano and the Twins. Cleveland manager Manny Acta said the game represented a changing of the guard in the AL Central. "Minnesota's time has come and gone," he said, "This year, we're going to get embarrassed by the Yankees in the playoffs."

-The New York Mets managed a rare win at Miller Park on the strength of Jose Reyes' two-run triple. The Brewers are now 21-8 at home, but only 13-19 on the road. Advanced metrics show the disparity is due to the hitter-friendly layout at Miller Park and the severe clinical depression suffered by all other players when they set foot in Milwaukee.

-Other winners from last night who will never sniff another World Series included Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Toronto.

-Isiah Thomas is reportedly on the short list of potential Detroit Piston coaches. "It seems like a harmless idea," said Detroit president Joe Dumars, just before he poured water over his laptop computer for absolutely no reason.

-Vancouver Canuck Aaron Rome is suspended for the rest of the Stanley Cup Finals for an illegal hit on the Bruins' Nathan Horton. Is it just me, or is this a cynical move by the NHL to land another television viewer?

-Last, Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor has decided to forgo his senior season as the Buckeye quarterback. "Academically, I've accomplished everything I could," said the three-time national collegiate quiz bowl champion. Pryor plans to use the money from his MacArthur Foundation genius grant to finish up some mathematical theorems and write an historical novel about the McKinley assassination.

Some thoughts on Boston's big night coming up in the afternoon...

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