With the Seattle Mariners recent contract extension of Kyle Seager and free agent signing of Nelson Cruz, it seems that the fantasy prospects of Robinson Cano are under the radar. As the 2015 draft season approaches, this may create a unique buying opportunity on one of fantasy baseball’s most consistent performers at second base. Robinson Cano entered the 2014 season as the 11th player taken in live drafts according to Fantasy Pros but whether it was ballpark effects or the lack of support in Seattle, he had his worst season for fantasy purposes in years. Not only did Cano finish outside the top 30 on the ESPN Player Rater (32nd to be exact), he finished 5th for second baseman. What has made him a first round stalwart is the fact that you could count on his batting average and power at a position where it is rare to find both of those qualities. But Cano carried over his second half HR/FB% from 2013 of 10.3% in New York with him to Seattle where his HR/FB% for 2014 was a career low 10.7% on the season.
One of the overlooked factors in this regression is the fact that Cano has had 30 players between New York and Seattle that have hit behind him over the last 2 years. If you were facing the Mariners at a pivotal point of the game are you more prone to pitch to Cano or take your chances with the likes of Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales or Corey Hart? Not a difficult decision. In New York the year prior, the cleanup hitters were Travis Hadrner, Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells. As a refresher, here is how the hitters batting fourth the last two years have fared:
2013 NY Yankees #4 hitters: 162 G, 70 R, 24 HR, 84 RBI, 11 SB .228/.305/.382
2014 Mariners #4 hitters: 162 G, 63 R, 19 HR, 75 RBI, 8 SB .218/295/352
Over the last 2 seasons the OPS of the players batting after Cano is .687 and .647 respectively. In spite of this, Cano’s average OPS over the last 3 seasons is .904 and only dropped to .836 in Seattle despite the depressed ballpark effects for left-handed power. According to Fangraphs.com, Safeco Field scores a 99 for ballpark effect on left-handed power. Conversely, Yankee Stadium scores a 117. In order to figure out where Cano’s power has gone, we need to look deeper into the numbers.
I started by looking at Cano’s spray charts. Since there is a steep drop in his home run production from 2013 (27 HR) to 2014 (14 HR) these are the two charts I chose to focus on. First, here is the 2013 chart:
Now comparing that chart to 2014, you will see the main difference is in the amount of home runs, especially to right center and left center field:
Eeven though the fences at Safeco were moved in and lowered, Cano is hitting fewer pitches for power to the alleys. In 2013, Cano hit 8 homers to right-center and four to left-center, but in 2014 he only had 1 to each of those destinations. Cano hit only 3 fewer home runs to right field and had the same to left so those were small differences.
Using the HR/BIP (home runs per ball in play) charts from BrooksBaseball.net, I hoped to see why the power disappeared from the alleys. Since a picture paints a thousand words, I will defer again to the charts then discuss what I noticed. First, here is the 2013 HR/BIP zone profile:
There are some subtle differences to be seen in 2014’s HR/BIP zone profile here:
In 2013, Cano hit one-third of his home runs in the bottom third, middle part of the strike zone. 9 of the 47 balls that he put in play in that zone found the seats. However, that same zone had more balls in play (50) but the home runs were cut in half to only 4 for the season. In fact, over the lower third part of the strike zone, Cano lost 5 home runs in 2014. It also seems like Cano really missed driving the ball to left-center field as he hit 10 home runs on pitches to the outer third of the strike zone in 2013. That total was also cut in half in 2014.
Before trying to project Cano’s 2015 season I will take a look at some of his underlying statistics from the last 3 years:
2012 LD% 25.6, GB% 48.7, HR/FB% 21.1, SwStr% 8.3, wRC+ 149
2013 LD% 26, GB% 44.3, HR/FB% 17.3, SwStr% 6.4, wRC+ 142
2014 LD% 22.6, GB% 52.6, HR/FB% 10.7, SwStr% 6, wRC+ 136
Career LD% 21.3, GB% 48.4, HR/FB% 13.8, SwStr% 6.5, wRC+ 127
Despite his line drive percentage dropping the last 3 years, he has maintained his batting average. His swinging strike percentage further punctuates that as it has gone down the last 2 years and has lowered his career percentage. Since weighted runs created evens out ballpark effects it is a useful statistic. The league average is 100 and the move to Seattle only dropped Cano’s wRC+ by 6 points, but that is a result of the lineup surrounding him as much as any ballpark factor. With the additions of Austin Jackson and Nelson Cruz already, this should rebound for Cano moving forward. What fantasy owners should be most worried about is the steep drop in home run to fly ball ratio which has been cut in half since 2012. Due to his ability to hit for average and drive in runs, if Cano can return to 20 or more home runs, then his return to fantasy prominence in 2015 will happen. But there is an “if” attached to that.
Where does Robby go from here? One of the reasons that Cano vaulted to first round draft status was his consistent production in New York. Here are his last 3 seasons on average as a Yankee:
Robinson Cano 2011-2013 season average: 160 G, 97 R, 29 HR, 106 RBI, 6 SB .309/.371/.533
To forecast what he can do in 2015 I have to take into account what Cano did this past year in Seattle:
Robinson Cano 2014 season: 157 G, 77 R, 14 HR, 82 RBI, 10 SB .314/.382/.454
Since I am interested in how the Seattle numbers mix with the last three in New York, I will combine them and here is what Robinson Cano’s last four years averaged look like:
Robinson Cano Last 4-year average: 159 G, 92 R, 25 HR, 100 RBI, 7 SB .311/.373/.514
Just 1 season in Seattle has caused Cano’s last 4 year averages to drop in runs (5), home runs (4), RBI (6) and slugging percentage (19 points). Even though this seems like a knee jerk reaction, one almost has to account for further regression in Cano’s home run totals per season. With the recent additions to the Mariner lineup and possibly one more on the horizon, this will be a much deeper offense no matter where they are hitting. Cano did raise his HR/FB% over the second half last year to 11.9% so maybe he is adjusting to the ballpark. Here is the Steamer projection courtesy Fangraphs.com:
Robinson Cano Steamer 2015: 146 G, 81 R, 18 HR, 83 RBI, 6 SB .295/.360/.461
My Robinson Cano projection: 159 G, 94 R, 22 HR, 98 RBI, 7 SB .307/.365/.484
Statistical credits: Baseball-Reference.com, Fangraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net, ESPN.com
Photo cred: http://goo.gl/qPxfub
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Greg Jewett is The Sports Script’s senior fantasy baseball writer. Follow him on Twitter @gjewett9!