Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano has been one of the most consistent and predictable players since arriving to the majors as a 22-year-old during the 2005 season. Part of that predictability was rooted in his power numbers.
As a new chapter of the potential Hall of Fame infielder's career begins, that power has suddenly disappeared.
Robinson Cano has struggled out of the gate this season. He was much better in his 1st 15 games last year pic.twitter.com/jxXjhWzEEB— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2014
Prior to 2014, Cano's offensive predictability could have been separated into two parts: progression and dominance.
From 2005-2008, Cano was a starting-caliber player for the New York Yankees. During that time, he launched 62 home runs, but never hit more than 19 in a single season. In that four-year span, he hit 14 homers in two separate seasons. With a composite OPS+ of 109, the Yankees had a well-above-average young contributor on a cost-effective, pre-arbitration contract.
Then, a superstar emerged. From 2009-2013, one of the best players in baseball resided at Yankee Stadium. While the totals numbers were staggering—142 HR, .899 OPS, 978 hits, 34.3 WAR—it was the consistent excellence that made Cano such a special commodity for the Yankees, especially when it came to home run numbers.
During the recent five-year run of greatness, Cano averaged 28 home runs per season. He never surpassed 33 or dipped below 25 in a single season. On a daily basis, the Yankees knew exactly what they were getting from its homegrown star.
Now, that star is in Seattle and calling Safeco Field home. Through 21 games, 90 plate appearances and 82 official at-bats as a member of the Mariners, Cano's power hasn't translated away from New York and the inviting right field porch of Yankee Stadium. The predictable power hitter has only one homer on the young season, launched during a road game in Texas.
So, what happened? It's easy to just assume Safeco Field—a pitchers park that's currently 25th in runs per game for the season, per ESPN—has cost Cano home runs. After watching line drives clear the wall in the Bronx for nearly a decade, a more difficult stadium was bound to omit a few homers per season from that ledger.
Yet a look at Cano's early-season numbers and trends suggests a hitter that is making contact differently than in the past. Whether it's pressure to live up to a 10-year, $240 million deal, small sample size results or Safeco Field's larger dimensions invading Cano's psyche at the dish, he's simply not hitting the ball well enough to give himself a chance at long balls.
It's instructive to look at the entire career of a player to gauge consistency, but not as telling when deciphering what happened from one year to the next. For example, Cano's line drive rate in 2005 has little bearing on what is happening in Seattle right now. He's a far different hitter—from maturity, to strength to acumen—than he was during his rookie season.
Instead, taking a peak at factors such as line drive percentage, fly ball percentage, ground ball percentage and home run-to-fly ball ratio is worthwhile, especially since the Mariners were likely banking on the Cano of 2013 to save their offense in both the short and long term.
As you can see, the Cano that launched 28 homers per year since 2009 hasn't arrived yet at Safeco Field. That—more than fly balls caught at the warning track or outfield dimensions turning home runs into doubles—is the current issue with one of baseball's best players. In a way, it's alarming. Yet with more than 140 games to strike the ball with more force, lift fly balls into the air and crush line drives, we're months from deeming Cano a bad fit for the Mariners home park.
Perspective aside, early season numbers don't lie. The following chart compares Cano's 2013 statistics to what he's done thus far in 2014. With nine years remaining on a franchise-changing deal, Mariners fans have to hope and believe this is nothing more than a blip on the radar for a special talent.
Manager Lloyd McClendon certainly believes in his superstar. That came through when the first-year manager was asked questions about Cano's power outage days before his first—and only—home run of the season, per Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times.
"It’s a probably question I need to address so I don’t have hear that question anymore," McClendon said. "Robinson Cano is one of the arguably one of the five best hitters in baseball and has been for the last nine years. It’s not going to change just because he put on a Seattle Mariners’ uniform."
While the former Pirates manager and Tigers coach is likely correct, it has changed through 21 games and less than 100 at-bats. Over the next five months, Cano is a good bet to hit in Safeco Field, O.co Coliseum or any park he plays in. Great hitters can hit, regardless of venue, outfield dimensions or backdrop.
Will Safeco Field ruin Cano's offensive game?
If Cano was crushing the ball, losing homers to the warning track at Safeco Field and walking back to the dugout with a dejected face, Mariners fans would have reason to express concern for a player tasked with saving the franchise.
Instead, count this as an early season slump that Safeco Field has played a role in. Cano is making different contact than usual, possibly due to a lack of comfort with his new digs. For now, leaving Yankee Stadium has zapped Cano's consistent power. In time, it should return.