You know what they say about $240 million contracts. It's amazing how quickly they can go from looking like money well spent to money wasted and back to money well spent again.
That may not be going on in Albert Pujols' neck of the woods, but it is in Robinson Cano's. This time last year, the power-hitting second baseman the Seattle Mariners paid the big bucks for seemed to no longer have power. But now, he can't stop hitting home runs.
After slugging six homers in the entire first half of 2015, Cano is balancing out an ugly .250 on-base percentage with five dingers in his first nine games in 2016. The most recent came on Wednesday at Safeco Field against the Texas Rangers. The first four were against the Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington, and looked a bit like this:
Cano's dinger display isn't coming out of nowhere. The 33-year-old finished 2015 with 15 long balls in the second half. And in spring training this year, he launched seven home runs. All told, he's now slugged 27 home runs in the last 91 games he's played in.
Call it a hunch, but Cano is probably not staying on a 240-homer pace. Even topping 35 home runs could be difficult, as it's something he's never done before.
Then again, whether Cano can keep socking dingers at such a ridiculous rate isn't the most interesting question worth asking. Rather, that would be simply: "How?"
For starters, it's not hard to determine what originally killed the former New York Yankee's power. The easy culprit is Safeco Field, which is definitely not the same as Yankee Stadium for left-handed sluggers. But the real culprit was Cano himself, who stopped operating like a power hitter.
After cranking out 27 home runs in his final season with the Yankees in 2013, he preceded his slow start in 2015 by knocking just 14 home runs in his first year in Seattle in 2014. And overall in his first year and a half in Seattle, he stopped hitting as many balls in the air, didn't use his pull side and struggled to make hard contact like he did as he was averaging 28 homers a year in his heyday (2009-2013):
|Robinson Cano's Batted Ball Struggles|
None of this helped Cano's power, but the ground balls hurt the most. Barring well-placed gopher holes, balls that skip across the infield don't usually end up beyond the fence.
And Cano's ground balls weren't a fluke. When Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs dove into the video, he found that Cano's swing path had become flatter than it was in New York. When that happens, fly balls and line drives easily become grounders.
Cano's age might explain his other troubles. Age tends to slow down bats, and Cano's bat often did look slow last season.
But there was also more afflicting Cano than just age. He revealed to Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today last summer that he had been battling a nagging stomach problem ever since August of 2014. He also broke his right pinkie toe during a tour in Japan the following winter. And in March, he was dealt an emotional blow when his grandfather passed away.
In short: By the time the 2015 All-Star break rolled around, the poor guy was a wreck.
But then, of course, came Cano's turnaround. Beyond hitting 15 homers in the second half, he also slashed .331/.387/.540. In terms of adjusted offense, he was one of the 15 best hitters in the league.
How Cano did this is suspect at first glance. Relative to his first season and a half in Seattle, his batted ball profile really didn't change:
|Robinson Cano's Batted Ball Resurgence...?|
|After ASB 2015||2.05||50.4||33.1||29.7|
On paper, Cano's second half really shouldn't have featured so much extra power. The ground balls were still there, and he wasn't pulling the ball or hitting the ball hard at a higher rate.
What Cano was doing, however, was not wasting the balls he did get in the air.
That's obvious to the extent that his home run per fly ball rate jumped from 8.1 in the first half to 25.9 in the second half. And though it didn't show in his overall hard-hit rate, Baseball Savant can vouch that Cano did hit fly balls and line drives with more exit velocity than he did in the first half:
- First Half: 94.2 MPH
- Second Half: 96.3 MPH
The elephant in this particular room is that the Mariners hired team legend Edgar Martinez to be their new hitting coach last June. Now-former manager Lloyd McClendon told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle that Martinez "absolutely" had an impact on the club's offensive turnaround. And though Cano's ground ball rate suggests that Martinez didn't fix his swing path, MLB Network's Harold Reynolds may be right in thinking that Martinez was able to improve Cano's balance and timing:
This brings us, finally, to what Cano is doing this year.
He's operating like a hitter who's fully confident in his power revival. He went into Thursday with a much-improved 0.80 ground ball to fly ball ratio, while also pulling the ball at a 56.7 percent clip. Though this does help explain his inconsistency, it's certainly a solid foundation for all his power.
The working theory for why Cano is having an easier time hitting the ball in the air is that his swing plane is no longer flat. But for now, it's hard to say for certain whether that's true. None of his highlights (to my knowledge) offers a handy side view, and his swing path looks different depending on the pitch anyway.
But as for why Cano is pulling the ball like he is, ROOT Sports color man Mike Blowers posited after Cano's third home run: "Now that he's healthy he's able to pull the ball with authority. We've seen that a lot."
It could indeed be that simple. Cano is well removed from his initial stomach trouble, and he also had surgery in October to repair a sports hernia. When he reported to spring training, he claimed to be feeling "98 percent" healthy.
Three scouts that Joel Sherman of the New York Post spoke to noticed as much.
“Looks better physically than I have seen in years,” said one.
“Not just on offense, he is moving well to his left on defense again,” said another.
And to the naked eye, Cano does look pretty good. Where his swing often seemed slow and sluggish last year, this year it looks quick and explosive, particularly when he turned on a high and tight fastball on Wednesday, which looked like this from the rear:
There's more to the story of Cano's power revival. For example, Owen Watson highlighted at FanGraphs that he seems to be back to punishing mistakes in the strike zone. You know, like a good hitter should.
But from a wider perspective, the big takeaway is that the return of Cano's power isn't due to any one thing. His power initially left for several reasons, and has come back seemingly thanks to some slight adjustments, improved health and, based on appearances, more confidence.
For how long Cano can keep this up remains a good question. At his age, his body could very well betray him again. And if his OBP continues to suffer, he may resolve to cut down on his power and simply try for better at-bats.
For now, though, Cano is putting on a heck of a show. The fact that it's a show that seemed to be on the verge of disappearing forever only makes it better.