Better health, tweaks to approach have helped veteran put last year's early struggles behind him
By Andrew Simon
At this time a year ago, Robinson Cano was mired in a miserable slump that lasted through the first half, spurring questions about whether he was entering a steep decline phase.
These days, Cano is making those concerns seem silly. Following a strong second half, the 33-year-old has continued to be a force in the Mariners' lineup, helping the team get off to an impressive start that has it in first place in the American League West.
While this is a big year for AL second basemen, with Houston's Jose Altuve and Detroit's Ian Kinsler among those also posting big numbers, Cano's performance makes him one of the top candidates on the All-Star ballot. Benefiting from improved health and what appears to be a different at the plate, Cano is batting .295 with 14 home runs, an MLB-best 43 RBIs, a .929 OPS and a 155 weighted runs created-plus (wRC+), an all-encompassing, park-adjusted offensive metric. That sort of production could get him to the Midsummer Classic for the seventh time, this year in San Diego on July 12.
When last year's All-Star break arrived, Cano owned a .251/.290/.370 line with six home runs, generating an 83 wRC+ that was far below the league average of 100. It was a shocking fall for a consistent player who had produced a wRC+ between 124 and 149 in six consecutive seasons.
A monster second half made Cano's final numbers respectable, but it still was his least productive season since 2008. There also were mitigating circumstances.
Perhaps most importantly, Cano spent the early part of the year battling a troublesome digestive issue and later played through a double sports hernia that required offseason surgery. With those issues behind him, it's not terribly surprising that Cano has returned to form.
"You can really tell a big difference from last year when he was hurt and everyone was like, 'Oh,'" Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walkersaid earlier this month. "You can see what a healthy Cano can do. It's huge."
Cano also appeared to be suffering from some bad luck, an issue Statcast™ helped reveal. His .571 average and 1.051 slugging percentage on balls hit with an exit velocity of 100-plus mph were relatively low, and he tied for the Major League lead with 67 triple-digit outs.
In 2016, through Tuesday, Cano was tied for eighth in the Majors in most balls hit at least 100 mph, and he was batting .622 and slugging 1.489 when he did so. Some of that could be better luck, but Cano also has made a significant change.
While exit velocity is important, so is launch angle. Last year, Cano's 91.5-mph average exit velocity ranked 34th of 253 players who put at least 200 balls in play, but his 5.4-degree launch angle ranked 237th. A lower launch angle means more ground balls, which have a significantly smaller chance of inflicting damage.
Cano's exit velocity was actually down to 89.6 mph this season, through Tuesday, but his launch angle had shot up to 12.1 degrees, which is within the range that usually produces line drives. His average batted-ball distance also has increased, from 207 to 223 feet.
In turn, Cano's ground-ball rate has dropped from 50.5 percent in 2015 to a career-low 42.1 percent, through Tuesday. His isolated power is a career high, ranks among the lead leaders and sits more than 100 points above his mark last year, while his 14 homers tie him for second in the Majors.
Cano also mentioned recently that he struggled early last year with "taking the first pitch right down the middle." In 2016, he is offering at first-pitch fastballs more frequently and ranks second in the Majors in most pitches put into play on 0-0 counts, going 19-for-36 (.528) through Tuesday, with five doubles, five homers, 15 RBIs and a 1.624 OPS.
"This year, I said I'm going to be ready from the first pitch, because I know when you get behind, it's hard and then you have to swing at the pitcher's pitch," Cano said.
With a clean bill of health and those tweaks in place, Cano can author performances like Tuesday's, in which he went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and an eighth-inning two-run homer that put the Mariners in position for a walk-off win an inning later. That effort pushed his wins above replacement (WAR) to 2.1, according to FanGraphs, matching his total from 2015.
What a difference a year makes.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.