It was a pivotal moment in last night’s game. With the Rays leading 5-1 in the fifth inning, the Yankees loaded the bases for Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano. However, as has happened repeatedly throughout the season, the Yankees failed to score. After Arod struck out on the 11th pitch of his at bat, Rays’ left hander David Price attacked Cano with six straight fastballs, the last of which induced a weak groundout to end the inning and, effectively, the game.
Over the past several seasons, situations like the one described above have frequently ended in the Yankees’ favor. However, 2012 has not been a typical season for Robinson Cano. In addition to his uncharacteristic struggles with the bases loaded (.530 OPS in 2012, versus 1.635 and 1.576 in 2010 and 2011, respectively), the second baseman has exhibited a meaningful platoon split for the first time since early in his career.
Source: fangraphs.com and Baseball-reference.com
In 81 plate appearances versus left-handed pitchers in 2012, Cano has compiled a paltry line of .200/.259/.280. Even during his first two seasons in the big leagues, his performance against southpaws didn’t reach such drastic lows. So, what explains this divergence from the norm?
The most glaring change in Cano’s record against left handers is an inflated strikeout rate of 17.3%, which compares unfavorably to his career average of 13.5%. Considering his historically high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against both lefties and righties, it’s easy to see why Cano’s production would suffer from making less contact. However, even when putting the ball in play against a southpaw, Cano’s results haven’t been very good.
With a BABIP of .233 versus lefties, Cano’s 2012 rate is over 80 points below his career norm. Usually, such an extreme deviation is an indication of bad luck, a conclusion further supported by a corresponding career high line drive rate and relatively low percentage of infield fly outs (which, ironically, may not be a good thing because infield pop outs have had a strong positive correlation to HR rates over the last 10 years). So, aside from the extra strikeouts, maybe Cano’s biggest problem is the hits just aren’t falling in?
Another theory that might explain Cano’s struggles against left handers is that after years of being abused by the second baseman, southpaws around the league have finally made an adjustment. Over the past three seasons, the selection of pitches thrown to Cano has been fairly stable, but 2012 differs from 2010 and 2011 in two regards: Cano has seen fewer changeups and more four-seam fastballs. Is this variation at the root of Cano’s poor performance against left handers?
The lack of changeups is easy to explain. The Yankees have only played three games against the Blue Jays. Over the last two seasons, 30% of the change-ups thrown by a lefthander to Cano have come from a pitcher wearing a Toronto uniform. Also, over the same span, the pitch hasn’t been very effective. In 2010 and 2011 combined, Cano has posted a .444 batting average and 1.167 slugging percentage when putting a left hander’s changeup in play (18 at bats), so their reticence to throw him one is perfectly understandable.
That leaves just one question regarding pitch selection. Why are left handers throwing Cano more four-seam fastballs? Although past performance doesn’t dictate such a strategy, it has certainly been effective this season. Not only have over 40% of Cano’s strikeouts against lefties come on the four-seamer, which is significantly higher than the past two seasons, but he also hasn’t had much luck when making contact. To this point, the Yankees’ second baseman has made an out on almost 82% of four-seam fastballs put into play, compared to 70% in 2010 and 60% in 2011. What’s more, all of Cano’s hits in those situations have been singles.
As indicated by the chart above, the increase in Cano’s line drive rate against the four-seamer is similar to his overall trend against left handers, which re-enforces the contradiction. On both a macro and granular level, Cano has struggled against lefties despite making good contact, which brings us back to the theory of bad luck. Of course, fixating on line drive percentages could be misleading, especially considering the human element involved in the classification. Also, the corresponding decline in ground balls could be working to Cano’s detriment. If so, the elevated four-seamer could definitely be playing a role in Cano finding less success by hitting the ball in the air.
It’s worth pointing out that despite his struggles against left handers, Cano’s overall numbers are in line with his previous two seasons. In other words, the picture painted above isn’t a doomsday scenario. Although Cano can’t be expected to maintain his inflated level of success against right handers, it’s also unlikely that his difficulty against lefties will persist. As a result, the most probable scenario has Cano’s production reverting to the mean at both ends. And, if the final result is another MVP-caliber season, it really won’t matter what path he took to get there.