The curious case of Robinson Cano

Robinson Cano, the second baseman for the New York Yankees, had a superb 2011 season and was the hitting star of the first game of the Division Series against the Detroit Tigers. However, let’s stop any talk that at season’s end Cano might have been voted the American League MVP. “Cano as MVP” was the subject of incessant chirping from Ron Darling and John Smoltz during Sunday’s television broadcast of the New York-Detroit series, but any such discussion is silly in my view. In the parlance of Moneyball, one simple reason that Cano is not the MVP is that he makes too many outs, the result of his being almost incapable of drawing a base on balls.

Cano walked only 38 times in 2011, which is less than any of the players who have received serious consideration for the AL MVP, including Jose Bautista (132), Miguel Cabrera (108), Dustin Pedroia (86), Curtis Granderson (85), David Ortiz (78), Paul Konerko (77), Adrian Gonzalez (74), Jacoby Ellsbury (52), and Josh Hamilton (39). I would rank most of these players ahead of Cano for MVP. This statement is not meant to imply that I consider walks to be the key stat on which the MVP should be decided, but walks are – or at least should be – one of the leading ways that a batter gets on base. And on-base percentage (either in isolation or as part of OPS) is a stat that I would weigh heavily for MVP-worthiness.

Cano had a .882 OPS this year, ranking 10th in the AL, and that’s about where I would place him for MVP. Cano ranks 26th in the league in OBP and 9th in SLG, indicating that Cano earns his OPS more through slugging than getting on base. His power hitting (46 doubles, 7 triples, 28 home runs) is central to his value as a player. If Cano could draw even a few more walks his value would increase, but too often he swings at ball 4, not to mention balls 1, 2 and 3.

Cano had a BB/PA of .055 in 2011. This walk rate is substantially below the league average, placing him in the lower third among everyday players. In contrast, Bautista, Cabrera, Pedroia, Granderson, Konerko and Gonzalez all walked at rates well above the league average. If you imagine that Cano had walked at the league average of .081 times per plate appearance, his 38 walks would become 56. By drawing 18 more walks, Cano could be expected to have made 12 fewer outs, which would increase his OBP from .349 to .365. Assuming that his being more selective at the plate would not also adversely affect his ability to drive the ball, this increase in OBP would boost Cano’s OPS to .898, which would move him up to eighth in the league, ahead of Alex Avila (.895), but still trailing Bautista (1.056) and six others. Even then, he’s probably not a leading candidate for MVP, although perhaps defense and intangibles could earn him a few votes. Cano would have to increase his walk total to about 75 or 80 (an OBP of perhaps .380) in order to be a serious contender for MVP.

I enjoy watching Cano play. He has a sweet swing and plays the game with an unusual combination of joy and intensity. He has surpassed all but Tony Lazzeri as the all-time best second baseman for the Yankees, and Lazzeri might well fall from that discussion in the next few years. Cano is a fine player, but I will be shocked if we learn in November that he has been voted the 2011 AL MVP.

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