Whatever happened to Robinson’s Cano’s power?

Has Robinson Cano changed his approach at the plate or are pitchers forcing his hand?

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Life is good for Robinson Cano. He likes his new city, and his new city likes him back. He’s secured the contract of a man’s wildest dreams, and he’s a leading vote-getter for the 2014 All-Star Game. He owns one of the top batting averages in all of baseball, and while Cano’s new team isn’t leading its division, it is in the race for the first time in years, with more total wins than Cano’s old team. There isn’t a lot of disappointment to be found anywhere. Ten-year contracts tend to lead to disappointment, but generally not in Year One, and this many months in, Cano is all smiles.

And Cano has been one of the better players in baseball. He has been the Mariners’ best position player, among a unit that needed a player like him. There’s just that one part of his statistical profile. Time and time again, people have been told that Cano is a line-drive hitter, not a power hitter. Well, it’s almost July, and Cano has four home runs. A year ago, he hit 27. Right now he has as many homers as Billy Hamilton, and we’re no longer dealing with insignificant sample sizes. Cano has never been considered a true power hitter, but he’s never been further from being a true power hitter as he is today.

Naturally, one gets to wondering. It’s not like Cano’s skills have eroded. His overall approach is the same, and he’s still drilling liners. You just wonder about the balls flying over the fence. Leaving New York doesn’t explain everything — a year ago, Cano actually hit five more dingers on the road. Seattle has long played lefty-friendly. There has to be more behind the power drought.

The easiest place to start is with Cano’s balls in play. Last year, 44 percent of them were grounders. He spent the prime of his career hovering in the mid-40s. This year, he’s up to 55 percent, and while it looked like Cano was coming out of it with a more air-friendly May, he’s gone back to hitting grounders in June. A change this sudden, to this degree, is notable, and obviously you can’t hit the ball out on a grounder or most liners. You turn your attention to Cano’s swing.

And it’s helpful to analyze Cano’s distribution of hits. A table is embedded below, using a stat called wRC+. It works like the more familiar OPS+, and it’s basically a measure of productivity, where 100 is average and better than that is better than that. The table breaks down balls Cano has pulled, hit up the middle, and hit the other way, and shown are his career marks and his current-season marks.

Cano has always been outstanding across the board. The easiest explanation — for his career on pulled balls, with a wRC+ of 158, he’s been 58 percent better than average. He’s been great up the middle, and he’s been great the other way. But then, look at this year. He’s had absolutely nothing to the pull side. Out of all qualified players in baseball, Cano’s pulled-ball wRC+ ranks second-worst. But then, up the middle, he’s been a hit machine, ranking in the top 10 percent. And the other way, he’s also been a hit machine, ranking in the top 20 percent. To two-thirds of the field, Cano’s been better than his usual self, but he’s been far worse to the side that gets the majority of the extra-base hits.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here is a pair of Cano spray charts. On the left, 2013; on the right, 2014.

A year ago, Cano pulled 14 percent of his balls in play to right field, in the air. This year, he’s dropped to 8 percent. A year ago, Cano pulled 7 percent of his balls in play to right field, at least 300 feet. This year, he’s dropped to 2 percent. Additionally, so far, Cano has pulled just one pitch at at least 90 miles per hour into right field in the air. The spray charts are telling enough — you can see that big empty space in right and right-center. It’s not like Cano’s gotten weaker, with fly balls dying in front of the track; he just hasn’t even been pulling fly balls. He’s been spraying lower line drives, seemingly exchanging extra-base hits for a greater number of single-base hits. Cano’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a career-best .363.

There’s something else you might notice in the spray charts, if you squint. Cano’s pull damage has mostly been done to breaking and off-speed pitches. A year ago, Cano slugged .439 against hard pitches, and .637 against everything else. This year he’s slugging .441 against hard pitches, and .515 against everything else. It’s a less dramatic gap, but Cano has simply been seeing more hard pitches, too. Relative to last year, one out of every 20 pitches has been turned from a breaking ball to a fastball. Cano’s seeing more fastballs in all situations, and instead of yanking them, he’s spraying them to center and left.

It’s evident that Robinson Cano is still successful. It’s evident, also, that Robinson Cano is differently successful from how he used to be. The impression one gets now is that Cano prepares to line a fastball toward left-center, and if he gets something slower, maybe he’ll pull that with authority. But because he’s been seeing so many fastballs, he’s been lining up the middle and the other way. It’s not quite the Cano the Mariners signed. It’s not a bad Cano — it’s just an unexpected Cano, a Cano who’s driven a running joke that the Mariners gave a quarter of a billion dollars to Ichiro.

The important question is where Cano goes from here. So the important question is whether this is about Cano’s swing, or about the way he’s being pitched. Is it the opposition’s fault Cano doesn’t have anything to the pull side, or is it about the hitter himself? Is Cano capable of catching up to a good heater? Will his singles force pitchers to go more offspeed, opening the door to more power? If this is what Cano’s going to be, for how long can he sustain the bat control that yields a BABIP closer to .400 than .300?

The line has always been that Robinson Cano isn’t a power hitter, but in the past he’s been a hitter with good power. Right now he’s a hitter with a lot of low line drives, enough to make him not a major cause for concern, yet enough to make one wonder. The most amazing thing about Cano has always been his stability. It’s not clear now if he’s changing, nor is it clear that would be for the best. For the time being, better to wonder about a .330 hitter than a .230 hitter.