Robinson Cano put up a 2.9 fWAR in 80 games last year, which is a terrific number. It’s almost as good as the 2.7 mark Jeff McNeil put up in 63 games. Of course unlike McNeil, Cano has a track record, three times turning in a season of at least 6.0 fWAR, the last one coming in 2016. In his career, Cano has a total of 56.3 fWAR, which is approaching the level at where we need to take his Hall of Fame chances seriously.
And that’s the rub. Cano has been a great player in the past. But we don’t really care about his past – we care about his present and his future. In the MLB universe, it’s getting harder and harder for free agents on the wrong side of 30 to get multi-year deals, as front offices have found out that as a rule, it’s a bad idea to commit years and money to that demographic. But Cano isn’t only on the wrong side of 30, he’s on the wrong side of 35. And he’s at that age while trying to play second base.
It’s not easy to be a productive middle infielder at age 36 and above. In the past 25 years, there have been a total of 46 seasons turned in by second basemen in which they accumulated at least 300 PA in that age range. Of those 46, there have been six seasons where the player amassed an fWAR total of 3.0 or more. So, essentially once every four years. And even that is a bit misleading. One of the six was Ben Zobrist last year, who had a 3.6 fWAR. But Zobrist, who played 139 games in 2018, made just 42 starts at second base. Furthermore, Jeff Kent turned in two of the six seasons.
Certainly, great players can age more gracefully than the average guy. Eddie Collins put up a 5.8 fWAR season at age 36. But for every great player like Collins or Joe Morgan (5.2 at age 38) you can find Hall of Famers like Frankie Frisch (1.8) or Nellie Fox (0.8) or Ryne Sandberg (0.7) or Charlie Gehringer (0.6). Maybe Cano adds some prime age 36 and up seasons like Collins or Kent or Morgan. Let’s see what the computer models forecast for him:
ATC —- 629 PA, .288/.351/.467, 22 HR, 87 RBIs
Marcel – 439 PA, .275/.334/.456, 16 HR, 60 RBIs
Steamer – 617 PA, .278/.339/.457, 22 HR, 80 RBIs
THE BAT – 625 PA, .278/.341/.466, 23 HR, 81 RBIs
ZiPS — 492 PA, .272/.329/.434, 16 HR, 66 RBIs
Two of these forecasts included an fWAR calculation, with Steamer’s line producing a 3.3 mark and ZiPS a 2.5 one. Obviously, Marcel and ZiPS are being heavily influenced by Cano’s 348 PA in 2018. They don’t make an adjustment that it was for a suspension, rather than an injury. The surprise isn’t that those two systems don’t but rather that the others seemingly do.
Also unsurprising is how the systems all have very similar productions lines for Cano. It’s what you would expect from a veteran player. ZiPS is a little more bearish than the others but Marcel and Steamer look like they could be copying from one another in the triple slash categories. This is actually good news. As fans, we now have a realistic baseline of what to expect. If you’re significantly above or below these marks, you need to bring something to the table besides “he’s always been good!” or “he’s just too old!”
We’ve seen Cano’s numbers in his home park take a hit when he went from the Yankees to the Mariners. In his last season in The Bronx, Cano had a .909 OPS at home. It was the third time in the last five years where his mark eclipsed the .900 mark and an .881 OPS was his lowest home rate in this span. But in his five years in Seattle, Cano ranged from a home OPS high of .847 to a low of .795 last year.
Now you may think this is because of Safeco Field. While the vast majority of parks would be less favorable than Yankee Stadium for a LHB, Safeco was not nearly as bad as you might think for a lefty. It’s righty hitters that Safeco is the most unfavorable towards. According to ESPN, in the five-year period from 2013-2017, Safeco had a HR factor for LHB of 1.031 while it was 0.962 for RHB. The park factor for HR for lefties in Safeco ranked 16th in the majors – or right in the middle of the pack.
Safeco was certainly a dropoff from Yankee Stadium. But it was essentially a neutral park for power and pretty similar to Citi Field in both HR for LHB and Runs overall.
So, what’s going to happen to Cano’s home production now that he’ll be playing those games in Queens? If you remember last season, you know that as a team, the Mets really struggled to hit in home games. But it wasn’t just last year. The last five seasons, the Mets have hit better on the road than they have at home, by an average off 55 points of OPS.
Obviously, what’s true for the team as a whole does not forecast what will happen for the individual. McNeil put up a .959 OPS in Citi Field. But of the dozen batters who amassed at least 100 PA in Citi Field, only McNeil and Brandon Nimmo (.822) had an OPS above .766 last year. And while those guys are both LHB like Cano, they were also age 26 and 25, respectively. And LHB Michael Conforto (.682) and Jay Bruce (.547) showed that not every lefty enjoyed hitting in Citi Field last year.
Here’s my completely biased prediction for Cano:
523 PA, .283/.345/.445, 18 HR, 83 RBI
My triple slash forecast is not too far from what the computer models forecast and is more optimistic than ZiPS. The main difference is that my expectation is that he’ll get more time off. Also, my belief is that he’ll get more RBIs with Nimmo and his high OBP batting in front of him. Still, my forecast calls for a drop of 55 points of OPS from what Cano did last year.
To go a step further, my opinion is that Cano ends the year with an fWAR in the neighborhood of 2.5 – which is a good total. Is it worth $20 million? If you believe the FanGraphs Dollar Value calculation, it will be worth almost exactly that. Was it worth booting McNeil off the position? You can make a case for it but my opinion is that case is 50-50, rather than a slam dunk. Will that 2.5 fWAR in 2019 make up for what will come in 2020-2023? No, it won’t.
You’ll have more credibility in the future if you chime in now with what you think Cano will do this year. Next week, Jason Vargas goes under the forecast microscope.