When the Mets acquired Robinson Cano, those who tried to look at the trade with a positive bent said that while he was unlikely to be worthwhile at the end of his five years with the Mets, he would make it a good trade with his production in the first two or three years in Queens. Cano then went out and was horrible for a good part of the season, spent some time on the IL and finished with a 0.8 fWAR. Of the 35 second basemen on the FanGraphs leaderboards, Cano ranked 28th.
The one redeeming mark for Cano last year was how he finished the season. In his final 25 games, a span of 93 PA, he put up a .338/.409/.600 line. And yeah, the hits were falling in for him, as he posted a .348 BABIP in this stretch. But let’s not dismiss a .262 ISO, as 13 of his 27 hits went for extra-bases. Interestingly, this hot hitting began in August but was interrupted when he went on the IL with a partially torn left hamstring. When he came back in September after missing a month, he picked up right where he left off and continued to hit.
My completely unresearched preference is for guys to finish the year strong and Cano certainly did that in 2019. Will that be a springboard towards a productive 2020? Let’s hope so. Still, Cano is fighting an uphill battle, trying to be a productive second baseman at his advanced age. Later this month, Cano will turn 37. According to FanGraphs, only 24 players since 1901 finished the season with at least 350 PA as second basemen at that age, although their definition may leave a bit to be desired. One of those is Ben Zobrist, who played more games in the OF (104) than he did at 2B (63) in his age-37 season.
The three guys who sit atop that list of 2B in their age-37 season are Hall of Famers. Eddie Collins put up a .349/.441/.455 line, posted a 4.9 fWAR and finished 2nd in the AL MVP race. He finished second in the balloting the year before, too, and grabbed a fifth-place finished the year before that. Nap Lajoie is in second place with a 4.5 mark. He was aided by the ability to play 1B in 20 of his 117 games. Lajoie played in just 90 games the year before but two years previously, he put up a whopping 9.3 fWAR. Charlie Gehringer rounds out our group of HOFers, as he put up a 3.9 fWAR as a 37 year old. The year before he put up a 4.8 mark and the year before that he had a 5.2 fWAR.
So, while there are Hall of Famers at the top of this list, their lead-up seasons to age 37 were significantly different than what we’ve witnessed with Cano. At age 33, Cano put up a 6.3 fWAR. He saw that total drop by more than half the following season, as he put up a 3.1 mark. Next was the suspension-shortened 2.9 fWAR and then last year’s 0.8 mark.
Another difference between our HOFers and Cano is in their ISO. Gehringer had the highest ISO of the trio with a .134 mark. It’s hard to imagine Cano being able to reach their numbers with an ISO that low. Last year his mark was .172 and he has a lifetime .188 mark in the category. We saw how important slugging was in his end of the year hot stretch. It seems likely if he’ll put up a strong year in 2020, he’ll have to slug his way to that level, as he’s not particularly good at drawing walks, running the bases or fielding his position.
We don’t have to go too far back in baseball history to see a player who slugged his way to a top age-37 season as a second baseman. In 2005, Jeff Kent used a .222 ISO to overcome bad baserunning and bad defense to put up a 3.6 fWAR. Prior to that season, Kent had eight consecutive years with at least a 3.3 fWAR, including a 4.2 mark at the age of 36.
No other player on our list of 24 second basemen recorded an ISO of .200 or greater in his age-37 season. The only other player to have an ISO of at least .150 was Lou Whitaker, who put up a .189 mark in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Whitaker finished with a 2.1 fWAR as a 37 year old.
Perhaps you don’t find it overly surprising how few sluggers are on our list. After all, second base isn’t really known as a power position. But when your third-highest ISO belongs to Chris Speier (.145), it should be enough to make you sit up and take notice.
Cano is trying to do something that only 24 other people in MLB have done since the beginning of the American League in 1901 – play 2B at age 37 and amass at least 350 PA. And he’s trying to do it while playing every defensive game at the position. He won’t get the break from playing 1B in some games like Kent and Lajoie did.
But the hope isn’t that he’ll get 350 or more PA. The hope is that he’s productive at that level of playing time. The Mets didn’t agree to pay him $20 million a year to be average or worse. FanGraphs considers a 2.0 fWAR to be an average starter at the position. Only 15 of our 24 players cleared that mark and only seven reached 2.5, with one of those being Zobrist, who should be classified as an OFer in his age 37 season.
We never know how things are going to play out. The best we can do is play the odds and hope that leads us to the correct decision more times than not. The odds said that acquiring a 2B for his age 36-40 seasons was a bad move but Brodie Van Wagenen did it anyway. Cano in 2019 was not a help. In addition to his poor WAR, there was the (-0.36) WPA. And the odds of him being good in 2020 are even worse.
Right now the front-burner issue for the Mets is who the next manager will be. After hiring someone without any previous managerial experience in the last go-round, the expectation is that they’ll go for a guy who’s already been around the block. The rub is that the most-experienced guys are going to want more authority than the last manager seemingly had. Whoever the next manager is, they’ll need the ability to move Cano up and down in the lineup as his production merits. Or out of the lineup completely if that’s the best play. We don’t need to see him batting third when he’s got a .649 OPS midway through the year.