Robinson Cano is an outstanding hitter, but much less so when there are runners in scoring position (RISP). This fact is well known to those who follow the Yankees, but the extent of his struggles, compared to other good hitters, might surprise you.

To be clear, this is not an anti-Cano piece; I’d be thrilled to have him on either of the teams I root for. And I have no theory to explain his difficulty or prove its predictive value; although I know these numbers, I’m still terrified when he comes up in a big spot with men on against my Mets or Tigers.

I just think it’s fascinating.

 

The Data

Since 1961, there are 127 hitters who meet these minimum criteria:

  • .290 career batting average (BA); and
  • 1,000 PAs with RISP.

Here are the bottom 25 in the ratio of their [BA with RISP] to their overall BA. In the table, “BA” is BA with RISP (the numbers in bold), “BA tot” is overall BA, and the ratio is expressed as a percentage, “%.” (See full list here.)

Rk Player Split From To G BA BA
tot
% PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OBP SLG OPS GDP HBP SF IBB
1 Robinson Cano RISP 2005 2013 914 .273 .307 88.9 1502 1323 361 85 13 41 549 123 189 .333 .450 .783 54 15 36 56
2 Hal Morris RISP 1988 2000 798 .276 .304 90.8 1262 1046 289 63 3 10 400 161 165 .363 .371 .734 42 4 39 55
3 Ralph Garr RISP 1969 1980 772 .284 .306 92.8 1157 1019 289 36 10 16 313 91 106 .339 .386 .725 17 5 21 46
4 John Kruk RISP 1986 1995 852 .281 .300 93.7 1403 1087 305 54 8 26 465 265 222 .409 .417 .826 42 1 43 83
5 Matty Alou RISP 1961 1974 909 .289 .307 94.1 1320 1172 339 52 10 5 368 98 74 .342 .363 .706 30 11 28 38
6 Luis Castillo RISP 1996 2010 1099 .274 .290 94.5 1677 1370 376 29 15 6 400 216 195 .368 .331 .699 42 3 26 13
7 Matt Kemp RISP 2006 2013 653 .276 .292 94.5 1055 885 244 38 9 43 377 126 248 .357 .485 .841 38 6 37 51
8 Matt Holliday RISP 2004 2013 1008 .295 .310 95.2 1692 1420 419 89 11 54 623 211 272 .389 .487 .877 74 29 32 46
9 Jim Eisenreich RISP 1982 1998 837 .276 .290 95.2 1298 1109 306 51 11 13 406 138 135 .345 .377 .722 32 2 42 47
10 Ken Griffey RISP 1973 1991 1406 .285 .296 96.3 2126 1801 513 88 21 39 678 256 249 .365 .422 .787 43 4 55 51
11 Brett Butler RISP 1981 1997 1370 .280 .290 96.6 1968 1558 436 52 25 6 506 296 175 .387 .357 .744 24 8 51 23
12 Dmitri Young RISP 1996 2008 948 .282 .292 96.6 1478 1256 354 77 7 35 490 175 254 .366 .438 .804 55 11 35 66
13 Troy Tulowitzki RISP 2006 2013 598 .286 .296 96.6 1012 845 242 56 4 34 357 128 164 .374 .483 .857 34 6 27 35
14 Dustin Pedroia RISP 2006 2013 655 .294 .304 96.7 1082 895 263 53 1 18 339 125 98 .371 .416 .787 32 8 38 18
15 Edgar Martinez RISP 1987 2004 1516 .302 .312 96.8 2566 1951 589 123 2 79 918 511 339 .438 .488 .927 78 23 77 112
16 Larry Walker RISP 1989 2005 1422 .303 .313 96.8 2330 1843 559 119 23 75 860 373 348 .420 .515 .935 62 46 65 117
17 Derek Jeter RISP 1995 2012 1820 .303 .313 96.8 2934 2432 736 112 15 50 976 364 474 .395 .423 .818 100 43 53 38
18 Bill Mueller RISP 1996 2006 828 .282 .291 96.9 1308 1052 297 63 10 19 379 172 163 .374 .415 .790 33 11 48 17
19 Jose Vidro RISP 1997 2008 937 .289 .298 97.0 1435 1211 350 77 4 33 496 151 134 .363 .441 .804 41 15 44 35
20 Hanley Ramirez RISP 2006 2013 707 .289 .298 97.0 1094 913 264 51 4 31 360 138 196 .380 .456 .836 17 11 24 45
21 Bake McBride RISP 1973 1983 723 .290 .299 97.0 1104 956 277 43 12 19 359 91 129 .345 .419 .765 22 11 39 28
22 Tommy Davis RISP 1961 1976 1362 .287 .295 97.3 2245 1999 573 65 13 34 816 155 213 .332 .383 .715 97 12 64 65
23 Jose Reyes RISP 2003 2013 791 .286 .292 97.9 1183 1002 287 42 29 20 382 143 122 .368 .446 .814 13 1 25 50
24 Ivan Rodriguez RISP 1991 2011 1754 .290 .296 98.0 2763 2436 707 152 15 66 980 207 405 .342 .446 .788 115 23 76 67
25 Mike Piazza RISP 1992 2007 1386 .302 .308 98.1 2249 1857 560 84 2 105 871 338 314 .403 .519 .922 95 9 45 145
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used / Generated 6/15/2013.

 

A quick reaction to Robinson Cano’s career .273 BA with runners in scoring position might be, “Well, he gets pitched around a lot.” But he is hardly the only good hitter to face that challenge. Besides, if that were a major factor, it would show up in the OBP data. It doesn’t.

From the same group, here are the bottom 25 in ratio of On-Base Percentage (OBP) with RISP to their overall OBP (full list here):

Rk Player Split From To G OBP OBP
tot
% PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA SLG OPS GDP HBP SF IBB
1 Robinson Cano RISP 2005 2013 914 .333 .351 94.9 1502 1323 361 85 13 41 549 123 189 .273 .450 .783 54 15 36 56
2 Matty Alou RISP 1961 1974 909 .342 .345 99.1 1320 1172 339 52 10 5 368 98 74 .289 .363 .706 30 11 28 38
3 Dustin Pedroia RISP 2006 2013 655 .371 .372 99.7 1082 895 263 53 1 18 339 125 98 .294 .416 .787 32 8 38 18
4 Ralph Garr RISP 1969 1980 772 .339 .339 100.0 1157 1019 289 36 10 16 313 91 106 .284 .386 .725 17 5 21 46
5 Bake McBride RISP 1973 1983 723 .345 .345 100.0 1104 956 277 43 12 19 359 91 129 .290 .419 .765 22 11 39 28
6 Luis Castillo RISP 1996 2010 1099 .368 .368 100.0 1677 1370 376 29 15 6 400 216 195 .274 .331 .699 42 3 26 13
7 Bill Mueller RISP 1996 2006 828 .374 .373 100.3 1308 1052 297 63 10 19 379 172 163 .282 .415 .790 33 11 48 17
8 Hal Morris RISP 1988 2000 798 .363 .361 100.6 1262 1046 289 63 3 10 400 161 165 .276 .371 .734 42 4 39 55
9 Bip Roberts RISP 1986 1998 681 .360 .358 100.6 1006 874 264 52 9 10 312 89 111 .302 .416 .776 21 7 31 19
10 Tommy Davis RISP 1961 1976 1362 .332 .330 100.6 2245 1999 573 65 13 34 816 155 213 .287 .383 .715 97 12 64 65
11 Matt Holliday RISP 2004 2013 1008 .389 .385 101.0 1692 1420 419 89 11 54 623 211 272 .295 .487 .877 74 29 32 46
12 Jose Vidro RISP 1997 2008 937 .363 .359 101.1 1435 1211 350 77 4 33 496 151 134 .289 .441 .804 41 15 44 35
13 Jim Eisenreich RISP 1982 1998 837 .345 .341 101.2 1298 1109 306 51 11 13 406 138 135 .276 .377 .722 32 2 42 47
14 Johnny Ray RISP 1981 1990 956 .337 .333 101.2 1528 1323 378 81 12 14 514 124 86 .286 .397 .734 46 7 56 39
15 Mickey Rivers RISP 1970 1984 885 .331 .327 101.2 1323 1183 349 45 17 8 418 72 109 .295 .382 .713 15 8 35 20
16 Dante Bichette RISP 1988 2001 1223 .341 .336 101.5 2004 1794 548 104 11 80 846 120 310 .305 .509 .850 72 13 73 32
17 Kenny Lofton RISP 1991 2007 1355 .378 .372 101.6 2010 1663 500 69 30 22 614 239 218 .301 .418 .796 33 8 65 43
18 Ken Griffey RISP 1973 1991 1406 .365 .359 101.7 2126 1801 513 88 21 39 678 256 249 .285 .422 .787 43 4 55 51
19 Placido Polanco RISP 1998 2013 1197 .348 .342 101.8 1807 1565 468 59 9 23 574 123 119 .299 .392 .741 51 23 52 13
20 Troy Tulowitzki RISP 2006 2013 598 .374 .367 101.9 1012 845 242 56 4 34 357 128 164 .286 .483 .857 34 6 27 35
21 Roberto Kelly RISP 1987 2000 854 .344 .337 102.1 1325 1152 333 61 6 25 441 97 202 .289 .418 .761 37 20 41 16
22 Shan. Stewart RISP 1995 2008 899 .368 .360 102.2 1387 1198 363 79 7 23 456 126 156 .303 .438 .806 47 19 38 16
23 Matt Kemp RISP 2006 2013 653 .357 .349 102.3 1055 885 244 38 9 43 377 126 248 .276 .485 .841 38 6 37 51
24 Ivan Rodriguez RISP 1991 2011 1754 .342 .334 102.4 2763 2436 707 152 15 66 980 207 405 .290 .446 .788 115 23 76 67
25 Ryan Braun RISP 2007 2013 688 .384 .375 102.4 1122 968 302 68 8 51 439 113 209 .312 .557 .941 25 16 24 31
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used / Generated 6/15/2013.

 

That’s astounding. Cano is the only one in the whole group whose OBP is significantly lower with RISP than it is overall.

Finally, the bottom 25 by the ratio of their Slugging with RISP to their overall Slugging (full list here):

Rk Player Split From To G SLG SLG
tot
% PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP OPS GDP HBP SF IBB
1 Hal Morris RISP 1988 2000 798 .371 .433 85.7 1262 1046 289 63 3 10 400 161 165 .276 .363 .734 42 4 39 55
2 Robinson Cano RISP 2005 2013 914 .450 .504 89.3 1502 1323 361 85 13 41 549 123 189 .273 .333 .783 54 15 36 56
3 Dustin Pedroia RISP 2006 2013 655 .416 .459 90.6 1082 895 263 53 1 18 339 125 98 .294 .371 .787 32 8 38 18
4 Larry Walker RISP 1989 2005 1422 .515 .565 91.2 2330 1843 559 119 23 75 860 373 348 .303 .420 .935 62 46 65 117
5 Matt Holliday RISP 2004 2013 1008 .487 .532 91.5 1692 1420 419 89 11 54 623 211 272 .295 .389 .877 74 29 32 46
6 Hanley Ramirez RISP 2006 2013 707 .456 .496 91.9 1094 913 264 51 4 31 360 138 196 .289 .380 .836 17 11 24 45
7 Bill Madlock RISP 1973 1987 1258 .407 .442 92.1 2013 1637 499 84 12 20 646 267 144 .305 .395 .803 69 23 69 121
8 Dmitri Young RISP 1996 2008 948 .438 .475 92.2 1478 1256 354 77 7 35 490 175 254 .282 .366 .804 55 11 35 66
9 Ralph Garr RISP 1969 1980 772 .386 .417 92.6 1157 1019 289 36 10 16 313 91 106 .284 .339 .725 17 5 21 46
10 Vlad Guerrero RISP 1996 2011 1598 .516 .553 93.3 2594 2102 662 116 11 95 973 400 286 .315 .420 .936 118 28 64 245
11 Jim Eisenreich RISP 1982 1998 837 .377 .404 93.3 1298 1109 306 51 11 13 406 138 135 .276 .345 .722 32 2 42 47
12 John Kruk RISP 1986 1995 852 .417 .446 93.5 1403 1087 305 54 8 26 465 265 222 .281 .409 .826 42 1 43 83
13 Troy Tulowitzki RISP 2006 2013 598 .483 .514 94.0 1012 845 242 56 4 34 357 128 164 .286 .374 .857 34 6 27 35
14 Luis Castillo RISP 1996 2010 1099 .331 .351 94.3 1677 1370 376 29 15 6 400 216 195 .274 .368 .699 42 3 26 13
15 Derek Jeter RISP 1995 2012 1820 .423 .448 94.4 2934 2432 736 112 15 50 976 364 474 .303 .395 .818 100 43 53 38
16 Edgar Martinez RISP 1987 2004 1516 .488 .515 94.8 2566 1951 589 123 2 79 918 511 339 .302 .438 .927 78 23 77 112
17 Tommy Davis RISP 1961 1976 1362 .383 .404 94.8 2245 1999 573 65 13 34 816 155 213 .287 .332 .715 97 12 64 65
18 Brett Butler RISP 1981 1997 1370 .357 .376 94.9 1968 1558 436 52 25 6 506 296 175 .280 .387 .744 24 8 51 23
19 Al Kaline RISP 1961 1974 1202 .455 .479 95.0 1840 1445 441 70 10 42 633 308 179 .305 .415 .869 51 11 69 87
20 David Segui RISP 1990 2004 970 .421 .443 95.0 1537 1268 367 68 6 29 526 204 199 .289 .380 .802 47 10 45 56
21 Ichiro Suzuki RISP 2001 2013 1243 .397 .417 95.2 1870 1524 489 48 13 14 536 271 167 .321 .419 .816 29 15 39 176
22 Mike Piazza RISP 1992 2007 1386 .519 .545 95.2 2249 1857 560 84 2 105 871 338 314 .302 .403 .922 95 9 45 145
23 Matty Alou RISP 1961 1974 909 .363 .381 95.3 1320 1172 339 52 10 5 368 98 74 .289 .342 .706 30 11 28 38
24 Alex Rodriguez RISP 1994 2012 1903 .534 .560 95.4 3238 2617 777 139 7 156 1240 441 591 .297 .399 .933 90 71 101 91
25 David Wright RISP 2004 2013 980 .484 .505 95.8 1636 1333 395 97 6 47 599 231 310 .296 .391 .874 46 13 59 64
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used / Generated 6/15/2013.

 

The Details

I ran the same search for high-leverage situations, using the same overall .290 BA criterion, but dropping the PA threshold to 750 to maintain the population size; Cano has over 1,000 high-leverage PAs. Cano ranked worst in all three hi-lev ratios — in BA ratio (88.6%), in OBP ratio (92.3%), and in SLG ratio (85.3%). In each case, he was at least 1.7 percentage points below the next-worst hitter — an awfully big margin, since the range in each measure was about 90% to 110%.

Even more curious: Cano fares just fine in late-and-close situations. In the group with .290 career BA and at least 500 PAs for that split, he’s well above the median in BA and OBP ratios, a little below median in Slugging but still in the meat of the curve. The most notable underachievers in those spots are Troy Tulowitzki (worst in BA, SLG and OPS ratios) and Manny Ramirez (bottom 5 in BA and SLG ratios).

Cano also has normal ratios in splits that don’t specifically require men in scoring position, and ditto with a man on 1st base only. The problem — to the extent that these data show a real problem — is strictly with men in scoring position.

The Baseball-Reference Event Finder lets us tease out the overlap from the various “clutch” situations.

  • High-leverage: With RISP, .250 BA and .422 SLG. Bases empty or a man on 1st only, .310 BA and .510 SLG.
  • Tight games late:* With RISP, .229 BA, .339 SLG. Bases empty or a man on 1st only, .319 BA and .488 SLG, with twice the HR rate.
    (* Tied or within one run either way, 7th inning or later. Not quite the same definition as “late-and-close,” but the Event Finder can’t give “late-and-close.”)
  • Game tied: With RISP, .237 BA, .390 SLG. Bases empty or a man on 1st only, .315 BA, .512 SLG.

 

The History

A brief overview of Cano’s seasonal progression in RISP performance:

As a rookie in 2005, Cano hit .297 overall and slugged .458, but was very aggressive, taking 16 walks in 551 PAs. He hit just .210 with men in scoring position, which was noticed, but was generally seen as rookie eagerness.

In year 2, he soared to .342 BA and .525 SLG, still with just 19 walks. His RISP marks, .306/.500, were still below his overall performance, but were also good enough that no one should mind.

Year 3 was consolidation. Cano hit .306 overall (.290 with RISP) and raised his walk rate. But he slumped in year 4, .271 overall (.263 RISP), with declines in power and walks.

In year 5, 2009, he was back on the beam, although the raw numbers were inflated by the new Yankee Stadium. Overall, he hit .320 and slugged .520 — but with RISP, just .207 and .332.

With 5 years of data now, there seemed to be a real issue with Cano’s hitting in RBI spots. Note that BA generally goes up with RISP, mainly because of sacrifice flies. All sac flies come with RISP, and although they are outs, they’re not counted as ABs. A medium fly ball with nobody on hurts your BA, but if it scores a runner, it’s left out of the BA calculation. Last year’s MLB batting average was 6 points higher with RISP than with bases empty, but those figures are much closer if you count sac flies as ABs. Anyway, Cano’s RISP numbers were well below his overall rates. His 5-year unweighted average BA was .307 overall, but .255 with RISP. He had also hit just .217 in 28 postseason games, with an empty 3 for 22 in the 2009 World Series.

Then, in 2010 and ’11, Cano seemed to reach a new plateau and put all that behind him. He had his first 100-RBI years, averaging 114 RBI, and he hit .320 with RISP for those years, .330 in high-leverage spots, both above his overall .311 mark. He hit well in the postseason both years, totaling .333 with 6 HRs, 15 RBI in 14 games. Most thought Cano’s clutch troubles were done. He was now firmly among the game’s elite. Two years from free agency, age 29, a megabucks long-term extension seemed certain within the year.

But last season, the bug bit back. While he hit .313 with 33 HRs overall, slugging .550, he had just 94 RBI thanks to a .268 RISP mark. He cratered in the postseason — 3 for 40, no homers, 1 walk (intentional), with an 0-for-26 skid that set a postseason record. The whole Yankee season was colored by the club’s postseason fade, and as winter set in with several top stars due to be shelved beyond spring, a frugal, wait-and-see policy emerged from the front office. No contract was done for Cano.

This year, with free agency looming, Cano has run hot and cold — .327 with a .988 OPS through May 1, but .250/.785 in his last 40 games, with the Yanks going 20-20 and struggling to score, as the fill-ins regressed to reality. For 2012-present, he’s hit .266 with RISP, .267 hi-lev, compared to .303 overall.

 

That’s it for me. If you have any thoughts on the cause of Cano’s RISP troubles, or a critique of the methods I’ve used, or an idea for further study — you know what to do!

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