Friday, April 10, 2009

2009: The Year of Robinson

Time for a Friday homage to my favorite Yankee: Robinson Cano. Expect gushing, extreme bias, and outrageous predictions.

Robbie Cano is a 26-year-old Dominican who's played second base for the Yankees since 2005. His dad Jose, who played six games for the Astros back in the day, named him after Jackie Robinson. Here's a quick rundown of Robbie's accomplishments to date.

*.304 lifetime batting average.

*Second place in Rookie of the Year voting in 2005.

*AL player of the month in September 2006.

*Third highest league batting average (.342) in 2006.

*Owns the final game-winning hit and final RBI in the old Yankee stadium, as well as the new stadium's first home run.

Unfortunately, the early shine came off Robbie in 2008 when he finished April batting .151 and struggled all season to bring it up to a year-end .271. It didn't matter to most that he hit .300 from May to August and showed considerable toughness rebounding from an atrocious start in the world's least forgiving media market; in the public perception, he went from one of the game's rising stars to a questionable talent.

It didn't help that his on-base percentage dropped 50 points from '08, due largely to the fact that he had only 26 walks, an abysmally low total for a full-time player. Also, he seemed to be dogging it on occasion, especially in the field. Call it laziness, or call it frustration carried over from his offensive struggles. Whatever the cause, the lackadaisical attitude didn't endear him to fans.

Watching Robbie last year was a tremendously vexing experience. I've loved the guy since day one. Watching him hit is very satisfying not only as a Yankee fan, but as a baseball fan. He's got one of the smoothest swings in the game, he hits to the opposite field with unusual frequency, and he can still pull for power. Joe Torre took a lot of heat for comparing him to the great Rod Carew at one point in '06, but I just nodded my head.

At his best, he seemed like a lithe hitting machine who covered the entire plate and coordinated his flexible rhythm to the pitcher's style. He was all over the ball, as though he had a sixth sense that enabled him to anticipate the location and speed of every fastball, curve, slider, or change. An instinctual pitcher's nightmare, and a very difficult out. Only patience kept him from being a truly great hitter, and that weakness was glaringly showcased in his low walk total.

So when he started forcing things last year, pulling pitches for weak ground-outs and flailing at garbage too early in the count, I despaired. Some Yankee fans disowned him amid the general rage at the team's inconsistency under Girardi. I just crossed my arms and adopted a stony expression, like a parent who refuses to believe their kid is a loser even though he's been arrested three times for openly soliciting women who turned out not to be prostitutes at a Dairy Queen parking lot (what?). I hoped that 2008 would be a learning experience, and propel Cano out of immaturity and into a mental state conducive to becoming one of the best hitters in baseball.

And now it's happened. After a blistering spring, Cano went 6-11 in the Orioles series, and at least three of those outs were line drives right at the defense. Best of all was this stat line: 3 BB.

3 walks! He's on pace to walk 162 times this year, which would be 5th all time! A 600% increase over last year's totals! He's also on pace to hit over 50 home runs!!!

By now, you get a sense of my unbridled enthusiasm. I've jumped the gun. Actually, 'jump the gun' doesn't quite say it; I've shown up early for the track meet, hopped the fence, quickly donned my homemade uniform, crouched at the starting line, put honey in my gums (or whatever sprinters do), and finished the race just before the terrified janitor calls the police.

To come back to Earth for a brief moment, it's obviously too early to tell what the season will bring. But watching Cano through the spring and the Orioles series, it's evident that he's taken the next step. The walks are a godsend, and if he can maintain the patience, his on-base percentage and average will shoot to the moon. So far, he looks phenomenal. Dynamic, even. They invented the term 'locked in' for performances like this. Every at-bat brings the humming anticipation of something great. This is when it really pays to be a fan- we're blessed with that rarefied brand of excited optimism each time he steps to the plate. It's a far cry from our usual stance, cynical and wary, designed to preserve the remnants of a tenuous sanity.

Bottom line: Sweet Robbie is finally reaching his potential. It's going to be an amazing year, and I have zero reservations about the following predictions:

1) An OBP above .390.
2) An All-Star game appearance.
3) A Silver Slugger award.
4) A fielding % above .990.
5) Top 5 in the MVP voting.

Crazy enough for you? No? Then brace yourself for #6:

6) An AL batting title.

Feel free to throw these numbers back in my face when he's hitting .260 in mid-May. And yeah, I'm aware that I've jumped off the deep end. You may not be ready to join me. Yankee fans have been conditioned the last nine years to stand poised on the edge of full commitment, eyes averted from the abyss. But it's time to overcome our fear and take the leap. Heed the inspiring words of Delmar O'Donnell:

"Come on in, boys. The water is fine."

Have a great Masters weekend. See you Monday.


  1. Great post cap, the fielding percentage is a little too bold I think. Top 5 in MVP voting will be tough since all the east coast writers vote for their favorite interview.


    Hooray for the midwest.