Friday, April 9, 2010

2010: The Year of Robinson

(This is an annual feature where I predict big things for my favorite baseball player, Robinson Cano. I'll be using many of the same words and formulations as last year's post.)

Robbie Cano is a 27-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.

*.307 lifetime batting average.

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

*AL Silver Slugger Award in 2006.

*AL player of the month in September 2006.

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

*6th highest league batting average (.320) in 2009.

*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 hot-and-cold experience. I've loved the guy since day one. Witnessing his batting prowess 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. But his walk totals and OBP remained low, and he couldn't hit with men on base.

At his best, he seems like a lithe hitting machine who covers the entire plate and coordinates his flexible rhythm to the pitcher's style. He's all over the ball, as though he has a sixth sense that enables him to anticipate the location and speed of every fastball, curve, slider, or change. An instinctual pitcher's nightmare, and a very difficult out. The only thing keep him from true greatness is difficulty hitting under pressure. That weakness was glaringly showcased by his .207 average with men in scoring position.

But deep in my heart, I know 2009 was a learning experience for Robbie. He'll emerge from his clutch woes to deliver the goods from the 5th spot in the order. He'll become the game's greatest second baseman, even better than Utley. And then he'll become president of the Dominican Republic. And America.

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 Boston series, it's beyond obvious that he's taken the next step. He already has 3 RBI, 2 of them with RISP. That means he's on pace to drive in 162 runners, which is high. And if he can maintain the patience and calm, 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 a rarefied brand of optimism and excitement 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. We've been conditioned 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."

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