A whole other Story: Revitalized Robinson Cano's homer-happy start
Trevor Story has made major league history, but the Rockies' red-hot rookie shortstop isn't the only player to homer in each of his team's first three games this season, or to total four homers in that span. Robinson Cano has done the same for the Mariners, hitting one home run each on Monday and Tuesday and following it up with two more on Wednesday to help Seattle win two of three against the Rangers.
Like Story in Arizona, Cano did his damage in a hitter-friendly environment, namely Globe Life Park in Arlington, but that doesn't lessen the significance of the 33-year-old second baseman's hot start. The Mariners underwent a drastic off-season overhaul—firing general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon in favor of Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais, respectively, then turning over more than half the roster in a flurry of off-season moves—so it's a particularly positive sign that the team's $240 million marquee star is building upon last year's strong finish.
More on that momentarily, but first, who wants to watch some dingers? Here's a supercut of all four of Cano's home runs, starting with Monday's solo shot off Cole Hamels on his first swing of the regular season, the second another solo shot off of former teammate Tom Wilhelmsen on Tuesday, and then a pair of two-run homers off Colby Lewis and Shawn Tolleson, respectively. Wednesday's pair were part of a five-RBI afternoon for Cano in Seattle's come-from-behind 9–5 win over Texas:
Via the baseball-reference.com Play Index, Cano is one of 30 players since 1913 to homer in each of his team's first three games. Sixteen of them hail from the post-1992 era that has produced previously unseen home run rates throughout the game thanks to a confluence of factors. Among the 14 others are Hall of Famers Bobby Doerr (1941), Frank Robinson ('66, en route to the AL Triple Crown), Willie Mays ('71), Billy Williams ('71) and Dave Winfield ('83), as well as Bob Johnson ('37, the first player to do so) and Darryl Strawberry ('87). Seven of the 30 players have hit four or more homers in those three games:
|Bobby Doerr||1941||Red Sox||4||16|
|Vernon Wells||2010||Blue Jays||4||31|
Adrian Gonzalez, who homered three times in the Dodgers' third game last year, separated himself from that pack, though as you can see, his final total was comparatively modest (though it was his highest since 2010). None of those five players wound up leading their respective leagues; for Frank Howard, aka "The Capitol Punisher," it was the lone year between 1968 and '70 that he did not. Neither Cano nor Story are likely to lead their leagues either, though the latter at least plays half his games in the majors' most homer-friendly environment.
Via the Bill James Handbook 2016, Seattle's Safeco Field is only slightly below average in terms of hosting home runs for lefties such as Cano, with a three-year index of 98, meaning it suppresses totals by 2%. Still, it's been tough going in the home run department for Cano since leaving the Yankees after the 2013 season. From 2010 to '13, Cano averaged 29 homers, with a high of 33 in '12. He hit just 14 in his first season in Seattle, and boosted that total to 21 last year; overall, 20 of his 35 home runs as a Mariner have come at home. Despite the drop from 27 homers in 2013, his final year in New York, his overall offensive showing in '14 was actually comparable to what it had been in the Bronx. His batting average remained unchanged at .314, and he lost just one point in on-base percentage, from .383 to .382. So even though his slugging percentage dropped from .516 to .454, his OPS+ dipped only from 147 to 142.
Last season, however, Cano did experience notable dropoffs in those other categories: His batting average fell to .287, his on-base percentage dropped to .334 and his OPS+ tumbled to 118 (he had a .446 slugging percentage). Though still respectable for most hitters, that final line was Cano's worst since an out-of-character 2008, but the good news was that it masked a second half that hinted at a return to form. Through the end of June, Cano hit just .238/.277/.344 with four homers in 314 PA, but the rest of the way, he hit like the guy in the catalog, .330/.383/.536 with 17 homers in 360 PA.
Some of that slow start was simply due to bad luck; as MLB.com's Andrew Simon noted, StatCast data indicated that in that time Cano hit into outs 41 times on balls that had an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, seven more times than any other player. For the season, Cano had 67 such outs, tied with Manny Machado for the highest total in the majors; Mike Trout was next at 62, followed by Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson at 58, David Ortiz at 57 and Jose Abreu at 56—guys with some serious thump who all finished with at least 30 homers. As a percentage of Cano's total plate appearances, those smoked-for-naught balls dipped from 13.0% through June to 7.2% thereafter, while as a percentage of batted balls, the drop was from 16.9% to 9.3%.
There may have been more to Cano's dismal early-season results than bad luck. Around the time he started to turn his season around, it surfaced that for more than a year, he had been battling a stomach ailment that had sapped his energy—initially the result of a parasite that had been treated with antibiotics, but even after that, chronic acid reflux that had limited his food intake to the point that he often ate just one meal a day before playing. Meanwhile, he was also affected by the death of his paternal grandfather, whom he had called "like a second father to me."
Even after that came to light, Cano played at less than 100% for a significant time. Following the season, he underwent surgery to repair a double sports hernia that affected muscles on both sides of his abdomen. That was believed to have been related to a Grade 1 abdominal strain that he suffered in late July, forced him to sit out three games and eventually wound up being more severe than indicated. As the Seattle Times' Ryan Divish reported, following the injury, "[Cano] played the remainder of the season, unable to sprint or make quick or sudden movements without pain. The Mariners believed Cano had suffered a sports hernia but allowed him to play through the pain. They did more extensive tests in the days leading up to the off-season to be certain if surgery would be needed."
All of which makes Cano's turnaround this year even more impressive. In spring training, he drew raves from scouts, as the New York Post's Joel Sherman noted last week:
[Y]ou know what has come up over and over from evaluators in Arizona? How good Robinson Cano looks.
For real. “Looks better physically than I have seen in years,” one scout said. “He has been locked in from Day 1,” said another. “Not just on offense, he is moving well to his left on defense again,” yet another scout said.
That's anecdotal evidence, of course, but it does jibe with the numbers that show Cano dipping from 6.4 WAR and 0 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 to 3.4 WAR and -9 DRS in '15—numbers that not only represent his post-’08 lows but were also far off the pace of his averages of 6.8 WAR and +6 DRS from '09 to '14. His four-homer start to this season backs the notion that there's something to those observations, but of course, there are still 159 more games to play before a complete verdict can be rendered. Still, for a player whose took until June 17, 2014 and June 26, 2015 to reach four home runs in his first two seasons with Seattle, this is an impressive start nonetheless.