Hit and Run: Slumping Cano, Mariners can't score; Votto hits trifecta
1. Slumping Seattle
The Mariners kicked off an eight-game road trip by beating Corey Kluber and the Indians 3-2 in Cleveland on Tuesday night for just their second win in their last 10 games. But even in victory, Seattle made a dubious mark: It was the team's 13th straight game scoring three or fewer runs, the longest stretch in franchise history and the longest in the majors since the Braves did so in 1981. Here are the longest such streaks of the post-1960 expansion era, excluding those that bridged across two seasons:
The last of those, included for the sake of showing the previous franchise record, is tied with 17 other teams in that span. If there's any consolation, this year’s Mariners are one of just three of the above teams to average at least 2.0 runs per game across such a stretch, which isn't really much consolation at all.
After falling just one game short of a playoff spot last year, Seattle was expected to contend in 2015, but the team hasn't been above .500 since winning on Opening Day. With their skid, the M's have fallen to 26–32, the league's second-worst record ahead of only Oakland (23–37), and they are seven games out of first place in the AL West. Their recent drought is merely the latest for an offense that ranks dead last in the league in scoring (3.43 runs per game), 14th in on-base percentage (.298) and 13th in batting average (.237). By comparison, their .389 slugging percentage is ninth, while their 99 OPS+ is in a virtual tie for seventh, indicating that at least some of the problem is Safeco Field, which via Baseball-Reference's batter park factor is reducing scoring by 11% this year.
Much of that power output owes to Nelson Cruz (.326/.381/.607), who leads the league in slugging percentage, OPS+ (183) and homers (18), though just five of those shots have come with runners on base. While six of the team's nine regulars have clawed their way past a 100 OPS+—compared to two when I checked in five weeks ago—Dustin Ackley (.197/.252/.331, 69 OPS+), Mike Zunino (.166 /.233/.338, 64 OPS+), Robinson Cano (.242/.281/.330, 78 OPS+), part-timer Rickie Weeks (.165/.267/.253, 53 OPS+) and the rest of the bench has been abysmal enough to drag the team below average.
Ackley, Zunino and Weeks are only making about $5 million combined, and their career trajectories make this year's struggles only a relatively minor surprise. The shock is the slump of Cano. The 32-year-old second baseman is in just the second year of a 10-year, $240 million deal, and while he saw his power output drop considerably with the move from the Bronx, he was as productive as he'd been in his final years with the Yankees:
Cano is notoriously streaky, but even so, he's only had two calendar months with an OPS lower than his .616 in May (on .250/.298/.317 hitting): in April 2008, he hit .151/.211/.236 for a .446 OPS, while in August 2005, he hit .207/.252/.261 for a .513 OPS. By comparison, he's had seven months with an OPS of at least 1.000, and last year ranged from .731 (September) to .916 (both July and August). When FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan looked at Cano's rolling 44-game wRC+ (which scales similarly to OPS+ but uses linear weights instead of park-adjusted league on-base and slugging percentages) on May 26, he found five such stretches in the second baseman's career that were worse, but none since '09 (the 44-game interval was how many the Mariners had played at the time).
What's going on? Cano is apparently healthy, so there’s no injury-related explanation that conveniently accounts for his current woes. His 16.9% strikeout rate is a career worst, while his 5.0% walk rate is his worst since 2009 and his 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio is his worst since his rookie season of '05. Via the PITCHf/x data at FanGraphs, he's swinging at pitches outside the zone 37.9% of the time, his highest rate since '07, and yet he's making contact with just 70.2% of such pitches, his lowest rate in the f/x era ('07 onward) and well below his 75.2% career rate. Likewise, his 90.8% rate of contact within the zone is his second-lowest of the f/x era, below not only his 93.6% career rate but also the 94–95% range he's been in for three of the past four seasons. Once he makes contact, his 2.18 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is the highest of his career; he's at 1.61 for his career, with last year's 2.13 his only other time above 2.0.
I'll leave it to the scouts watching Cano to determine whether his bat is slowing down or he's battling mechanical woes. Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson believes that he's pressing. Via ESPN, here's what he said last week:
"He's a proud guy and when things got off a little slow for him, it's easy to press, even out here in Seattle … I think when you are used to hitting the ball out of the ballpark—guys want to hit the ball out, they got numbers and stuff, people expect that and the human-nature side—you start to try to go for that as opposed to doing the things you did when you were successful: That's be a good hitter first and home runs will come later."
Cano denies that assessment, while manager Lloyd McClendon worries that if his star second baseman doesn't heat up, change could be coming:
"The fact is that if Robby Cano, [Nelson] Cruz and [Kyle] Seager don't hit, then you are not going to win … If they continue not to hit, then you will be talking to somebody else. I'll be driving a garbage truck."
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2. Votto for three
On any other day, Joey Votto's performance might have been the best of the day. As it was, his three home runs in an 11–2 rout of the Phillies in Cincinnati on Tuesday night had to take a back seat to Chris Heston's no-hitter. Even so, the Reds' slugger became the third player to hit the trifecta this season, after the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez (April 8 versus the Padres) and the Nationals' Bryce Harper (May 6 versus the Marlins).
Votto clouted solo homers to centerfield at the expense of Aaron Harang in the third and fifth innings, then added a two-run shot to rightfield off Dustin McGowan in the seventh. All three came on the first pitch of the at-bat—a surprise given that the 31-year-old slugger generally ranks among the game's most patient hitters. The first home run was the longest, an estimated 412 feet according to ESPN Home Run Tracker. The second required an instant replay review by the umpires; the ball deflected back onto the field off of a fan, but umps ruled there was no interference. The third, though estimated at only 380 feet, cleared the wall by the widest margin thanks to where it was hit. Here's the supercut:
Votto came up in the eighth inning with a chance at a fourth homer, but Jeanmar Gomez induced him to ground out. As it was, he had to settle for the 33rd three-homer game in Reds history and the third of his career, the other two of which came on May 7, 2008 against the Cubs and then May 13, 2012 against the Nationals. That puts him in the select company of Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench as the only Reds with a trio of three-homer games, and made him one of five active players with at least three such games; Mark Teixeira also has three, while Albert Pujols, Aramis Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez each have four.
The tour de force performance gave Votto 13 homers on the year and lifted his batting line to .300/.406/.560 with a 165 OPS+; the latter two numbers are his best since 2012, when he hit .337/.474/.567 for a 177 OPS+ in a season shortened by left knee surgery. On the other side of the ledger, it was a brutal night for Harang, who also allowed homers to Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier, thus doubling the number he's served up this season. He's allowed four in a game three other times, all as a member of the Reds, the last of which came on Aug. 19, 2007 against the Brewers.
3. The long and short of Harper's Bronx debut
Speaking of Harper, he played his first game at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, the undercard in a top-flight pitching matchup between Max Scherzer and Masahiro Tanaka. In fact, Harper was the only National to make a dent against the resurgent Yankees ace. His solo homer to centerfield, which was estimated by ESPN Home Run Tracker at 421 feet, accounted for Washington's lone run:
That was No. 20 on the year for the 22-year-old slugger, who's hitting 330/.465/.723 for a 220 OPS+—the last three of those numbers lead the league, while the homer total is tied with Giancarlo Stanton—and is now just two homers shy of his career high, set in 2012. Even so, the blast was overshadowed by Harper's inexplicable decision to bunt with two strikes and nobody out in the seventh inning against Tanaka. He chopped an 88 mph splitter—the only pitch of the four-pitch at-bat that was in the strike zone—foul behind the plate, thus striking out. The score was tied 1–1 at the time, but the Yankees broke the game open in the bottom of the frame, scoring four runs via a quartet of singles and a throwing error by Ian Desmond, three of which were charged to Scherzer. The Yankees went on to win, 6–1.
Afterward, Harper tried to explain his reasoning for the bunt. Via the Washington Post's James Wagner:
“With two strikes, I was trying to get on base right there … He threw a good pitch actually and I got under it. I fouled it back. If I lay it down perfect, actually not even if I lay it down perfect but down the third base side, I’m safe at first base and then I’m on first base with [Ryan Zimmerman] coming up. It happens. I’ve done it before. I’ve bunted with two strikes before at the big league level. It was in my head the whole time when I went 1–2. I went with my gut and it didn’t work.”
Manager Matt Williams was not happy with the decision, saying curtly, "We’ll save that one for another day.”
As for Tanaka, he was brilliant in his second start since returning from a six-week stay on the disabled list, yielding just five hits over seven innings and 87 pitches, walking nobody for the third time in his last four starts. Through six turns and 36 1/3 innings this year, he has a 2.48 ERA, 2.61 FIP and 9.7 strikeouts per nine. The win, the Yankees' season-high seventh in a row, lifted the team to 33–25, tops in the AL East by 2 1/2 games and tied with the Twins (!) for the league's second-best record behind the Royals (33–23). The loss prevented the Nationals (30–28) from retaking first place in the NL East from the Mets (31–28), who were busy going hitless across town at Citi Field.