Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long put second baseman Robinson Cano under a strict order in spring training this year: never swing at the first pitch.
"It was hard," said Cano, who has a gift of being able to put the bat on the ball on almost all pitches, even those out of the strike zone. "But I knew it was something that was going to make me better. I looked for a good pitch, a pitch that I can drive."
Long's spring training edict was part of his plan to turn Cano from a good hitter who had the ability to win a batting title into a great hitter who could win an MVP award, a plan that began when Long tweaked his mechanics after the 2008 season. Forcing Cano to take the first pitch of every at-bat in spring training drove home Long's message that to get to the next level Cano needed to swing at pitches he could hit for power, not just put into play.
"He's not the kind of guy you can scream and yell at," Long said. "He's the kind of guy you have to tell exactly what you want. This year what I want -- and we laid it out -- is 35-45 walks and to drive in runs.
"Last year the focus was, 'We're going to get your mechanics under control. We're going to get your average back to where it needs to be.' But we didn't talk about driving in runs. And you know what? He failed in those situations. OK, so we let it go. This year's focus is keeping everything we had and now adding to the package: driving in runs."
Sure enough, Cano has become a rare gem in baseball: a second baseman with game-changing slugging ability. He leads the AL not just in batting (.365) and hits (100), but also in total bases (165) and ranks third in slugging (.602). No second baseman has led the AL in total bases since Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1945 and no second baseman has slugged .600 since Rogers Hornsby in 1929. His career OPS (.836) is the best for any second baseman at age 27 since 1942.
True to Long's plan, Cano is waiting for better pitches to hit and crushing them for extra bases. He has been a monster when he gets ahead of the count: a .410 batting average and .537 OBP.
"His strike zone discipline right now is much better," Long said. "He's got a much better idea of what's a ball and what's a strike -- and what he can do damage to and not just put into play. It's a big difference. He can hit the ball that's three or four balls off the plate and still get a hit to left field. But he's not going to do anything with that pitch. It's a ball.
"Now he takes it, and what does a pitcher have to do now? He has to come to him. And if they get a part of the plate and he swings at it, he's going to do damage."
As I profile this week in SI, Cano is a rare baseball story: an unspectacular minor league player (.278 hitter) who became an elite player as a major leaguer. He has reached the elite level this year with his improved plate discipline, a facet of hitting that is the source of much debate among baseball scouts and executives.
Is plate discipline a skill that can be greatly improved? Or is it simply part of a hitter's DNA with room for only incremental improvement, as it is with speed or a pitcher's ability to spin the baseball? (Both Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens, two of the greatest pitchers ever, never developed anything better than an average curveball.) Why hasn't Vlad Guerrero become a more patient hitter after 15 years in the big leagues? Will Howie Kendrick ever win a batting title if he doesn't "learn" how to be more patient? It is a classic nature vs. nurture debate.
The fact is that while everybody likes to talk about taking more walks and more pitches, very few hitters exhibit profound improvement in plate discipline once they reach the big leagues. Free swingers tend to remain free swingers and patient hitters tend to always have been patient. Among the outliers are Sammy Sosa, who began to make a big leap at age 29, Luis Gonzalez, who changed his profile as a hitter around age 31, and Marco Scutaro, who is a vastly different hitter at 33 than he was at age 28, showing a jump in his rate of walks by more than fourfold.
Cano looks like another exception. His walk rate this year (7.1 percent of his plate appearances, 21 walks so far) is up sharply from last year (4.5), and twice what it was in 2006 (3.5), when he hit .342. But as Long recognized when he set a goal of only 45 walks, the aim for Cano is not necessarily to walk much more often but to wait for more pitches that he can hammer for extra bases. It is working. Cano's rate of 3.5 pitches per plate appearance is a career best, and that slugging percentage is easily a career best.
"I just want him to keep going," Long said. "I want him to be the constant Joe Mauer type, because he has that ability in him. He's pretty special. To hit .360 for a guy with basically no speed you have to be Joe Mauer-esque. He's got a lot of those qualities. We just saw Joe Mauer. I watch him from a coach's standpoint and just go, 'Wow.' The ball hits the barrel every time. He doesn't swing and miss. Cano really doesn't either."
Though Cano is an exceptional player in many ways, his success creates the idea that there is another Robinson Cano out there. "When we go out in the international market," said Yankees scouting director Damon Opppenheimer, "now the scouts are saying, 'This guy reminds me of Robinson Cano.'"
Is there another Robinson Cano in the majors right now -- a good, young hitter who can reach an elite level by "learning" better plate discipline? Chances are, given that most patient hitters are born and not made, the answer is no. But here are four candidates who could be the next breakout hitter like Cano, if they improve their plate discipline:
1. Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado. Gonzalez hit .290 in 634 minor league games and once hit as many as 23 homers in a minor league season. Still only 24, he is a .272 hitter in the majors while showing poor plate discipline. Gonzalez hasn't learned how to work a count. When he puts the ball in play on the first or second pitch of an at-bat, he hits .382 with one homer every 23 at-bats. But when the at-bat goes three pitches or longer, he hits .217 with one homer in 37 at-bats.
Like Cano, Gonzalez has terrific hand-eye coordination and easy power. But Gonzalez is such a crude hitter that Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor has worked with him on such rudimentary elements as how to grip the bat properly. "The bat's going to be the last thing to come," Baylor said in spring training about Gonzalez. Age is on his side. The potential is enormous.
2. Delmon Young, Minnesota. Here is a guy who just might be ready to turn the corner -- and he's still only 24 years old (only one month older than Gonzalez.) Scouts still rave about Young's crazy power as a high school player. The first overall pick of the 2003 draft regularly hit bombs to the opposite field, then destroyed minor league pitching (.881 OPS). But he's been a below-average major leaguer, posting a .738 OPS over 452 games entering this year while hacking at just about anything and everything remotely close to the plate.
Young still chases pitches outside of the strike zone far too often, but he is showing some of that old power this year (eight homers) while cutting down on his strikeouts (24) and mixing in a few more walks (14). Those are all good signs that his career hasn't stalled and he may be taking a step forward. But until Young develops at least a clue of the strike zone, it's hard to imagine that he's going to be an impact player like Cano.
3. Howie Kendrick, Los Angeles Angels. Kendrick posted a .403 OBP in the minors, but that was more a function of a ridiculously high batting average (.360) than it was command of the strike zone. In the majors, he is "only" a .297 hitter and his OBP is an unacceptable .328. Kendrick has drawn just 52 unintentional walks in 1,692 plate appearances. Without the abilities to draw walks and hit for power, Kendrick is a below-average player.
He did show some improvement last year in plate discipline and put up a big second half to show for it, but he has regressed this season. Like Cano, he has the ability to hit to all fields and does not strike out much. But Kendrick turns 27 next month, the same age as Cano, so the time for him to figure out a better approach is at hand. Even when compared to Cano at a similar juncture of playing time, Kendrick falls short of the Yankees second baseman. Here are Kendrick's stats compared to where Cano stood through the 2007 season:
4. Adam Jones, Baltimore. Jones has eight walks this year. Eight. That's far too few for anybody, but especially someone who was a first-round draft pick (by Seattle), hit .291 in the minors, slammed 25 homers in Triple-A at age 21, and made the All-Star team last year at age 23. Jones' regression this year has been alarming, perhaps a function of being miscast as a leadoff hitter in the absence of Brian Roberts.
Jones is still so young that patience is in order. (He, Gonzalez and Young were born about three months apart.) But he has a long way to go to be Cano. Right now it's not apparent that he has one really above-average offensive skill; he doesn't hit for a high average, doesn't hit for power and doesn't draw walks. It's more likely that he can develop plus power than it is that he will be contending for a batting title any time soon.