Yankees hitting coach
"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
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
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
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
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
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:
Like Cano, Gonzalez has terrific hand-eye coordination and easy power. But Gonzalez is such a crude hitter that Rockies hitting coach
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.
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:
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.