What the Mets should expect from Cano

Historic comparables, Statcast data paint mixed picture of star moving forward

December 1st, 2018

As the baseball world waits with bated breath for the Mets to finalize their blockbuster trade with the Mariners, there are so many questions surrounding Robinson Cano if he returns to New York. There would be natural hesitation about acquiring any 36-year-old player who's still owed $120 million over the next five seasons (even with Seattle reportedly taking on some of that money). But it's more than that, since Cano is coming off an uneven 2018 in which he posted an .845 OPS but also suffered a broken right hand and saw his reputation tarnished by an 80-game suspension after he tested positive for a banned substance. 
One would figure a player in Cano's situation would prefer a quiet season to try and recoup his value and respect around the game, but that won't be the case here. By approving the trade back to the New York market with his massive contract, Cano will be under the microscope from his first at-bat at Citi Field to whenever his last one might be. It seems highly unlikely that Cano will be the star we've grown accustomed to all the way through 2023, but can he at least give the Mets two to three quality seasons?
Sources: Mets agree to deal for Cano, Diaz
While we can't predict Cano's future, one thing we can do is look at how similar players have fared. Using a similar method to the one MLB.com's Mike Petriello employed to project the aging cycles for Lorenzo CainNelson Cruz and J.D. Martinez, we looked for players who put up production similar to Cano in their age-33 through age-35 seasons. For this case specifically, that means middle infielders in the Divisional Era (since 1969) who compiled a weighted-runs created plus (wRC+) of at least 115 -- or, in other words, a batting line at least 15 percent above league average -- over those three years. We're left with a group of nine second basemen and two shortstops who feel appropriate as recent comparables to Cano:
Bret Boone
Bobby Grich
Derek Jeter
Jeff Kent
Barry Larkin
Davey Lopes
Joe Morgan
Tony Phillips

Lou Whitaker

Again, we're just looking at how these players fared from ages 36-38, because it's unrealistic to expect quality production from any player beyond that age. The data says Cano would need to outperform most of his comparables to match the 128 wRC+ he compiled over his last three seasons.
At age 36
.257/.350/.408 (.758 OPS)
Right away the outlook isn't great, as only three of these players accrued enough at-bats to qualify for the batting crown. But Kent (121 wRC+) and Phillips (124 wRC+) were able to maintain their well-above average production, with Kent finishing 13th in National League MVP voting after he hit .289 with 27 homers and 107 RBIs for the Astros. Kent happens to be the second-most similar player to Cano in terms of his career track, per Baseball-Reference, so perhaps Cano can find inspiration there.
At age 37
.275/.362/.419 (.781 OPS)
Many of our comparables actually rebounded for better seasons at age 37, but Boone failed to make the Mets' 2006 Opening Day roster and Grich faded in his final campaign. Kent (133 wRC+) was an All-Star and captured his final Silver Slugger Award in his debut for the Dodgers, but the Mets would probably be pleased if Cano even matches Zobrist's production (.305/.378/.440, 123 wRC+) from 2018 -- albeit with a few more homers than the nine that Zobrist hit for Chicago.
At age 38
.281/.361/.425 (.786 OPS)
The slash line is a bit deceiving, since only Jeter, Larkin and Phillips compiled qualifying seasons (we're not counting Zobrist, who's about to play his age-38 season). That's the fear here; will Cano even remain a full-time player by '21? If he does, the Mets would be thrilled if he matched Jeter's 2012 campaign (117 wRC+), though it's hard to imagine Cano being the Majors' hits leader like Jeter was. Matching Morgan's production with the Giants (.289/.400/.438, 143 wRC+ over 134 games) would also be a top-end result, though Cano has never had a .400-OBP season.

So recent history says a middle infielder with Cano's profile might have trouble playing 150 games a year, but he could still provide some above-average production -- at least offensively. Fangraphs' Steamer system projects a solid 122 wRC+ season (.283/.343/.460) for Cano in 2019, and believes he'll be a 2.5 WAR player in '20 and a 1.8 WAR contributor in '21. But we have more quantitative data now than we had for any of those other players beside Zobrist, so we might as well examine that, too. A look at Statcast™ metrics paint a rosier picture for Cano, at least in the immediate future.
The first four years of Statcast™ have seen a handful of hitters stick around the top of the leaderboard for hard contact, and one of those players is Cano. The second baseman has put 841 hard-hit balls -- those hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or harder -- in play since the start of 2015, the Majors' fourth-highest total behind Manny Machado, Mookie Betts and Cruz. That continued right into 2018, when Cano's 56.6-percent hard-hit rate ranked second behind Martinez before a pitch broke his hand, and the 47.6-percent rate he posted after his return remained within the top 15 players over the season's final month and a half.
Hard contact has an extremely strong correlation with results for hitters; the league hit .524 on hard-hit balls in play and just .219 on balls hit 94 mph or softer last year. The Mets did not boast a single player within the game's top-50 hard-hit rate leaders last year, with (42.1 percent) leading the club. It remains unclear how much Yoenis Cespedes can stay on the field with his recurring lower-body injuries, so the Mets really could use Cano's power if he can maintain that consistency next year.
But that's the whole question here, obviously. The Mets are paying big for Cano's future, not his past, and we might never know how much of Cano's previous success was boosted by performance-enhancing drugs. Though he still looked capable at the end of last summer, how much of his power will carry over post-suspension?
Van Wagenen was one of Cano's agents when MLB issued his suspension, so perhaps he knows better than most what truly happened. With this blockbuster deal, Van Wagenen must be confident that the Mets can still employ the same Cano who's been so consistent in recent years.