After struggling with injuries and illness in 2015, Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano is having a career year so far and leading a Mariners resurgence. Here’s how it happened.
The operative phrase for 2016 Robinson Cano is “a hop in his step,” which is a lot peppier than “acid reflux,” “double sports hernia,” or “the most awful player I’ve ever seen.”
The last assessment was infamously made of Cano’s 2015 season by former Mariners coach Andy Van Slyke, who obviously never saw Scott Spiezio, Rich Aurilia or Chone Figgins wearing teal.
The first two conditions were endured by Cano during a trying 2015 season in which the wisdom of giving him a 10-year, $240 million contract was called into question far earlier than expected.
Throw in some offseason innuendo in a New York newspaper that Cano had told a friend he was unhappy in Seattle with a new regime and wanted out, and the questions surrounding Cano were rampant.
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Consider them answered, or at least silenced.
Everything about Cano’s start to 2016 has been refreshing and re-invigorating. Through a quarter of the season, Cano is not only in the running (with Jose Altuve and Manny Machado) for American League Most Valuable Player, but he has helped lead the Mariners to unexpected contention.
Cano is tied for the American League lead with 12 homers, leads the majors with 36 runs batted in, and has posted a .930 OPS (on-base plus slugging), which is elite territory. At the same 40-game juncture last year, Cano had one homer, 11 RBI and a .661 OPS.
Extrapolated over 162 games, Cano is on pace for 49 homers, 49 doubles and 146 RBI, which would be a career year at 33, and a historic season for a second baseman.
But that’s only part of the Cano story. There’s no statistic for verve, or engagement, or leadership. There’s no metric for “Contentment Above Replacement Player.’’ Yet to watch Cano is to see a player who is loving life, enjoying his teammates and reveling in all of theirs success.
There’s also what you don’t see — the mental errors and concentration lapses that made Cano’s 2015 season so frustrating. And it’s all part of the same complicated stew — a healthy, motivated player who is buying into what a new regime is selling and feeding off the ballclub’s success.
Cano version 2016 is a player who, if all that can be boiled down to a single word, is having fun.
“When you’re helping the team, and the team is winning, you’re going to have fun,’’ Cano said before a recent game at Safeco Field. “Especially the guys on this team. They keep it fun.’’
Perhaps you just need to go back to last Oct. 13 to understand the transition. That’s when Cano underwent surgery at the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia by Dr. William Meyers to repair two sports hernias, one on each side of his abdominal area.
Cano struggled with listlessness early in the 2015 season while trying to refine his diet after being attacked by a parasite, and then had to deal with the pain and restrictions of the hernias in the second half. So just feeling normal is blissful.
“Now that you’re healthy, you get to look back and see the difference,’’ Cano said. “After what I went through last year, thank God I’m healthy. I’m able to use my body and move left and right, back and forth. That’s everything.”
Perhaps you need to go back to Feb. 24, the day Cano reported to spring training and found himself immediately immersed in the culture change being instigated by new manager Scott Servais.
Robinson Cano fileAge: 33 (born Oct. 22, 1982)
Hometown: San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic
Position: Second base
Height: 6 feet
Weight: 212 pounds
It was vitally important that veterans like Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Cano bought in. Cano admits he was skeptical about the massive changes the organization had undergone after last season’s highly disappointing 76-86 fourth-place finish.
“You know what? Like anyone, you have your doubts, especially with a lot of new players,’’ Cano said.
But Cano found himself at first intrigued, and then delighted, by Servais’s team-bonding exercises.
“Having the new guys talk about where they’re from, what they’re like, asking questions, I would say has this team together,’’ Cano said. “We know each other, know what hardships you’ve had in life before. I would say you have to give credit to the coaching staff and the way they’ve been treating everyone in here, especially the young players.”
New general manager Jerry Dipoto believes the buy-in by the team elders – particularly Cano – has been a major factor in the Mariners success.
“It’s 100 percent across the board that guys responded to what we were trying to do,’’ Dipoto said. “In addition to his incredible offensive contribution and great defense, Robby has been unbelievable for me, and for Scott, in helping to make a very difficult transition, with a lot of new faces, go so much quicker and easier.
“You always wonder with accomplished, veteran players how quickly they’ll buy into change or something new. Robinson, Felix, Nelly (Cruz) – they all bought in very quickly, and no one more aggressively than Robby. I’ll forever be thankful to him, and so will Scott. It really helped the team bond quickly.”
When the Mariners hit a home run (and they rank tied fourth in the majors in that category with 55), Cano always seems to be leading the high-five parade. And behind the scenes, he has been mentoring young players, particularly fellow Dominican Ketel Marte.
“He’s been special to me,’’ Marte said. “He tries to make me better every single day.”
That dates back to virtually Marte’s first day in major-league camp in 2015, when Cano urged him to cut his long hair. He felt that Marte’s bushy Afro portrayed a “look at me” sensibility before he had done anything in the big leagues. The next day, Marte showed up with a close-cropped ‘do that he still maintains.
When the season ended, Marte says, Cano mapped out what he needed to do over the winter to improve on his encouraging rookie season. And throughout the offseason, Cano would text almost daily to check up on Marte’s progress and offer advice and encouragement.
“He’s being a good teammate and mentor,’’ Servais said of Cano. “He’s embraced it and enjoyed it. … the talent is one thing, but also being mentally engaged like he is. You put it together, and you see what you’re seeing.
“He’s locked in the game. You’ll see him often talking to Edgar (Martinez) about his past at-bat, and what he’s going to do his next at-bat.
So maybe the key date in the Cano renaissance was June 20, when Edgar Martinez replaced Howard Johnson as the Mariners’ hitting coach. From that point forward, Cano hit .317 with a .892 OPS, 19 homers and 59 RBI – making him again one of the most productive players in the league.
It’s no coincidence, says Cano, who calls Martinez “one of the best coaches I’ve ever had — and not just because I’m doing good now.”
That goes against the popular wisdom that great players don’t necessarily make great instructors, because their expectations are too high.
“He’s not one of those,’’ Cano said. “It’s the way he talks to you, so positive. To be a good coach, you need to have patience, which is something Edgar has. He loves to work, too. He’s a guy that has been in that situation before. What you want is to be around people like that so you can ask questions before you hit.”
Martinez smiles when those compliments are relayed and says with a shrug, “He’s the one doing all the work. He’s great. He works on his mechanics, makes some adjustments. Robinson goes into every game with a plan. He’s well-prepared and works on his swing every day.”
Martinez’s main task initially was to stop Cano from being “pull happy” and encourage him to work all parts of the field.
“When I got here, he told me what he was feeling at the plate,’’ Martinez said. “We worked on some drills — repetition, repetition, repetition. In the games, he goes in as prepared as he can and executes. It’s been great. We’re playing well, and he’s been a big part of our success.”
Now we’ll see if this surge by Cano and the Mariners can be sustained for a full season. That’s an especially loaded question in light of the fact that Cano, Cruz and Hernandez are all on the other side of 30. It’s realistic to say that the Mariners’ window of opportunity — at least with this nucleus — has an expiration date.
Dipoto’s offseason plan was to surround his core players with better talent and hope the ripple effect paid off. It’s still a work in progress, but the Mariners are leading the division at the quarter pole, with Cano as the catalyst.
It’s enough to put a hop in any player’s step.