Pull up a chair: Mets’ Robinson Cano offers a deep dive into his defensive philosophies

·3 min read
Robinson Cano sidearm throw grey Mets jersey
Robinson Cano sidearm throw grey Mets jersey

PORT ST. LUCIE -- On a quiet “Camp Day” at Clover Field Wednesday, the Mets did not have a Grapefruit League game, but they gathered for batting practice, bullpen sessions and fielding drills -- and an early afternoon meeting about defense.

In that meeting, Robinson Cano spoke to the group about his extensive knowledge of infield technique. His teammates and manager, Buck Showalter, basked in the chance to hear from an old-school master.

For everything else that Cano has done -- there is no escaping the two PED suspensions that likely closed the Cooperstown doors -- he is also a heady player with a deep knowledge of the game. We all have our complexities, and these are Cano’s.

It would be reductive to say that drugs alone have enabled him to play well deep into his 30s.

Cano plays second base with a deep awareness. He studies hitters and knows their tendencies. He looks into the catcher for signs and location, and moves accordingly. He listens to the data but adjusts his positioning depending on how the at-bat is playing out in real time.

In 2020, playing at age 37, Cano ranked in the 86th percentile in outs above average. In a short sample of Grapefruit League action and drills this year, he looks like the same infielder.

“He is always following the baseball, from the point of contact, with his eyes,” said Francisco Lindor, one of the current generation of cerebral middle infielders. “Where his eyes go, his head goes, and the rest of him goes.”

Before and after Cano spoke at the team meeting, I chatted with him at length -- both at his locker and later in the dugout -- about his defensive philosophies.

It seemed to me that Cano’s mind held the key to his persistently strong metrics. When physical range declines, brainpower can compensate.

Here are Cano’s insights, very lightly edited. Pull up a chair and listen to Professor Robbie.

“I started off as a third baseman, so I had to learn all this when I moved to second.

“Besides that, as a hitter, I like to watch all the hitters, because I like to see where they are with their swing. One thing that I learned early -- I learned this from Larry Bowa [a former MLB shortstop and a Yankees coach when Cano was in the Bronx] -- you have to study who is running and who is hitting, so you have a better idea.

“If it’s a soft runner, you have more of a chance of a double play with one out. If there’s a hard runner, how much time do you have to [set] yourself and then have time to throw? So, knowing that, that’s how I position myself.

“Also, know who is pitching. You can give me a shift, and the paper [a card given to each fielder that assigns defensive positioning for each opposing hitter] says you have to play this guy here, because he’s a dead pull hitter. But most of the time if he wants to pitch hard away, you don’t know what you’re going to get.

“It’s easier when you have a guy, like (Jacob) deGrom and (Max) Scherzer, guys who know what they’re doing. Like Trevor Williams. They throw their pitches wherever the catchers are. They hit the spot. It’s easier.

“Like [Edwin] Diaz throws his fastball, and his fastball moves. It’s hard when you’re behind Diaz because his pitches move. You’re trying to do something and they just move. That’s when we say, you know what, this is a guy who I don’t want to play dead pull. Because he might try to throw that fastball in and it stays away.

“Those are the situations for me and what I learned, how to position myself.

Robinson Cano
Robinson Cano

“Like a really dead pull guy, when you had David Ortiz or even [later career Albert] Pujols. That was a guy you wanted to play over the bag, Pujols hitting right-handed. But if you go back to like a younger Pujols, you wanted to play to the side of the bag, because any hard ground ball towards the middle, you’re going to have a chance. I wanted to be able to, if I dive really hard toward the shortstop side, you still had a chance to go get the ball and be able to make the play.”

Cano also talked about the ways that defensive positioning cards, which did not exist when he was a younger player, have changed his approach.

“Pull hitter, now you play where the hitter is supposed to have their hits. Now you want to take his hits away, so now you’re not in the normal position any more.

“Like, who’s in the National League now that’s a pure pull hitter? Not [Bryce] Harper … Let’s say Nelson Cruz. For example, let’s say we’ll play him to pull, because he barely ever hits a ground ball to second base. They move you because they try to take his hits away. That’s where he gets his hits.

“Before the cards, there would be a lot of guys who would hit .300 for sure. I would never have played a guy on the other side of the bag, because you’d never seen that before.

“When you’re old school, you prefer regular baseball. But at the same time, this helps. Because for me as a hitter, they play me to pull, and I can hit a ground ball to third base. The pitcher would be like, ‘what are we doing shifting him?’

“For me, the difference now is guys are not learning [how to position on their own]. You just look at the card and just move. Compared to like, ‘Ok, Jacob deGrom is pitching -- you know he’s a guy as a righty is going to throw hard to righties. I’m gonna to play over the bag, because they rarely crush the ball against him. It’s just singles.’ That’s the mentality.

“You have to learn -- the first inning, you go through the lineup. This guy’s a pull hitter. This guy is not. OK, I’m gonna play just a hair over here. Then you look at the chart, and maybe you say, OK, I’m gonna stand over here a step.

“It’s kind of like, before you had to actually learn it. Now you can give me the card. But at the same time, let me use my brain too, because I see it sooner.

“Honestly, you don’t want to be called in the office because you didn’t use the card. ‘Where did the card say you were supposed to be, and then we lost the game.’ Those are the things as a player -- you don't want to be called in the office because of that. It’s there, so why not use it?

I asked Cano if his strong defensive metrics as an older player are a result of the aforementioned approach.

“There are two things. You have to work a lot. I go to the running field at like five in the morning. I don’t want to come to spring training and, when you have to run or take ground balls, you’re out of gas. I hate that. I like to work really hard in the offseason. I did it from the beginning to now, because I don’t want to let myself fall apart. Now I have to get up again and establish myself.

“Every year, I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get better, or even be the same guy. When you’re older, you have to do more agility work. I have to do a lot of leg exercises to be strong.

He also spoke about his first game playing second base between Pete Alonso and Lindor, Tuesday night at home against the Astros.

“If I'm playing close to Pete, I want to look where Lindor is, because I want to know what ball I’m just going to have to go out there and get it. If I’m fielding a ball at second base I’m going away from [first base], compared to when I’m next to the first baseman, I just have to dive for the ball and throw it to first base. When I’m playing closer to first base, it would have to be a really hard line drive, a really hard ground ball to go through, because we’re so close.

“So to me, that’s something that I really pay attention to -- how far away is the shortstop -- because I know how far I am from first base.

“The first time Lindor and I played together was yesterday, and he was like, ‘l’ll go from behind, you go inside [that means that on a grounder up the middle, Cano would charge a ball in on the grass, and Lindor would field a ball deeper in the hole.]’

“For me, I always look at, where’s the shortstop, where’s the second baseman, where’s the right fielder, because I want to know how deep I have to go for a fly ball.

“Those are the things Larry Bowa taught me to look for. He also told me to always expect a bad throw from the shortstop, the third baseman and the pitcher. So then you would be ready to turn those double plays.

“When I was younger, I was always expecting the throw to come to my chest. But if it’s to your left or your right? You know what, you’re not gonna be ready. Those are the little things that helped me a lot.

“I remember one time A-Rod made a throw, and he was like, ‘Robbie!’ Larry was like, ‘No, no, no, don’t blame Robbie. It was your fault. You’re not going to blame Robbie because he’s a rookie.’

“I’m always grateful for that, and you know what, if Larry reads this -- thank you, Larry.”

I could listen to this stuff all day.

Anyway, for the record, Jeff McNeil, slated to be the Mets’ primary second baseman, told me that he also enjoys playing infield the way that Cano and Lindor do.

“I love that stuff,” McNeil said of reading signs and swings, while adding that he -- like Cano -- appreciated the information on the positioning cards but also liked to make adjustments while watching an at-bat.

“If they’re not catching up to deGrom’s fastball, I’m going to adjust during the at-bat,” McNeil said.

Cano understands the roster situation, and has told Showalter that he’ll play wherever and whenever the manager wants.

On the days when he starts at second base, watch closely, because generations of received wisdom and a complete engagement in the game will be on display.