It’s odd to think of Robinson Cano as a great career Yankee; it seems like he just arrived. Yet, Cano is 29, this is his eighth full season in the big leagues, and he will probably finish the season with close to 1500 career hits. There isn’t much in the way of black ink on the back of his baseball card, and he has yet to win a major award, but given the standards for offense and defense at second base, it’s hard to argue that a career .300 batting average/.500 slugging percentage with a Gold Glove attached isn’t something special in the annals of the keystone.
For a franchise that has won more championships than any other team in sports, the Yankees have had some historic soft spots. They haven’t had many great career third basemen—Graig Nettles and Alex Rodriguez are the only ones, and left field has always been a position of constant turnover, a position subject to a minor-key Curse of the Bambino given that Babe Ruth deigned to play there whenever the sun was too bright in right field. However, the Yankees have often been blessed with terrific second basemen, including Willie Randolph, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, and Gil McDougald, plus several more that contributed a memorable season or two, among them Alfonso Soriano, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Del Pratt.
Assuming Cano sticks with the Yankees past the expiration of his current contract—the Yankees hold a $15 million option on 2013—he is going to climb past many of those old-time greats on the career list. He’s fourth on the list of games played at second base and should finish the season with more hits than the third-most prolific second baseman, the generally inoffensive Bobby Richardson. The career record, which is only 1784 (Lazzeri), should eventually be his as well.
Of course, longevity isn’t necessarily a mark of excellence, raw hit totals don’t prove anything, and Cano has his flaws, including relatively low on-base percentages due to his free-swinging ways. Still, those percentages I mentioned earlier, .300 and .500 are rare among second basemen. Exactly one second baseman has done that in a career of 5000 or more plate appearances, the inner-circle Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Only one other second baseman retired with a career slugging percentage over .500, the much-maligned Jeff Kent, who finished up hitting .290.
Cano isn’t likely to end his career with those Hornsby-like rates. Once he comes down off his peak, the down-slope of his career will drop those averages a bit. What if he finished with a slugging percentage of only .480? That brings another Hall of Fame second baseman into the picture: Charlie Gehringer hit .320 and slugged .480 for his career.
Even when you pull back the camera and use a park-adjusted, all-around stat such as Baseball Prospectus’s True Average (which depicts total offense on a scale identical to batting average, so .300 is good, .200 is bad, and .260 is about average), which heavily factors in batting average, Cano doesn’t come out too badly. Given a 4000 PA minimum, Cano comes off as the fifth-most productive second baseman of the last 60 years, trailing only Joe Morgan, Chase Utley, Bobby Grich, and the aforementioned Kent. Lou Whitaker, Roberto Alomar, Dan Uggla, McDougald, and Craig Biggio round out the top ten.
Of course, no one is as good as they look at the moment of their hottest hitting, and Cano’s last ten games have included six home runs. That kind of streak can only last so long. Nevertheless, Cano is a unique specimen. You don’t hear him mentioned as ranking among the best players in the game, and we should. He’s one of the few Yankees about whom there isn’t enough buzz.