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What to do with Robbie Cano

Here’s an argument I never expected to be making: as the Yankees consider recasting their batting order to reflect their new acquisitions this offseason, the chronically impatient Robinson Cano should be batting higher in the order, perhaps as high as the second spot. It’s not an argument that I make with much enthusiasm, and as we proceed you will see that there are other moves that would be more optimal, but with Cano we have the problem of trying to put an oddly shaped set of skills to good use.

Before we get to Cano’s specific qualities, let’s acknowledge a couple of key factors about the Yankees’ batting order. First, many studies suggest that the difference between the optimal batting order and the least-optimal batting order is quite small. That said, there is a difference, and even if it’s as little as one win a season, you never know when you might need that one win. Second, the Yankees have several patient hitters who could excel in the leadoff spot, many of them with extensive experience in the role. Third, remember that the traditional batting order roles (speedy guy up top, bat handler second, and so forth) are so much bunkum and the order is more properly viewed as a way for the manager to distribute playing time in a more nuanced way than simple starts -- over the course of the season, the leadoff hitter bats more often than the number two hitter, the number two hitter bats more often than the number three hitter, and so on. If your team has Willy Taveras and Albert Pujols and the manager bats Taveras first and Pujols fourth, he’s really saying that he thinks it would be best for the team if Taveras hits more often than Pujols.

Speed in the leadoff spot is particularly overrated. Speed doesn’t help a leadoff hitter reach base. While it is a fine thing to have a patient leadoff hitter with speed, it is far better to have a slow but patient batter in the leadoff spot than a speedy impatient hitter. Some of the best leadoff hitters haven’t been stolen base threats; Wade Boggs went to the Hall of Fame as a leadoff man who averaged two steals (and two caught stealing) a year. Indeed, Nick Johnson would be a fine choice to lead off, his base-clogging potentialities notwithstanding. Given the lack of power he showed last year, he’s best role may be getting on base for the team’s power hitters rather than trying to drive others home.

That same description applies to Cano, albeit for different reasons. A career .306/.339/.480 hitter, Cano freezes up with runners on base. This was clearly demonstrated last season, when he batted only .255/.288/.415 with men on and .207/.242/.332 with runners in scoring position. Conversely, leading off an inning he hit an incredible .441/.459/.797. Batting with the bases empty, he hit .376/.407/.609. While Cano hasn’t been this extreme every year, he has been fairly consistent in this regard. He’s a career .256/.291/.398 hitter with runners in scoring position, .280/.312/.425 with men on, and .331/363/.528 with the bases empty.

This doesn’t mean that Cano isn’t a good hitter, but that he simply has limitations. To get the most out of Cano, a manager might keep him out of RBI spots. Now, when you have one of the best offenses in baseball, your whole batting order is an RBI spot. That’s why the second spot in the order is a place he might prosper. Even if the Yankees get another .400 OBP from their leadoff man, Cano would be batting with the bases empty 60 percent of the time, do his best hitting, and be on base for Mark Teixeira, A-Rod, et al. The downside is that you might get a few extra Cano double-play specials when the leadoff man does reach base.

One other advantage to moving Cano up in the order is that it would get him away from Nick Swisher, who also struggles to hit with runners on. The two spent a good part of last season batting back to back, which meant a lot of dead rallies as the Yankees could count on consecutive outs when a runner got on. Add in that the runner in question was quite often Jorge Posada, who couldn’t navigate the bases with alacrity if you strapped an outboard motor on him, and you had a dysfunctional situation in the aft section of the lineup. Cano batted second back in 2005 and did not hit well, but the mature Cano has rarely been listed there.

By this same reasoning, the club might do even better to boost Swisher up to the second spot. He got 20 starts there last season without distinguishing himself. Cano’s singles and doubles would be replaced by Swisher’s walks and home runs, while the double-play risk would be greatly reduced due to strikeouts. Swisher’s career .395 OBP against southpaws would be particularly handy when a left-hander starts, as the Yankees will want to drop Curtis Granderson in the order or rest him entirely.

In the end, neither Cano nor Swisher is likely to get lifted up the batting ladder as some combination of Jeter, Johnson, and Granderson should occupy the first two spots the majority of the time. When you have the chance to place two .400 OBPs at the top of the lineup for Teixeira and A-Rod, you do it every time, then laugh all the way to the postseason as last year’s solo shots become this year’s three-run homers. Still, Mr. Girardi can always vary things up and will probably have to at times. Cano’s aversion to RBIs would be a good thing to keep in mind when he does.