For all the bellyaching about other hitters in the lineup, it is the falloff with Robinson Cano that is biggest problem with the Mariners offense.
Two MLB stat lines from this season. One belongs to a current Mariner. One belongs to a former Mariner.
Player 1: 37 games, one homer, eight RBIs, .278 average, .660 OPS, eight walks and eight strikeouts.
Player 2: 37 games, one homer, 11 RBIs, .253 average, .647 OPS, eight walks and 27 strikeouts.
If you guessed that these near twins were Ichiro of the Miami Marlins and Robinson Cano of the Mariners, please send a self-addressed stamped envelope and $500 to me for your baseball forensics certificate.
No, I’m not suggesting the Mariners made a mistake in trading Ichiro, who wore out his welcome in Seattle well before trade to the Yankees — even though at 41 he’s slightly outproducing Mariners stalwart Cano, 32.
What I am saying is that Cano’s fade was supposed to happen several years deep into the 10-year deal he signed, not in the second year.
After watching his final two strikeouts in Sunday’s game, he looked like a guy in need either of extended spring training, or long rest. The only weaker whiffs is sports lately were Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s demands for apologies from the NFL at the Super Bowl for Deflategate.
Cano’s batting average is 55 points behind his career average. He’s 205 points below his career OPS average. There’s been a lot of kvetching lately, rightfully so, about the Area Code Boys at the bottom of the Mariners lineup who aspire to reach .206. But Cano was hired to be the aircraft carrier among the Zodiac boats. Gap hitting with warning track power was Ichiro’s game.
The Mariners have lost eight games by a single run this season. Imagine if Cano had hits in just four of those that contributed to reversing outcomes. The Mariners are 21-16 and the true-to-the-bloomers are so unbunched they could be made into sails.
Obviously, the if-then game can be played with any hitter, but few are being paid $24 million to hit. One who is paid $27 million has 10 homers and 22 RBI, but enough about ex-Mariner Alex Rodriguez, 40. There’s only so many recriminations to go around.
Unsurprisingly, manager Lloyd McClendon would no more tolerate criticism of Cano than the fashion world would tolerate Kate Upton in a mackinaw.
After the 5-0 win Sunday over Boston when Cano had another o-fer, McClendon said he’s seen analytics that show Cano is “the unluckiest hitter in MLB. He’s hit a lot of balls extremely hard (but at a fielder). I’m not overly concerned because he’s not striking out a lot. I think he’ll get hot.”
Cano is well behind AL leader Chris Carter of Houston with 56 strikeouts, as well as club leader Mike Zunino at 44. But this year he is backed up by cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz, which should improve the pitches he’s seeing. No apparent advantage has been taken.
One point about the calendar buttresses McClendon’s defense. Cano last year, his first in Seattle, didn’t hit his second home run until May 21.
But a year ago he was hitting .318 with a .771 OPS. His modest power game — he had 14 homers, equaling his career lows in 2005 and 2008 — was shielded by overall productivity.
Through nearly seven weeks of the season, it is Cano’s falloff that is the biggest problem with the Mariners offense. Bad as guys like Zunino and Dustin Ackley have been, they’re only a little worse than career averages. Cano is getting superhero money to capture bad guys, return the stolen money to the credit union and get a kiss from the pretty girl.
McClendon may be right — he often was a season ago — and being 7½ games behind an Astros team that previously has never engaged in expectations is not the worst thing.
But the excruciating turns that have created close defeats, as well as close wins, are soul-suckers that leave marks on the bullpen and suggest that margins are thinner than usual this season.
So as Robinson, as well as Cruz, the ex-Oriole, head into the snuff can — band box is too generous — that is Camden Yards in Baltimore, Cano needs to know he stands in the skinny shadow of 41-year-old Ichiro. This no time to be beating out choppers to first base.