"That's when I know I'm locked in," Cano said last month, explaining that even now, even as a 25-homer man in a park built with left-handed pull hitters in mind, he would rather err to the opposite field.
"We talk all the time about swinging at strikes, using the whole field," Cano said of his chats with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, "and not getting too greedy and trying to hit the ball out of the park.
Twenty-five times or so will have to do -- and, just maybe, a few more times in the postseason. Such is the goal for Cano, now in his fifth year as the Yankees' second baseman, in his fifth season as a silky big league hitter and once again a prominent puzzle piece for the team's attack on October. Left-handed slugging second basemen, it seems, are a rather rare commodity. And the Yankees remain quite pleased with theirs.
It was not always like this, though, for Cano, one of the rare young Yankees upstarts who made the big league roster as a raw young talent -- and stuck. Originally a high-average, muscled infielder who swung at everything and hit most of it, Cano began drawing Rod Carew comparisons as a 22-year-old in 2005.
He enjoyed that success, improved rapidly and then promptly stalled. By 2008, Cano was still swinging at everything but hitting less of it, and continuing to generate only moderate power. Many around baseball began condemning him as lazy -- just another dynamic-yet-complacent once-in-a-generation talent.
Cano, though, saw things differently. He saw a league finally adjusting to his talents and a player struggling to adjust right back.
"I knew I had to go through that one day," Cano said. "Maybe a few guys like [Albert] Pujols, A-Rod -- they can be the guys that do the same thing every year and get better. But that's the kind of thing that made me stronger. I learned that not everything is easy. I had to keep working hard, and you see the benefit this year."
The benefit has come in the form of a .320 average, a .352 on-base percentage, 48 doubles, 85 RBIs and, of course, more than two dozen homers.
Most line-drive hitters will tell you that their home runs are accidents, and Cano is no different. Consider the one he hit off Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka last month, a pitch he was trying to line just a few shades right of the visitors' dugout. Instead of smacking the ball with enough force to carry it down the left-field line, Cano watched it bounce off the top of the wall and into the stands.
Those aiming to bestow credit for that hit and others can look toward Long, who hunkered down with Cano last winter in the Dominican Republic. Naturally, the two worked on mechanics and tweaks in Cano's batting stance. More than anything, though, they worked on patience.
"Before, I used to swing at anything," Cano said. "Most of the time, with a 3-2 count, anything that they threw me, I would swing at -- breaking pitch, slider, high, low. But now, I'm swinging at better pitches."
And hitting them. Asked about Cano, however, Yankees manager Joe Girardi prefers to steer the discussion out of the batter's box and onto the field. And that's rather appropriate, because for all of the strides Cano has made as a hitter, perhaps his greatest gains over the past year have come with a glove in hand and a ball en route.
With a knack for the spectacular and an unnatural accuracy when throwing across his body, Cano is, in Girardi's opinion, a deserving candidate for the American League Gold Glove Award at second base.
"I look at Robbie, and offensively, he's had a great year," Girardi said. "But I think he's had a Gold Glove second-base year as well. The plays that he has made -- whether it's been to his left or his right, turning double plays or fly balls that he's caught running down the line -- Robbie has had a tremendous year."
Girardi hopes, too, that Cano can have a tremendous October. Certainly, the postseason has come at the right time for Cano, who holds a lifetime .349 average in regular-season games in September and October -- the highest among all Major Leaguers with more than 300 September and October at-bats over the past 50 years.
Cano's lifetime postseason average, meanwhile, sits at .245. For now.
"People say that I've been lazy and stuff like that, but it's the kind of thing that happens," Cano said. "Sometimes when you're not doing good, you're trying to figure out what's going on. But when you're doing good, your mind is so fresh that you go out there and play hard."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less