This post originally ran Saturday morning but quickly got buried by the news of Alex Rodriguez’s torn meniscus, so we’re bumping back up because it’s really good and you should read it. Enjoy.
Recently Patrick Sullivan of Over the Monster and Baseball Analysts fame ignited a debate when he said the following: “You know who’s not as good as Dustin Pedroia? Like, not at all? Robinson Cano”. Them’s fightin’ words, pal. Sullivan later said that he dug in so stridently for fun on Twitter, but there’s an honest debate to be had here over the value of the two players. Is he right? Who is better, Cano or Pedroia? In order to answer the question, we need to evaluate all aspects to each player’s game: offense, base running and defense. We’ll run through each category, then examine the each player’s fWAR. We’ll also introduce a variation on WAR which I’ve lovingly dubbed RABWAR. Let’s get to it.
Offense: light tower power vs. the little on-base machine that could
Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia are both elite offensive forces at the plate. They just go about their business in differ manners. Cano is impatient. He rarely takes a base on balls, preferring to attack early in the count. As a result, he averages a walk rate of about 5% every year, a subpar showing. He makes up for this by hitting for average and for power. He’s a lifetime .308 hitter with a career slugging percentage of .492. The latter mark belies his true power skill, though. His power has been far more substantial in the past three years, and he’s slugged .520, .534 and .526 (including 2011).
For a second baseman, Cano’s power is superlative. Since 2009 his slugging percentage is .526, the highest in baseball among second baseman. The next closest is Chase Utley at .478. Cano also has the highest batting average among second baseman since 2009. Cano is the owner of a career .358 wOBA. Like his slugging, this mark is well below his totals in the past three years: .370, .389 and .375. It’s true that using 2009 as a start point is both arbitrary and favorable to Cano, but it’s also worth noting that he’s entering his physical prime. As a matter of true talent and future expectations, his 2009-2011 data would seem to be more relevant than what he did in his early 20s. This is the book on Cano: an elite hitter with poor on-base skills but who hits for average and power better than nearly anyone at his position.
Dustin Pedroia is a different animal. Like Cano, Pedroia hits for average (career .301 hitter). He’s also shown a decent amount of power with a .455 career slugging percentage, although this is well below Cano. Where he really sets himself apart is his on-base ability. Pedroia’s career walk rate is almost 10%, and this year he’s notched a 15% mark. He’s very patient at the plate and is extremely difficult to strike out, although he’s struck out more recently. Over the past 3 years, Pedroia has an on-base percentage of .376, a mark second only to Chase Utley’s .391. Overall, Pedroia has a career wOBA of .366, .08 points higher than Robinson Cano. Unlike Cano, Pedroia does not benefit from using a sample of only the past three years. His wOBA from 2009 to 2011 is .366, identical to his career average. Who’s the better overall hitter then?
As you can see, Cano has edged Pedroia out in wOBA since the start of 2009, but Pedroia has been more consistent since 2007. It’s also worth noting that Pedroia outperforms Cano slightly in wRC+, which is like a wOBA-based version of OPS+. Pedroia has a career mark of 120, and Cano’s career wRC+ is 118. In the past three years, Pedroia’s respective wRC+ marks are 113, 132 and 129. Cano’s are 121, 142 and 137. In terms of overall offensive production, the two are very, very close. I’d like to give the category to Cano because of his tremendous upside, but his lack of a respectable walk rate means that his overall production is more likely to be the victim of the capricious whim of the BABIP dragons. This one’s a tossup.
Base running: don’t even think about it vs. the constant threat
Yankees fans know that Robinson Cano should never try to steal a base. He still tries though, and manages to swipe about 5 bases a year, giving him a career total of 26 stolen bases. He’s been caught a staggering 24 times though, meaning that his success rate is just over 50%. Pedroia is far better at stealing bases. He’s stolen 72 bases in his career and averages around 20 a year when he’s healthy. Unlike Cano, he hasn’t gotten thrown out that often – his total caught stealing mark is 15, giving him a success rate of around 83%.
There’s more to base running than just stealing bases, though. For that we can turn to two very good base running stats, both of which attempt to quantify how many runs are contributed by a player’s advancement on the bases by considering ground, air and hit advancements. Baseball Prospectus’ version is EqBRR, short for Equivalent Base Running Runs. In addition to ground, air and hit advancements it also includes stolen bases and other advancements like wild pitches. Fangraphs’ version does not include these considerations. According to EqBRR, Robinson Cano has been worth only 1.2 runs on the base paths for his entire career, while Dustin Pedroia has been worth 7.5 runs. This is despite the fact that Cano has played in over three hundred more games than Pedroia. It’s worth noting that Cano’s mark was negative prior to this season; he’s only in the black because he’s been worth 1.5 runs on the basepaths in 2011, bolstered by very high scores on ground and air advancement. In sum, by Baseball Prospectus’ measure Pedroia’s been worth about a half a win more than Cano on the bases.
Fangraphs’ base running stat is UBR, or Ultimate Base Running, and you can read about here. This metric grades Cano out much better than Pedroia, a surprising result. By UBR’s reckoning, Cano has been worth 4.1 runs on the base paths, while Pedroia has been worth -0.4. As mentioned, UBR does not include stolen bases, and we know that there’s a gigantic discrepancy between the two players when it comes to this factor. As such, EqBRR is probably a better indicator of base running value here, which means Pedroia gets the nod in this category.
Defense: depends on who you ask
It’d be really easy to provide the relevant UZR scores for each player and call it a day. It would also be incomplete. Astute readers know that there are some serious difficulties present in UZR and other defensive metrics. Baseball Prospectus’ Colin Wyers has been cleaning the glass like Dennis Rodman on the topic for quite some time now and has proposed an alternative, FRAA. For a primer on the issue, see this piece on the serious problems with most defensive metrics, this piece which summarizes the park-scorer and range biases problems and proposes a way forward, and this piece which examines FRAA against UZR on the topic of Derek Jeter. Colin Wyers summarizes FRAA accordingly:
Simply put, we count how many plays a player made, as well as expected plays for the average player at that position based upon a pitcher’s estimated ground-ball tendencies and the handedness of the batter. There are also adjustments for park and the base-out situations; depending on whether there are runners on base, as well as the number of outs, the shortstop may position himself differently, and we account for that in the average baselines.
The other metrics use other data to come to their estimate of expected outs—in the cases of UZR and DRS, it’s batted-ball and hit location data measured by BIS video scouts. In the cases of TZ and FRAA, it’s data collected by press box stringers working for MLB’s Gameday product.
So we have two different metrics both attempting to quantify defensive value, just in different ways. How do the two second-baseman, Cano and Pedroia, stack up against each other using UZR and FRAA? We’ll start with Cano:
Wowza. UZR hates Cano’s performance with the white hot intensity of a supernova, grading him out at -39.3 runs above average at second base. It’s given him a negative value for every year but 2007, although the worst scores came early in his career. The overwhelming majority of Cano’s poor UZR mark comes from his range. He grades out at nearly average in terms of double play and error runs above average, but has a -36.4 runs above average mark for range. Unlike UZR, FRAA is a huge fan, grading him at 31.2 runs above average. This is a difference of over 70 runs and clearly raises big questions. Other defensive metrics aren’t as harsh on Cano as UZR is, but none are as positive as FRAA. Where you come down on Cano’s defense, then, is likely informed by your own subjective evaluation from watching him. I’d split the difference. Cano certainly doesn’t strike me as a lousy defender, he gets to plenty of balls and turns a double play smoother than anyone. At the same time, I wouldn’t call him an elite defender. He simply doesn’t strike me as being cut from the same elite defensive cloth as someone like Adrian Beltre or Mark Ellis.
Like Cano, UZR and FRAA also see Pedroia differently. He grades out superbly by UZR’s standards, clocking in at 32.5 runs above average for his career, but looks far worse according to FRAA, scoring -1.2 runs above average. From a subjective standpoint, I’d argue that Pedroia is a very good defender. Whether he’s as good as UZR purports him to be is difficult to say. There are serious issues surrounding defensive metrics, so declaring a winner in this category is difficult. In this situation it’s wise to follow the advice of Tom Tango, who recommends we assume that all sides have something to add and take the midpoint. In that case, this category goes to Pedroia if only because of how poorly UZR grades Cano.
Conclusion: the final countdown
“What WAR gives us is a systematic, consistent framework to value the accomplishments of players. The good thing about a framework is that each person is free to create his own implementation. Not all houses are built the same, but they all follow the same principle. That’s what WAR gives us.” – Tom Tango.
Fangraphs’ WAR, which uses UBR for baserunning and UZR for defense, grades the two players accordingly:
By this standard, Pedroia is the clear winner. Give Pedroia some 1200 more plate appearances, and he would lead Cano by a wide margin. But as we know, fWAR relies on Fangraphs’ UBR and UZR. So let’s swap out UBR and UZR for Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR and FRAA, respectively. We’ll call this little SABR-demon spawn RABWAR.
Here Cano is the clear winner, thanks largely to the difference in the way their defense is scored. So who is better: Cano or Pedroia? The offense is a tossup, the base running goes to Pedroia and the defense is a toss-up leaning towards Pedroia. At the end of the day, whether you pick Pedroia or Cano will likely hinge on which defensive metric you prefer, or which team you prefer. Cano and Pedroia are both incredibly talented second baseman and it’s tough to see any daylight between their two respective statistical profiles. In this sense, the claim that Cano is not “nearly as good” as Pedroia simply doesn’t ring true. If I was forced to pick between the two and was able to erase their prior team affiliations from my mind I’d likely go with Pedroia, in no small part because of my preference for his approach at the plate. It’s a very difficult choice though, unless I’m allowed to pick from the other division rival and take Ben Zobrist. Now there’s a second baseman.
Special thanks to Joe Pawlikowski and Moshe Mandel for their contributions to this piece.