Archive for Defense
Brett Gardner‘s injury has hurt the Yankees in more ways than one. They miss his productive bat and ability to make pitchers work at the bottom of the lineup, they miss his speed on base paths, and most of all they miss his all-world defense. I give Raul Ibanez an A+ for his effort out there, but the man is a butcher and doesn’t belong anywhere near a glove. Andruw Jones can hold his own in the outfield but is no longer the defender he was during his Atlanta days, and Dewayne Wise is a very good glove man but can’t hit a lick.
With Gardner out anywhere from another two weeks to a full month with a strain muscle in his right (non-throwing) elbow, the Yankees are stuck with sub-optimal left field options for the time being. Ibanez has started each of the last four games and six of the last nine games in left mostly because the DH spot has been rotated around. Even with Eduardo Nunez in Triple-A, the duo of Jayson Nix and Eric Chavez give Joe Girardi a chance to rest Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter somewhat regularly early in the season. Better to rest them now than risk burning them out later, I suppose.
Anyway, the Yankees are stuck with an undesirable left field situation until Gardner comes back. The personnel on the roster is unlikely to change barring injury, but the team can still maximize what they get out of these guys by optimizing their usage. Let’s take a quick look at some batted ball data (2010-present)…
You folks are smart, so you probably already know what I’m getting at here: the Yankees should employ their top defensive outfield unit whenever the fly ball pitchers are on the mound. That means Wise on the field and Ibanez at DH whenever Hughes and Pettitte start. We could also add Nova to that mix if his ground ball rate (44.6% this year) doesn’t return to previous levels (52.7% last year). Kuroda’s ground ball rate (48.6% this year), matches his career average after dropping to 43.2% last year. Perhaps reuniting with former battery-mate Russell Martin helped, or maybe it’s just an early-season fluke.
With Wise in the outfield two (potentially three) out of every five days, Girardi will be able to hide Ibanez’s defense a bit while still being able to rotate that DH spot. It’s not ideal; in a perfect world Ibanez never plays the field, but it’s going to happen until Gardner is healthy, so the Yankees should stick him out there when their top ground-ballers are on the bump to minimize the damage. It also goes without saying that Wise should replace Ibanez in the field in the late innings of close games.
Nunez is in Triple-A now, but the Yankees can also employ a similar defensive platoon on the infield. Nix is not exactly a stellar glove man, but he can spell Jeter at shortstop whenever one of the fly ball guys is on the hill with the thinking that he’ll have fewer tough plays to make. Sure enough, Nix’s only start at short so far this year came with Hughes on the mound this past Saturday. Perhaps the defensive platoon is already in place, at least on the infield. The difference may only be two or three plays a game, but every little bit counts.
While the Yankees’ offense has gotten off to a roaring start, the starting pitching has yet to catch up. They’re allowing far too many hits to drop in, and then they’re allowing home runs on top of those hits. The result is an ERA, 5.72, that ranks third-worst in the majors. Their peripherals look a bit better, thanks to the third highest strikeout rate and a bottom-third walk rate, but they’re still getting plenty of runs dropped on them. Yet it might not be all their fault.
One pitching aspect that stands out is the starters’ BABIP. At .355 its not only worst in the league, but worst by more than 20 points. As I noted in this morning’s post on Freddy Garcia, the BABIP issue is not simply a matter of pure luck. There are other factors that play into this. While poor command is the likely culprit in Garcia’s high BABIP, that’s not necessarily true for the staff as a whole. In fact, part of that huge BABIP number isn’t the pitchers at all.
A quick look at Baseball Prospectus’s team defensive efficiency bears this out in a different way. The Yankees’ fielders in general fare worst in the majors in converting balls in play into outs. When BP adjusts for park effects and converts defensive efficiency into runs, the Yankees have allowed a half run more on defense than the next worst team. They are nearly 14 runs behind league-leading Toronto.
As you might imagine by this point, the infield plays a large role in in this defensive inadequacy. To wit, on ground balls Yankees pitchers have allowed a .309 BABIP against an AL average of .225. That’s not to say they’re any great shakes against fly balls. Against those they have a .196 BABIP vs. the league average of .136. The defensive woes stretch across the entire field. And it’s killing the pitching staff.
No, poor fielding isn’t the only culprit in these inflated BABIP numbers. As with Freddy, command in general is an issue. We saw CC Sabathia with little command of his fastball in his first two outings. Phil Hughes has left many hittable pitches right over the plate. Hiroki Kuroda struggled with his command in his last start against Minnesota. And there’s Garcia himself, of course. So some of the high BABIP is due to the pitchers leaving hittable pitches over the plate. After all, the bullpen BABIP is much lower, at .307, but that’s still well above league average.
(Other evidence for poor defense killing the Yankees includes a league-worst UZR and a fourth-worst DRS.)
The pitching staff has been rightly criticized through the season’s first month. The starters simply haven’t put it together yet. Unfortunately, their fielders are doing them no favors. Both the infielders and the outfielders are not converting balls in play into outs at an acceptable rate. Getting Brett Gardner back will help the outfield, but in the infield it’s tough to fathom a huge improvement. That could be something to watch as the staff regains its form. Can they overcome these fielding inadequacies?
NOTE: Say what you will about Nunez; I expect plenty of “infield defense will improve if they don’t play Nunez” comments. But the Yankees’ problem isn’t necessarily errors. In fact, according to UZR they’re actually in the positive in terms of errors. It’s in the range department that they’re getting killed.
For the second straight year, Brett Gardner has won the 2011 Fielding Bible Award as the game’s best defensive left fielder. He received nine of ten first place votes and one second place vote (behind Carlos Gonzalez). His points total (99) was the highest by any player at any position. Tony Gwynn Jr. was a distant second with 74 points. It doesn’t directly factor into the voting, but Gardner had the highest UZR (+25.2) and DRS (+22) in baseball last season, regardless of position.
Like a number of other teams, the Yankees ignored defense for quite some time in the mid-aughts. Maybe ignored is the wrong word, but it definitely wasn’t a priority. The 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history, but they still managed to win 95 games thanks to a dominant offense and some good timing (pythag. 90 wins). That formula doesn’t cut it these days.
By no means are the 2012 Yankees a defensive dynamo, but they’ve improved defensively at a number of positions in recent years by shedding poor glovemen like Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon. UZR says the Yankees were the eighth best defensive team in baseball last year, saving 23.2 more runs than expected. At the same time, their -15 DRS ranks 21st out of the 30 team. Different systems give different answers, which is why this defense thing is so hard to pin down these days. Let’s take a look at the Yankees who provide value when not in the batter’s box…
Cano is a good example of just how imperfect defensive metrics are these days. UZR doesn’t like him one bit, rating him as a below average defender in each of the last four years and in six of his seven seasons. DRS, on the other hands, says he’s been above average in each of the last three years and in four of the last five. Total Zone says he’s been a bit below average the last two years, but above average the four years before that. FRAA? That says he’s been above average defensively in every season of his career except for 2010, when he registered at -0.5.
Which system is right? Probably all of them to a certain extent, but it goes to show that there’s still no right answer with this defensive stuff. Overall, I think Robbie’s a pretty good second baseman, particularly on plays to his right and around the bag on the double play pivot. Balls hit to his left have been a bit of a problem throughout the years, but I think he’s still a net positive, all things considered. No one will ever confuse Cano for Roberto Alomar or Chase Utley on defense, but he’s a solid glove guy that does his best work near the bag. That double play pivot is just as sweet as his swing.
You can make a legitimate case that Gardner is the best defensive player in baseball. He combines his speed with excellent reads for top notch range, and his throwing has improved dramatically over the last two years or so. His arm isn’t terribly strong, but it is accurate. Anytime a ball is hit in the air towards left, I’m pretty confident that it’ll be turned into an out these days.
One thing to keep in mind is that Gardner’s ridiculous defensive ratings — +50.9 UZR and +35 DRS last two years — are relative to other left fielders, and most other left fielders are slow, plodding, bat-first types. I don’t want to take anything away from Brett because he is an elite defender, but if the Yankees were to move him to center, he would not be a +20 defender on an annual basis. He’d be more along the lines of +10 or so. That’s still really awesome, and when it comes to saving runs with the glove, no one on the Yankees is better and very few around the league are even comparable.
Catcher defense is a tough thing to quantify, but we’ve gotten better throughout the years. Although he’s been below average at blocking passed pitches in recent years, PitchFX data has shown that Martin is one of the very best at framing pitches and saving runs by turning balls into strikes. With an average arm that consistently throws out 30% of attempted base stealers or so, Russ handles himself well behind the plate and is an asset to the team defensively.
Of course, Martin looks like the greatest catcher ever compared to his predecessor Jorge Posada. Not to dump on Posada, but he was a bad defensive catcher and flat out abysmal later in his career, and it could be clouding our judgment when watching Martin or any other Yankees catcher. The few advanced metrics we have do a good job of showing that while he’s a good defensive backstop, Martin isn’t great. He does the job throwing out baserunners, frames pitches exceptionally well, and won’t allow and excessive amount of pitches to get by him.
Defensive metrics still haven’t mastered the first base position, which has more to do with straight glovework than range. Tex isn’t fleet of foot but he does guard the line well and keeps his fair share of balls from getting through the hole. That has more to do with positioning than actual quickness. He’s also a strong thrower, which is still amazing to see after watching Giambi airmail throws for the better part of a decade.
I think Teixeira’s best defensive work comes when he’s scooping throws at first or snagging bad hops, stuff like that. There’s no way to measure this accurately, so it’s completely anecdotal. He saves the other infielders errors by scooping those poor throws, but more importantly saves pitches for the guys on the mound. Tex sees more defensive work than every non-battery position on the field, which is a good thing for the Yankees given his skills.
* * *
I think Alex Rodriguez is worth a mention here, because he looked fantastic on defense late in the season and especially in the ALDS. He didn’t hit much after the knee and thumb injuries, but he still moves well around the bag and makes a lot of tough plays look easy because of his strong arm. I also think A-Rod is the smartest, most instinctual player I’ve ever seen. He always seems to makes the correct decision when it comes to going for the double play, looking back the lead runner, charging the bunt, all that stuff. Alex won’t win a Gold Glove, but by no means is he a liability at the hot corner.
Catcher defense is incredibly hard to quantify, but there’s been a lot of research done on the subject and a lot of progress made in recent years. Back in October, Bojan Koprivica published a ridiculously in-depth analysis on blocking pitches using PitchFX data, determining just who the best catchers were at keeping the ball in front of them. It’s an intense research piece but a surprisingly easy read, so I highly recommend checking it out. Even if you read it back in October, it’s worth re-reading for a refresher.
Since the start of the 2009 season, Yadier Molina has saved a total of 16.0 runs by blocking pitches, the most in baseball. That’s not a surprise since he’s generally regarded as the best defensive catcher in the game. Brian McCann (14.2) and Matt Wieters (13.3) round out the top three. Based on Koprivica’s work, pitch blocking is similar to base running in that its impact isn’t as significant as we may think. The best pitch blockers save about seven runs per season while the worst allow seven runs. Most catchers are within two runs of average. Yeah, every bit does count, but on the whole it’s not a huge part of the game.
FanGraphs now carries pitch blocking data using Koprivica’s algorithm, so it’s nice and easy for us to dig up the stats. Here’s how the Yankees’ two primary catchers have fared at blocking pitches over the last three seasons…
|Expected Passed Pitches, CPP
||Actual Passed Pitches, APP
||Runs Saved, RPP||RPP MLB Rank|
I used a minimum of 1,000 innings caught over the last three seasons, giving us 58 qualifiers. Cervelli has performed exactly as expected during that time, which is pretty neat. Martin has been much worse however, which goes against pretty much everything we know and have heard about him defensively. It’s only 6.5 runs across 3036.2 innings, but only seven qualified catchers have been worse at blocking balls in the dirt than he has over the last three years*.
* One of those seven is Jorge Posada at -8.2 RPP in 1,469.1 innings (54th out of 58 qualifiers). Former Yankee Jose Molina isn’t much better believe it or not, he’s at -7.2 RPP in 1,200.1 innings.
Breaking it down by the individual seasons, we can see that most of the damage came back in 2009. Russ was expected to allow 48 balls to get by him based on what his pitchers threw that year, but he actually allowed 69 passed pitches. Those 21 extra passed pitches resulted in a -5.8 RPP for the season, the worst in baseball. Martin was pretty much league average in both 2010 (-0.1 RPP) and 2011 (-0.6 RPP) when it came to blocking balls, and the improvement since 2009 can probably be attributed to a million different things. I guess he seemed so much better than average last year because we were stuck watching Posada all those years.
Like I said earlier, passed pitches typically have a very small impact in the grand scheme of things, just a handful of runs each year. It seems a lot more when you’re watching a game and a passed ball allows the tying run to move into scoring position in the late innings, but that stuff evens out over the course of a 162-game schedule. Martin’s real defensive value comes from his ability to frame pitches according to the various catcher defense studies, but over the last two years he hasn’t killed his team with his pitch blocking skills either.
It’s been trendy to classify the Yankees as a poor defensive team over the last decade or so, and for a while it was absolutely true. It’s not anymore though, even if Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have lost a step over the years. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano are rock solid at worst on the right side of the infield, Russell Martin is very good behind the plate, and the outfield features two center fielders. Yeah, the left side of the infield is lacking, but the defensive is generally solid overall.
The Yankees outfield led baseball in good ol’ UZR this season (32.3 runs saved), and they were fourth overall last year (+28.6). At 60.9 runs saved since the start of 2010, they’ve been the second best defensive outfield in baseball behind the Diamondbacks (+61.2), who on any given night are running three players out there capable of playing center field (Gerardo Parra, Chris Young, and Justin Upton). The eye test agrees with the numbers as well; Brett Gardner is a stud in the field, Curtis Granderson is solid, and although Nick Swisher can look funny out there at times, he’s solid as well.
Over the last few months, the question has arose about whether or not the Yankees are using the best outfield alignment. Because Gardner is an elite defender, shouldn’t he be playing center instead of Granderson? The advanced metrics didn’t like Curtis’ defense at all in 2011, including UZR (-5.1), DRS (-15), Total Zone (-5), and FRAA (-13.1). One year of fielding data isn’t enough though, and his three-year rates seem much more in line with the eye test (0, +3, +3, and -12.1, respectively). Gardner, on the other hand, was one of the best fielders in all of baseball this year (+25.8, +22, +3, and +13.7) and has been since 2009 (+50.9, +35, +46, and +22.6). You’re not going to find much of an argument here, Gardner is the better defensive player whether you dig the stats or not.
Now, it is important to consider context when dealing with these defensive stats. Gardner has played left field for the vast majority of the last two years, so his performance is being compared to other left fielders. As you know, most teams have some kind of plodding, bat-first guy roaming left, only able to catch balls hit right at him. Granderson is being compared to fellow center fielders, who tend to be better than left fielders on defense. Move Gardner to center, and his +20 UZR turns into a +5 or +10 UZR real fast. That’s still very good, but the numbers can be deceiving.
SG at RLYW dug deeper into the data last week, and found that yeah, the Yankees probably are better off defensively with Gardner in center and Granderson in left, but chances are the upgrade would be small. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option worth exploring though, and I think switching the two is something the Yankees should at least consider this offseason. Granderson hasn’t played an outfield position other than center since 2007, when he spend five innings in left, and all told he’s got just 59.2 career innings in left and over 8,000 in center. A mid-season switch probably would have been tough, but it’s something he can work on during the offseason and in Spring Training. It might not be a big difference, but it’s an extra five or ten runs saved over the course of the season, it will certainly help the Yankees.
Everyone knows what Curtis Granderson is doing with the bat this year, but no one really seems to know what to think of his defense. The defensive metrics say he’s one of the worst center fielders in baseball but that doesn’t really jive with the eye test. I don’t think he’s a Gold Glover, but I really have a hard time seeing him as any worse than average.
ESPN’s Mark Simon broke down Granderson’s defense and those advanced metrics a day or two ago, looking at how the systems work and also how they can pick up things we just can’t see by watching everyday. He also recapped Grandy’s six worst defensive plays of the season, and spoke to long-time scout to get some old school opinion. It gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation, so make sure you check it out. Great read and well worth your time.
Just how good is the Yankees outfield defense? The eye test paints a pretty picture, and the numbers provide a similar perspective. This morning Stephen cited a Dan Barbarisi post that further examines the defensive numbers for the Yankees’ outfield, and the returns are predictably good. As a unit the Yankees outfielders have a UZR of 20.1, or 8.7 per 150, which ranks third in all of baseball. Only Arizona and Boston lead them. The major difference among the three teams is how they accumulate these defensive numbers. Both Arizona and Boston accomplish this with range; their 37.3 and 22.8 range runs lead the league by a decently wide margin. While the Yankees do have quality range numbers, they have something that the Red Sox and Diamondbacks do not: quality outfield arms.
As a unit the Yankees’ outfielders have produced 4.4 runs above average with their arms. That ranks seventh in baseball, and just 0.3 points away from fourth. All three of the starters not only have positive arm scores this year, but all three rank in the top 20 among all MLB outfielders in arm score. Again, this passes the eyeball test at least as it concerns 2011. They’ve all had issues in the past, but it does appear that they’ve turned it around. In 2011 they’re apparently turning the corner.
Before we proceed, a word about the small sample that is the 2011 season. It is absolutely true that to gain any value from defensive metrics you need heaps of data — preferably three years’ worth. Clearly we’re not getting anything close to that by examining year-to-year improvements for each player. Yet I’m confident that we’re measuring something real — that is, something that actually happened on the field — when we’re looking at arm scores. From the FanGraphs UZR primer, arm scores are “based on the speed and location of batted balls to the outfield and how often base runners advance extra bases (advances), don’t advance the extra base (holds), or get thrown out trying to advance (kills).” While speed and location are subject to bias, the play-by-play data can give us a good idea when it comes to advances, holds, and kills. So while there is a level of noise in these data, there is also some truth, stemming from the “it happened” factor.
Since he arrived in New York, it was apparent that Nick Swisher had an arm more suited for a left fielder, or even a DH. He lollipopped throws with consistence in 2009, and the numbers bore it out; he had a -5.9 arm score, which was tied with Brad Hawpe for worst in the majors. The problems were so bad that he went to then pitching coach Dave Eiland for advice on how to better hurl a baseball. That seemingly did the trick. In 2010 he improved to -0.8 arm runs above average. This year he’s at 1.6 runs above average, which ranks 19th among MLB outfielders.
While Gardner occasionally uncorked a five-bouncer to home plate during his first two years in the outfield, he still produced generally good arm numbers. From 2008 through 2009 they went: 5.0, 2.4, 6.6. The score in 2008 and the huge jump in 2010 might have been a product of perception. Gardner doesn’t look like a guy with a quality arm, therefore coaches and base runners might be more apt to attempt the extra base. To wit, he had 12 assists last year, which ranked second among MLB outfielders. This year he has only six assists, perhaps because the league has adapted to his actual arm skill. Despite that he still has an arm score of 1.7, which ranks 15th among MLB outfielders. It suggests that he’s holding base runners, rather than killing them.
That leaves Granderson, who had mixed results in terms of arm score earlier in his career. He was actually below average in his final two years with the Tigers, but has been positive in both of his seasons with the Yankees. In fact, his 1.9 arm score from this year ranks 10th in baseball. This is due, in large part, to his eight outfield assists, which ranks 15th among outfielders. The only other year in which he’s had more than five assists was in 2007, when his arm score was at a career high 4.1. I want to say that Granderson’s arm score stems from the same bias that Gardner’s does: teams using old and unreliable information concerning Granderson. But I’m not sure there’s enough evidence there to render that any more credible than any other pet theory.
On broadcasts this season the Yankees crew has often mentioned that the outfielders, not just Swisher, have worked with Larry Rothschild on their throwing. It makes perfect sense, of course, since outfielders want to generate power with their throws just as pitchers do. While it’s an anecdote, it apparently shows up in the data as well. Whatever the case, the Yankees starting outfield is not only doing an excellent job of running down fly balls, but they’re also holding and killing base runners with efficiency. After years and years of watching one of the poorest outfield defenses in the league, it’s nice to finally see the Yankees on top.
At the Wall Street Journal this morning, writer Daniel Barbarisi takes a look at Brett Gardner‘s range in left field. It’s subscriber-only content, but there are apparently ways to find it free it you search hard enough. Here’s something that caught my interest from the article:
He is effectively a second center fielder, ranging wide over the left side of the field in ways no other left fielder is doing. He frequently takes balls away from center fielder Curtis Granderson, when traditionally, it’s vice-versa…
Gardner teams with Granderson and Nick Swisher to create one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. Granderson is an established, rangy center fielder who has great in-line speed once he gets moving, and Swisher is an underrated and improving right fielder—his UZR is 10.7, fifth-best in baseball. And they move around significantly, adjusting for where they expect the hitter will place the ball…
The way Gardner covers ground allows the Yankees to use different defensive alignments, shifting Granderson more toward right field in some situations because they assume Gardner can cover all of left-center.
Jay Jaffe has speculated before that Gardner takes balls away from Granderson, and so it’s interesting to see Barbarisi essentially confirm this hypothesis. Like Jaffe, I wondered about Granderson’s poor UZR score since it doesn’t seem to pass the eye test and I’ve yet to find a single person who believes that Granderson is actually a poor fielder. It may simply be that Gardner’s speedy wheels and great instincts, and Granderson’s positioning, are the cause of Granderson’s subpar UZR score this year.
This is a relevant issue as it relates to Granderson’s MVP chances. In traditional categories, Granderson cleans up. He’s second in HR, first in R and RBI, and he’s stolen 24 bases. But in the advanced statistic realm of Wins Above Replacement, Granderson is held back by his poor defensive score. His -9.2 UZR rating means that he’s not as high up the Fangraphs’ WAR leaderboard as guys like Bautista, Pedroia and Ellsbury. Yet if we subbed in a value of 0 for Granderson’s UZR, still a conservative number in my estimation, his fWAR would go from 6.1 to 6.9. If we gave him last year’s value of 6.4 runs, his fWAR would go to 7.6, ahead of Pedroia, Ellsbury and Gonzalez and just a tenth of a point behind Jose Bautista. In other words, it’s possible that the case for Granderson winning the MVP should look even stronger than it currently does.
Anyway, the article is an interesting read and I recommend you take a look. There’s some cool stuff in there about how much Andruw Jones (himself a formerly-elite defender) respects Gardner’s defensive prowess, and also a fun quote about how much Gardner would love to win the Gold Glove. Parenthetically, Barbarisi has been a fantastic addition to the Wall Street Journal‘s coverage of sports. He’s been unafraid to integrate new statistics into his work without getting bogged down in explaining the stats and still maintaining the traditional feel of the newspaper sports column. If he isn’t on your radar by now, he should be.
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.