The great Cano vs. Pedroia debate

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.

Tampa and Staten Island win big on Derby night

Kevin Goldstein had a lukewarm report on Austin Romine from the Futures Game (subs. req’d)…

[Romine’s] prospect stock remains flat. He’s a good hitter for average, but his aggressiveness early in the count and merely gap-to-average power leave his total line a bit empty. He’s also one of those frustrating backstops who has the tools to be a good defender, but is a so-so receiver with a slow release that wastes his strong arm … I can’t remember the last time I heard a scout get really excited about his future.

Don’t miss the injury news from earlier this evening. Also, Kanekoa Texeira is back, re-signed to a minor league deal. Yay, I guess.

Triple-A Scranton is off until Thursday for the All-Star break. The actual All-Star Game will be played on Wednesday, and Adam Warren is the only Yankees farmhand that will be there. Jesus Montero, Jorge Vazquez, and Kevin Whelan were all picked for the game but withdrew due to injury.

Double-A Trenton (7-6 loss to Reading in 11 innings, walk-off style)
Ray Kruml, RF: 3 for 5, 2 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI – this isn’t deja vu, it’s his second straight game with this exact same line
Corban Joseph, 2B & Cody Johnson, DH: both 0 for 5 – CoJo struck out twice, Johnson all five times (!!!)
Bradley Suttle, 1B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 K – had just two hits in his previous 30 at-bats (.067)
Melky Mesa, CF: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 K, 1 CS – threw a runner out at first
Rob Lyerly, 3B: 1 for 5, 1 R, 2 K, 2 E (both fielding)
Jose Pirela, SS: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 K – hit a game-tying three-run homer with two outs in the ninth
Damon Sublett, LF: 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 E (throwing) – threw a runner out at the plate
R.J. Baker, C: 0 for 4, 3 K, 1 E (missed catch)
Craig Heyer, RHP: 3 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 2 HB, 2-2 GB/FB – I wonder if it’s time to put him back in the bullpen, the whole starting thing doesn’t seem to be cooperating
Josh Romanski, LHP: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 3-2 GB/FB
Brad Halsey, LHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1-1 GB/FB
Cory Arbiso, RHP: 3 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 0 K, 4-4 GB/FB – two of the walks were intentional
Pat Venditte, SwP: 0.1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 0-1 GB/FB – gave up the walk-off homer to a pretty good prospect

[Read more…]

Heathcott may be out for season, Turley out a month

Via Josh Norris, Slade Heathcott has missed most of the last month or so with a left shoulder issue, and it’s likely that he’ll miss the rest of the season. He had surgery on the shoulder this past offseason, and apparently a second surgery is possible. That’s his throwing arm, by the way. That really sucks. Nik Turley, meanwhile, will miss about a month with a broken hand. Line drive got him. He’s already over his previous career high in innings, so the rest might not be the worst thing in the world. Too bad it’s not by choice.

Need some good news? Donnie Collins says that Tim Norton is about a week or so from returning to the mound, which sounds hard to believe after the report of his labrum being severely torn and his career being in jeopardy. Mark Newman confirmed that he’s a week away, so it’s obvious the original injury report was wrong. Great news, Norton was having an absurdly dominant year.

Open Thread: 2011 Home Run Derby

Is it home run or homerun? I’ve always preferred one word, but the official site and Wikipedia say I’m wrong. Oh well. Anyway, tonight is the night of the most simultaneously boring and entertaining event in baseball, the Home Run Homerun Derby. The first two or three batters are fun, then it just starts to drag. MLB changed things up this year by appointing team captains (Prince Fielder and David Ortiz, the last two winners) and letting them pick the participants, though that didn’t do too much. I know he’s having an awful year, but it’s criminal that Adam Dunn still has not taken his hacks in the Derby yet. Mike Stanton’s another guy that should have been picked as well, just look at what the kid can do. His MLB.com highlight pages are pure homerun porn. Oh well.

The Yankees have one of their own in the Derby, second baseman Robinson Cano. Mark Teixeira was originally asked to participate, but he decided against it when he didn’t get selected for the game. Can’t say I blame him, I’d rather spend the time off with my family than fly out for the one event. Cano’s father Jose (a former big leaguer) will pitch to him, which would be pretty cool. Here are the participants, though I have no what order they’re hitting in…

American League
Jose Bautista
Robinson Cano
Adrian Gonzalez
David Ortiz

National League
Prince Fielder
Matt Holliday
Matt Kemp
Rickie Weeks

StatCorner says Chase Field is basically a neutral homerun park for right-handed batters (102 HR pack factor) and very favorable for lefties (114), but you know what? I’m going against that and am picking Holliday. It’s not about how far you hit the ball but how many you hit out, and we’ve seen so many players tire in the later rounds over the last few years. Holliday’s so absurdly big and strong that I think he’ll hold up the best during the course of the competition. Plus having the experience from last year, when he hit just five homers, will probably help.

Anyway, that’s my pick. The Derby starts at 8pm ET and can be seen on ESPN and ESPN3.com. You can talk about that or whatever else your heart desires here in the open thread, so have at it. Anything goes.

Update: Here’s the order: Cano, Holliday, Gonzalez, Weeks, Bautista, Kemp, Ortiz, Fielder.

A Brief History: Yankees in the Home Run Derby

They don’t call them the Bronx Bombers for nothing, s0 I was somewhat surprised to see that just three Yankees have participated in the Home Run Derby a total of four times since the event started in 1985. Robinson Cano will make it four players and five appearances later tonight, when he takes his hacks at Chase Field in Arizona with seven others. It could have been Mark Teixeira, but he decided to spend the All-Star break at home with his family after not making the AL team. Oh well. Let’s go back in time and relive the four Derbies the Yankees graced with their presence…

(Photo Credit: www.oocities.org)

Tino Martinez, 1997

I was pretty young and naive in 1997, so I thought Tino’s monster 44 homer campaign was a sign of great things of come. Of course that was his career season, and on only two other occasions did he top even 30 homers (1995 and 2001). Tino’s first half in 1997 was beastly, a .302/.370/.619 batting line with 28 homers (!!!) in 85 games. The Derby was a little different back then, it had ten players (not eight) taking their swings at the brand spanking new Jacobs Field in Cleveland.

Tino hit five homers in the first round, tied with Mark McGwire for the second most behind Larry Walker (nine). Martinez went deep eight times in the second round, again the second most behind Walker’s nine. Although the Colorado outfielder and eventual NL MVP out-homered the Yankees’ first baseman 19-16 over the course of the event, Tino’s timing was better. He hit three homers in the finals to Walker’s one, and that was that. The first Yankee to compete in the Derby had won it. Tino production dropped a bit in the second half, but he still hit a crazy good .289/.372/.525 with 16 homers in 73 games down the stretch.

Jason Giambi, 2002

(Photo Credit: The Lawrence Journal-World)

The Giambino’s first year in pinstripes was insanely good; he hit .318/.430/.602 with 22 homers in 86 games heading into the break. The first round of the Derby in Miller Park wasn’t much of a problem, Giambi hit 11 homers. Only Sammy Sosa (12) had more. Back in those days, the four players that advanced to the second round faced off head-to-head, one seed vs. four, two vs. three. Giambi drew Paul Konerko as the two seed, then out-homered him seven to six in the second round. Sosa (five) beat Richie Sexson (four), so he and Giambi met in the finals even though Konerko had the second most homers in the round.

Sosa was no match in the finals. Giambi out-homered him 7-1 to win the event, and his 24 total homers were the second most all-time behind the 26 Sosa hit in 2000. Two Yankees in the Derby, two wins. Giambi’s production didn’t slip at all in the second half, he hit .309/.442/.593 with 19 homers in his final 69 games.

Jason Giambi, 2003

MLB invited Giambi to the Homerun Derby for the third straight year and why not? He was one of the game’s premier sluggers at the time. He had hit .267/.419/.547 with 26 homers in 91 first half games, so not that far off from his 2002 first half in the OBP and ISO departments. U.S. Cellular Field loves left-handed batters and Giambi took advantage, leading the way with a dozen first round homers. Garrett Anderson hit seven, and no one else topped four. Giambi drew Albert Pujols in the second round, though his eleven homers were not enough. Pujols hit 14 and advanced to the finals, losing to Anderson 9-8. Despite being bounced in the second round, Giambi’s 23 total homers were the second most in the event, three behind Pujols. His production dropped in the second half, down to .226/.401/.498 with 15 homers in 65 second half games.

(Photo Credit: The Connecticut Post)

Nick Swisher, 2010

Swisher wasn’t even supposed to participate in the event in the first place. He was a replacement for Cano, who had to withdraw due to a sore back. Swish didn’t make it out of the first round, hitting just four balls out of Angels Stadium. He was spared the embarrassment of hitting the fewest homers in the event by Chris Young (one) and Vernon Wells (two). David Ortiz eventually beat Hanley Ramirez in the finals. After hitting .298/.377/.524 with 15 homers in 84 games in the first half, Swisher dropped to .275/.336/.494 after the break, but he did hit 14 homers in 67 games.

* * *

Aside from the superhuman Giambi in 2002, everyone’s production declined in the second half, but they were hardly useless. I think it has more to do with those guys having outrageously good first halves and just coming back to Earth down the stretch. Cano is at .296/.342*/.521 with 15 homers through the team’s first 88 games, and it’s worth noting that he’s traditionally been a better hitter in the second half. That was not true last year, however. Either way, I’d love to see Cano win the thing, but I’ll take the field on this one.

* I was surprised to see his OBP that high, but then I realized that it’s inflated by a career-high nine hit-by-pitches. He got plunked eight times last year and eight times 2007. If we remove those HBP’s from his time-on-base and plate appearance totals, his OBP is just .326. I don’t want to think about what it would be if we removed the four intentional walks.