Scouting The Trade Market: 3B Replacements

The procedure to repair the torn meniscus in Alex Rodriguez‘s knee might have gone just fine, but he’s still going to miss at least a month while he recovers. Maybe he’ll come back relatively quickly, as he did from his hip surgery in 2009, but that will make only a small dent. The Yanks will still need to fill plenty of at-bats in his absence. The smart money is on them using Eduardo Nunez, Ramiro Pena, and maybe even Brandon Laird, but there’s a chance they could look outside the organization for help.

As I said in yesterday’s first half review post, third base is a rough position currently (and it’s even worse in the NL). That’s going to dampen the market considerably. Since the Yankees only need a replacement for a month, and since they have a few in-house guys, chances are they won’t swing a deal. But if they did, it would likely be for a player who can help them in areas after A-Rod returns. Here are four specifically.

Wilson Betemit

Pros: He’s completely useless to the Royals, as they sit in last place and have a promising rookie, Mike Moustakas, manning the hot corner. Betemit is currently hitting .285.345/.415, good for a .327 wOBA, which ranks 12th among third basemen with at least 220 PA. He’s a free agent after this year, and so requires no future commitment. He can also play second in a pinch, and has played the outfield as recently as 2010.

Cons: After a hot start he’s dropped off a bit since the start of June, hitting .220/.238/.325. Of course, that’s also when the Royals yanked him from his starting gig in favor of Moustakas; he has gotten just 42 PA since June 1. He’s also not a very good defender at third. Having seen Betemit for parts of two seasons, we know that he works in fits and starts. If he continues slumping after the Yanks acquire him, it will be a complete waste.

Omar Infante

Pros: He’s a free agent following this season, and since Florida is out of the race they’ll probably be very open to dealing him. While he has played second base exclusively this year, he can play all around the diamond; he has played SS, LF, 3B, and RF as recently as 2010, and CF as recently as 2009. He’s a qualify infielder by most measures, making him a viable utility candidate once A-Rod returns.

Cons: After a torrid 2010 season, he’s crashed considerably in 2011, a .269 wOBA. He does have a .274 BABIP, though, which is considerably below his .308 career mark. He might not be great, but he can probably be around a league average hitter with a BABIP in line with his career mark.

Jeff Baker

Pros: For the past three-plus seasons Baker has established himself as a league-average hitter. His wRC+ has been between 96 and 102 since 2008. He also has an above-average BABIP, which suggests, but does not conclude, that he can spray line drives and dunk in singles. He has played every position except center field and catcher this year, making him a good fit for the team even after A-Rod returns. At just $1.175 million this year, and with one year left before free agency, he could be a decent, if slightly expensive, utility option in 2012. The Yankees can afford that.

Cons: While he’s currently enjoying a typically average year, he’s doing it with a much higher BABIP, .379, and much lower walk rate, 2.9 percent, than previously in his career. This could easily be a fluke, since he has just 138 PA this year. Give the results from his 800-plus PA from 2008-2010, he could even out even as his BABIP drops. He appears to be a merely average fielder, which does not exactly befit a utility player.

Jeff Keppinger

Pros: Like Baker, Keppinger is a pretty much average hitter. Even as a full-time player in 2010 he produced a 105 wRC+. While he’s a second baseman by necessity for the Astros this year, he can play all around the infield, though he has just 22.2 career innings in the outfield. He has just four years of service time, and could be back in 2012 as the utility man.

Cons: He makes $2.3 million this year, which is already a bit step for a utility player. A raise will make it tougher to justify him as a backup, even on the Yankees. He hasn’t hit for much power in his career, a .108 ISO, and that includes .105 in 2010 and .081 in 2008, which are his only years with 120-plus games played. Defensive metrics rate him as below average at all positions, which, again, doesn’t bode well for a utility player.

Again, I don’t expect the Yankees to make a move for one of these players, or any other third base replacement. But if any of them is available at a reasonable price in the next two weeks we could see a move. Any of these players could serve a utility role after A-Rod returns, and would be a better fit than a straight third baseman. Given the options I’d have to go with Baker. He seems to be the best combination glove and bat on the list.

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.