Pedroia’s deal doesn’t set the market for Cano

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, word got out that the Red Sox and Dustin Pedroia had agreed to a new seven-year, $100M contract extension on top of his current deal, which runs through next season. All told, he is under contract for approximately $114M from now through the end of the 2021 season, when he’ll be 38 years old. It’s likely to be the last contract he signs during his playing career.

Naturally, we have to wonder what Pedroia’s new contract means for Robinson Cano. The two have been connected for the last half-decade only because they are the homegrown players on historic rivals who happen to play the same position. They’ll be linked forever just because of that, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re both great players. Clearly the top two second basemen in baseball right now, in my opinion.

Here’s a real quick side-by-side comparison of their careers, from best seasons down to worst:

Source: FanGraphsRobinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia

The two are pretty much neck and neck in terms of overall production, but Cano has created some distance between himself and every other second baseman in recent years. Since the start of 2010, Robbie leads full-timers at the position with 23.5 WAR. Pedroia is a distant second at 18.4 WAR.

WAR is a nice quick reference tool but it has some major flaws, specifically its reliance on far from perfect defensive stats. Defensive stats that always seem to sell Cano short for whatever reason. WAR is even less helpful when talking about elite players who have real live money-generating marquee value  and are paid on a much different scale than everyone else. It’s not as simple as saying “this player has this WAR and makes this much, therefore that player with that WAR should make that much.”

On the surface, it appears as though Pedroia’s new contract means Cano should expect a lot less than the $200M-whatever he’ll be seeking. These are two very different players though, and there are a number of reasons why that isn’t the case. Let’s break ’em down:

Power vs. No Power
Absolutely nothing in baseball pays like power, especially in this suddenly power-starved era. Homers drive up prices exponentially, and Cano happens to hit a lot of them for a second baseman, especially compared to Pedroia. In fact, Cano has hit exactly as many homers this year as Pedroia has hit over the last two years (21). Pedroia’s career homer total (96) is as many as Cano has hit since July 2010. Power pays and Robbie has an enormous advantage in that department. There’s no comparison here, Cano blows his Red Sox counterpart out of the water.

Durable vs. Injury Prone
A hamstring injury cost Cano about five weeks back in June 2006, but otherwise he’s been an iron man for the Bombers. He’s played in at least 159 games (!) in each of the last six years (!!!), and his days off usually come from Joe Girardi getting him off his feet rather than some nagging day-to-day injury. Robbie is one of baseball’s most durable players, no doubt about it.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Pedroia, on the other hand, has played in just 476 of 588 possible games since the start of 2010. Two separate left foot fractures sidelined him for 85 total games in 2010, and a nagging thumb issue sent him to the sidelines for a total of three walks in 2012. Heck, he’s playing through a torn thumb ligament right now. Pedroia has only once played as many 159 games in a season whereas Cano does it year after year. Another advantage for Robbie.

Hardware vs. No Hardware
Major awards pay well, though not as well as power (or saves). Pedroia was the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year and 2008 AL MVP, so his mantle is well-stocked. Cano has … three top-six finishes in the MVP voting? He was the 2005 Rookie of the Year runner-up, so there’s that. Robbie has never won a major award, which takes away from his resume ever so slightly. You may laugh, but this kind of stuff gets brought up in contract negotiations all the time.

Extension vs. Free Agent Contract
This is the big one here. The Red Sox already had Pedroia under contract through 2014 with an affordable club option for 2015, so there was no bidding war. They had exclusive negotiating rights and zero urgency to hand out a nine-figure contract. Actually, there probably was some urgency to get it done now just to make sure Cano’s next deal didn’t jack up the price. Players tend to give a bit of discount by signing an extension, and Pedroia appears to have done just that with this deal.

Barring something surprising over the next 15 weeks or so, Robbie will hit the free agent market and be able to field any and all offers. Remember, he will be Roc Nation’s first big contract, and I doubt they’re looking to set a precedent by taking a discount. There will be a bidding war and the price will climb rather quickly. Signing an extension while already under contract and signing a new contract as a free agent are completely different animals. There’s a major difference in leverage.

* * *

The total value of Pedroia’s new contract is the largest ever for a second baseman, but the average annual value ($14M total through 2021) is just the second highest behind Ian Kinsler’s deal ($15M). He didn’t raise the bar all that much. Besides, Cano was all but guaranteed to land a nine-figure contract anyway. He wasn’t exactly waiting for someone to set that market.

The only thing Pedroia’s contract really does is define a term limit. He is ten months younger than Cano and is signed through age 38. If the Yankees were to sign Cano through age 38 this winter, it would require an eight-year contract. There have been rumors saying he will seek a ten-year contract, but I can’t see that happening at all. I don’t think the team will be handing out any ten-year deals to players on the wrong side of 30 anytime soon. Eight is the limit now, so there’s that.

The Red Sox got themselves a nice deal with Pedroia, the kind of deal I wish the Yankees would have given Cano about two years ago. He was represented by Scott Boras at that time and Boras very rarely does long-term extensions for his elite players, however. Ultimately, Pedroia’s deal doesn’t change much for the Yankees and Cano simply because Robbie is the better player. He’s the better player with more leverage by virtue of having more power, being more durable, and presumably having more suitors as a free agent.

The AL MVP race

As it stands, there are likely five strong candidates for the American League MVP award. Three of them play on the Boston Red Sox: Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia. The fourth is Jose Bautista. The last one is New York’s own Curtis Granderson. With a little more than forty games to go it’s looking increasingly like it will be a close race. Indeed, despite the fact that Bautista has hit the cover off the ball this season, a confluence of factors may open the door open for other candidates and create a real voting free-for-all.

Bautista’s offensive production really stands head and shoulders above the rest of the class. He’s batting .307/.444/.627 with 33 home runs, 76 RBIs and 83 runs scored. The batting average is nice, sure, but it’s really his on-base percentage (bolstered by a nearly 20% walk rate) and slugging percentage that stand out. Bautista currently has a wOBA of .447, tops in the American League by over 35 points, and a wRC+ of 188. By UZR‘s reckoning he’s 1 run below average on defense, but despite that his overall fWAR is 6.8, only one tenth below his 2010 mark. This is a reflection of a better BABIP (.233 in 2010), more walks and better defense this year as opposed to last year.

Despite the fact that he’s the preeminent offensive producer in the American League, Bautista’s case for the MVP award may be handicapped by several factors. For one, his RBI total is low. This isn’t his fault, but it’s still a statistic many voters will consider. The second is that there’s been a bit of controversy surrounding him last year with steroids and this year with sign-stealing. A lot of that is tremendously unfair, particularly the steroids accusations (and the sign-stealing accusations, if you ask Drunk Jays Fans), so it’s hard to know the extent to which voters will penalize him. Thirdly, Bautista is going through a bit of a slump right now. Since the All-Star Break he’s hitting .205/.355/.342, meaning that his early season heroics may fade in the minds of some voters by the time voting comes around, provided he doesn’t go on another hot streak. Lastly, he plays on a non-contending team and some voters will bizarrely refuse to vote for players on non-contending teams. For this reason there may be a some daylight for some of the other candidates to make their way to the top of the ballot.

One of those players is Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is hitting .313/.367/.504 with 19 home runs, 72 RBI and 84 runs scored. Ellsbury has swiped 31 bases, most amongst American League MVP candidates. He’s sporting a .386 wOBA and a wRC+ of 143. His BABIP is .339, which explains his high on base marks despite a relatively meager 7.2% walk rate. Ellsbury also looks great in the field, scoring 7.5 runs above average by UZR’s reckoning. Overall, Ellsbury has accrued 5.7 total fWAR, bolstered no doubt by a high defensive score and his skill on the base paths. Since he’s not likely to lead the league or his fellow MVP candidates in any other category but stolen bases, Ellsbury doesn’t seem like a likely candidate to knock off Bautista, especially considering the possibility that other Boston candidates will syphon off votes from his candidacy.

Another member of the Red Sox in contention is Adrian Gonzalez, currently batting .350/.411/.553 with 18 home runs, 92 RBI and 79 runs scored. Gonzalez has a wOBA of .411, second only to Jose Bautista amongst the five potential candidates, and his wRC+ is 160. Gonzalez is currently rocking a .390 BABIP, which explains the inflation throughout his batting line. In fact, he’s actually posting the lowest walk rate and ISO since 2006. This isn’t meant to diminish his production. Like the Cy Young, awards should be given out based on what’s actually happened, not what one would expect to happen if given another 162 games. However, there is plenty of time for Gonzalez to see some regression on balls in play, which would make his batting line look a little less impressive. UZR grades Gonzalez well, 7.1 runs above average,which is the highest mark of his career, and his total fWAR is 5.3. Gonzalez’s case for MVP likely rests on his prodigious offensive production, whereas players like Ellsbury, Pedroia and Granderson bring a very well-rounded profile to the table. This isn’t to say that Gonzalez doesn’t play good defense, just that he would seem to need to go toe to toe with Bautista on offense to have a chance at knocking him off. Gonzalez is in the midst of a power outage by his standards (.427 SLG since the All-Star Break), so he’ll have to get going quickly if he’s going to make a move on Bautista.

The strongest MVP candidate on the Red Sox has won the award before. Dustin Pedroia is currently in the midst of a career year, batting .311/.403/.478 with 15 home runs, 60 RBI and 76 runs scored. His wOBA (.390), wRC+ (145), stolen bases (23), on-base percentage and walk rate (13.6%) all represent career highs for the second baseman. He’s also grading out very well by UZR’s standards, 14.6 runs above average. Pedroia has always been regarded as a good fielder, so this isn’t a surprise. All told, Pedroia has accrued 6.8 fWAR. Last night he passed Jose Bautista and currently holds the lead in the American League. As such, he probably has the best chance of anyone in the American League to beat out Bautista for the award. He has a lot going for him: his offensive game is superb and well-rounded, he runs the bases well and he plays great defense. He’s also won the award before and is currently getting loads of media attention from national publications like Sports Illustrated. If voters are willing to buy into the all-around aspect of Pedroia’s game, and they’ve done so before, and are looking for someone other than Bautista to support, he may take home the award for the second time.

The final candidate for MVP is Curtis Granderson. After last night’s game, Granderson was hitting .273/.364/.577 with 32 home runs, 93 RBI and 105 runs scored. His wOBA is .405, his wRC+ is 157, and he’s swiped 22 bases. Not that it really matters, but his BABIP stands at .306 and his walk rate is 11.7%, the latter a touch above his career average of 9.8%. One of the weaknesses in Granderson’s candidacy is the way the fielding metrics grade his fielding. This year he has a poor -8.0 UZR, which explains why his fWAR is only 5.2. His career total UZR is 17.0, and for most seasons of his career he’s graded out average or above. In 2008 his marks were bad, and in 2009 he was essentially even. Not to be that guy, but a poor fielding score for Granderson doesn’t really pass the smell test. Granderson is fast, athletic, seems to get great reads on the ball and throws the ball well. Jay Jaffe at Pinstriped Bible had some choice analysis on this very subject:

Given the nature of defensive statistics, it’s tough to take any one of these too seriously, particularly given that they can be 10-15 runs apart in a given year; last year Granderson was at -1, +6.4, -12 according to the aforementioned trio, and +1.8 according to FRAA. The consensus of the numbers is more compelling, as it does raise some eyebrows about Granderson’s defense, particularly given that the Yankees have a choice of center fielders between him and Brett Gardner, whose numbers over the past two seasons have been off the charts: +16 FRAA, +42 TZ, +41 UZR, +32 DRS. There’s always an issue with defensive stats when it comes to adjacent fielders; if both of them can get to the ball but one routinely lets the other handle it, that will skew the stats, but so long as one of them does the job, everything is copacetic from a team defense standpoint. That may be what’s happening here, but in any event, it could be worth revisiting the choice of which of the two outfielders plays left field and which plays center field, if not now, then next spring. Until then, it’s worth keeping an eye on who gets those balls in the left-center gap.

The race for the top appears to be shaping up to be quite the dogfight. Jose Bautista has been the front-runner for the American League MVP all season is probably the premier offensive threat in all of baseball. Yet there are a lot of reasons voters could turn elsewhere. Some of those reasons are unfair, or they could just prefer the excellence of Pedroia’s all-around game. Pedroia does seem to be the primary threat to Bautista. Every part of his game is excellent, and he’s a well-known player on a contending team. Curtis Granderson could be the darkhorse in this race. It’s conceivable that he could finish with some very nice round numbers – 40 home runs, 30 stolen bases, 125 RBI and a wOBA north of .400 – and like Pedroia he is a well-liked player on a contending team. The MVP ballot is going to be very tricky for voters, and will be fascinating to watch. There are a lot of different scenarios that could play out. Bautista could finish strong and win the award easily. He could continue to sputter and Pedroia could continue to shoot his way up the fWAR leaderboard and gain more and more momentum. In another scenario, the superb seasons of Ellsbury and Gonzalez could actually syphon off votes from Pedroia, helping the candidacy of someone like Curtis Granderson. With six weeks or so to go on the season, it promises to be a very interesting race.

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.