October 15, 2012
The Case for Cano
Depending on the day, Robinson Cano is often the third- or fourth-most-talked-about member of the Yankee infield.
But what about the second baseman on the team, Robinson Cano? (Yes, the same one who’s 0-for-his-last 26 in October.) He might be the least famous member of his own infield, but he might just be the second most valuable position player in the 2012 American League.
And no, this is not a torch piece on Miguel Cabrera. Friends, Romans, Countrymen, I come here not to bury Miguel Cabrera, but to praise him. Mr. Cabrera was, in my estimation, a close third in the AL Most Valuable Position Player race, and that's not a bad thing to be. My father is fond of saying, "close only counts in horseshoes and atomic weapons," but Cabrera had a really good year, and his parents should be proud of him. It's just that there were a couple of guys who had a better year than he did. There's no shame in that.
Instead, I'd rather ask a simple question: What does Robinson Cano have to do to escape the Chase Utley Zone and get some recognition? Cano finished 2012 second in the American League in WARP here at BP and in the analogous value over replacement standings at several other sites. While debates about Mike Trout and Cabrera have spawned a multitude of columns and blog posts and tweets and water-cooler conversations (including the discussion I got into with a guy from Michigan), it's as if the Yankee second-sacker has been invisible in the conversation. Maybe Cano needs to go to a larger market where he would get on national TV more often.
I think that the blind spot for Cano's value comes from the fact that he produces value in hidden ways. For one, Cano hit "only" 33 home runs to Cabrera's 44, although Cano hit 48 doubles (and a triple) to Cabrera's 40 doubles. There's a crown for the guy who hits the most home runs, and you know who won it. Without cheating, can you tell me who led each league in doubles this year (answer at the bottom)? It's certainly true that a home run is worth more than a double, although the difference is not as great as one might think, and certainly not in line with the recognition that each hit type receives from the baseball media.
Cano also plays an above-average second base and saved some runs defensively. As a general rule of thumb, it's a lot harder to fill up-the-middle positions than corner positions. While Cano's raw counting numbers are a little below “OMG” level, he puts them up while playing a non-embarrassing second base. If there's something that we've learned about baseball over the past 25 years, it's that position matters. The average waiver wire/Triple-A/bench guy who plays second base will put up a lot less value than a similar journeyman who plays on the corners. When it's all summed up, Cano ends up having a value slightly above that of Miguel Cabrera.
If you want to make the case that the differences between the two are not huge (they aren't), that they are effectively tied using the phrase "margin of error," and gave a preference to Cabrera based on some other tie-breaker, I would disagree, but not too loudly. But, I'd argue that a vote for Cabrera over Cano is not self-evident and deserves an explanation, at least among those who take the idea of replacement level seriously.
And for what it's worth, Cano's team made the playoffs in a very closely contested division. Because that matters. Take away Cano's contributions, and the Yankees finish behind the Orioles and Rays. Cano played in 161 games and was reliable from day one on a team that had to deal with a lot of injuries. He led the Yankees in intentional walks (fear!). In September (and the first couple days of October), Cano hit .347/.418/.581 in the middle of a neck-and-neck race with the Orioles. And Cano did it in New York, which is impossible for anyone to play in, except for the people who are already playing there. If we're going to play the intangible tie-breaker game, I don't see a lot of places where Robinson Cano doesn't at least break even.
So, I would issue a challenge to those who consider themselves sabermetrically savvy. This probably won't win you many friends, because as we've discovered (again), the general public views stats like WARP with suspicion—and you'd be arguing for a member of the Yankees. But when discussing the American League's Most Valuable Player with your co-workers, if you're going to play the card that Mike Trout should win because he was so vastly ahead of Miguel Cabrera on WARP, then go all the way in. Point out that there's a really good case for the ballot reading Trout, then Cano, then Cabrera.