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February 18, 2014

Overthinking It

Quantifying Cano's Lack of Hustle

by Ben Lindbergh

You’d think that Yankees fans, who are used to seeing their team sign other cities’ superstars, would be upset about losing a homegrown second baseman who’s coming off four straight five-win seasons. But based on a winter’s worth of conversation—and as a New Yorker who writes about baseball, I’ve had a lot of conversations about Cano—most of them don't sound too broken up about it. Partly that’s because spending hundreds of millions on other free agents eases the sting. Partly it’s because the Mariners gave Cano so many years and so much money. But another part of the reason—and I really believe this—is that Cano was known for not really running to first. If Cano couldn’t be bothered to bleed for every base hit while he was here, Yankees fans seem to say, then why would we miss him?

That familiar refrain resurfaced on Monday, when the Daily News’ John Harper published a piece on Cano with some critical quotes from Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. To be fair, Long’s comments were partially based on being mindful of public perception—since Cano’s reluctance to run harder bothered the fans, Long suggests, he would’ve been wise to appease them. But Long also makes clear that he couldn’t condone Cano’s lollygagging or swallow his explanations of why he wanted to run at less than maximum speed:

The reasons aren’t going to make sense. He might say his legs didn’t feel good, or he was playing every day and needed to save his energy. To me there was no acceptable answer.

So how much did Cano’s famously slow times to first cost the Yankees? And is Long right, or was Cano’s strategy sound?

It’s easy to compare Cano’s infield hit percentage (infield hits divided by ground balls) to the league’s. But we can get more granular and more accurate by accounting for his handedness (since lefties, all else being equal, get out of the box and down to first faster) and ground ball distribution (it’s easier to beat out grounders to third and shortstop than grounders to second and first, and each hitter has a different infield spray chart.) “If we can get more granular AND more accurate,” I always say, “then we’d damn well better do it.” So let’s.

Before we do, we have to make two assumptions: first, that Cano is an average runner, and second, that there’s nothing else about him that makes his grounders unusually easy or difficult to field.

The first assumption seems safe enough. Grading Cano’s run tool requires some imagination; this is, after all, an article about how he refuses to sprint. The fastest times I got on double-play grounders to the left side were in the 4.3 range, which would make him a 40 runner. But even on his best times, Cano looked like he had a little left in him. I don’t think it’s a stretch to that he could post a 50 run time if someone told him that the fate of the Robinson Cano Pediatric Physical and Occupational Therapy Suite at the Hackensack University Medical Center hinged on his time to first (a tactic Long never tried).

The second assumption is iffier. For one thing, Cano surely hits harder-than-average grounders, giving opposing infielders more time to make sure their throws beat him to the bag. That could hurt his infield hit rate, but we can’t calculate what it would have been otherwise. Just keep in mind that the stats you’re about to see might exaggerate the real situation slightly.

Okay, caveats out of the way. The following table compares Cano’s outcomes on groundballs from 2005-13 to the average left-handed-hitting non-pitcher’s. “Count” is the number of infield grounders that were touched by the fielder specified in the second column; “GB Out” is the ones on which outs were recorded; “INF 1B” and “ROE” are infield singles and reached on errors, respectively. The next two columns show the rate at which a grounder to a given position resulted in an infield single or an infield single/reach on error. The final two columns show how much less often Cano reached on grounders to each infielder than the typical lefty non-pitcher, and how many hits he “lost” if we multiply the difference in rate by the number of applicable batted balls.

Batter

Fielder

Count

GB Out

INF 1B

ROE

INF 1B%

INF 1B+ROE%

DIFF

Net Hits

All LHH

1

21435

18681

2164

590

10.1

12.9

All LHH

2

2375

1882

439

54

18.5

20.8

All LHH

3

47267

44096

1828

1343

3.9

6.7

All LHH

4

70366

65014

4010

1342

5.7

7.6

All LHH

5

14804

11543

2640

621

17.8

22.0

All LHH

6

32020

27325

3654

1041

11.4

14.7

Total

188267

168541

14735

4991

7.8

10.5

Cano

1

193

173

13

7

6.7

10.4

-2.5

-5

Cano

2

16

16

0

0

0.0

0.0

-20.8

-3

Cano

3

399

381

14

4

3.5

4.5

-2.2

-9

Cano

4

732

676

37

19

5.1

7.7

0.0

0

Cano

5

143

119

15

9

10.5

16.8

-5.3

-8

Cano

6

323

287

26

10

8.1

11.2

-3.5

-11

Total

1806

1652

105

49

5.8

8.5

-2.0

-35

That’s a big box o’ numbers, but you can safely ignore the ones that aren’t bolded in the bottom right. Those tell us that Cano reached on five fewer grounders back to the mound than the average lefty-swinging non-pitcher would have in the same number of opportunities; three fewer grounders to the catcher; nine fewer grounders to first; no fewer grounders to second; eight fewer to third base, and 11 fewer grounds to shortstop, for a total of 35 fewer on-base events.

Thirty-five lost trips to first sounds like a lot, and it’s not insignificant. The run value of an infield single by a lefty batter is around .4 runs, and an out is -0.3, so changing 35 outs into infield singles adds up to about 25 runs. On the surface, at least, Cano cost the Yankees two and a half wins (over nine seasons) by not making an average effort to beat out groundballs.

Hold that thought. While we’re at it, let’s run the same stats for Derek Jeter, whose hustle sets the standard to which Cano’s is often unfavorably compared. This time the table pits Jeter against all right-handed non-pitcher batters from 1995-2013.

Batter

Fielder

Count

GB Out

INF 1B

ROE

INF 1B%

INF 1B+ROE%

DIFF

Net Hits

All RHH

1

54445

48689

4199

1557

7.7

10.6

All RHH

2

4938

4266

530

142

10.7

13.6

All RHH

3

26605

23967

1694

944

6.4

9.9

All RHH

4

84669

77128

5565

1976

6.6

8.9

All RHH

5

162697

141613

13074

8010

8.0

13.0

All RHH

6

185048

164935

13746

6367

7.4

10.9

Total

518402

460598

38808

18996

7.5

11.2

Jeter

1

504

437

49

18

9.7

13.3

2.7

14

Jeter

2

33

26

7

0

21.2

21.2

7.6

3

Jeter

3

224

194

20

10

8.9

13.4

3.5

8

Jeter

4

864

788

53

23

6.1

8.8

-0.1

-1

Jeter

5

1064

861

137

66

12.9

19.1

6.1

65

Jeter

6

1477

1304

120

53

8.1

11.7

0.8

12

Total

4166

3610

386

170

9.3

13.4

2.2

101

Hustle aside, Jeter was faster than Cano in their respective primes, so it’s not fair to pretend that they were working with the same wheels. Jeter also hit grounders at a much higher rate, which made it more vital for him to turn some of them into singles. Still, we have to hand it to the popular perception. Sometimes, fans form opinions about a player’s effort level based on potentially misleading personal traits like low affect or how hard it looks like he’s running. In this case, though, the data backs up the widespread belief. Cano’s expected infield reach rate comes out 2.0 percentage points behind his peers, while Jeter rates 2.2 percentage points ahead of his.

What the data doesn’t support, though, is the popular perception of how much this matters. The stats suggest that Cano has cost himself a trip to first every 39 games, or about four times per season. Jeter has given himself a hustle single once every 26 games, or about 6.3 times per season. Either way, we’re talking about three or four runs a year, a relatively modest total for two players who’ve repeatedly topped 30 runs above average on offense.

Of course, the fuss about running to first is driven more by emotion than by concern about missing singles. Fans want to feel that the players they root for are as invested in the team’s success as they are, a belief that’s seriously tested by the sight of someone jogging when the spectator’s instinct is to scream for him to run. And they definitely don’t want to see any slack from athletes who are making many millions of dollars, even if those dollars don’t come out of their wallet.

Still, it’s important to know what the numbers say; once we do, we can use that knowledge to keep our emotions in check. Long claimed that Cano’s justifications for not running out routine grounders weren’t valid, but in light of what the stats say, Cano’s reasons for not running hard on every grounder appear perfectly rational. Seattle’s new second baseman averaged 5.9 wins over the past three seasons; let’s call that 59 runs. At that level of production, Cano contributed a run, on average, every 2.75 games, and produced 2.8 runs—roughly the value of those four missing hustle singles—every seven or eight games. If busting it down the line had led to a muscle strain that cost Cano a week, any value added would’ve been wiped out. If it caused a more serious injury that required a trip to the DL, it would’ve been a net negative. That’s not even accounting for the effects of fatigue on Cano’s production, or the fact that he likely adjusts his running speed depending on the situation, slowing down more in low-leverage spots. And again, that's assuming that he's capable of a 4.20 time to first, and that hitting his grounders harder doesn't make it much more difficult for him to beat balls out.

We don’t know how much running all out increases a player’s injury risk, but if the difference is significant, it makes sense to take it easy. Cano’s lone DL stint came when he strained his hamstring while attempting to leg out a double in 2006. Maybe he took that as a warning. If so, it’s worked out well: He’s played in at least 159 games for seven straight years. (Jeter, of course, has been durable too, though he did strain a calf by running hard to first last season, even after Joe Girardi asked him nicely not to.)

If all we know about a player is that he doesn’t sprint to first, it might be fair to wonder about his work ethic. But Long, who’s worked with Cano closely, praises his effort in other areas. So, memo to Mariners fans. When you see your new superstar plodding down the line, remember what’s at stake: only four singles a season—four singles that could come with a cost in playing time. Then ask yourself this: Would you rather have slow Cano now or risk a lot of Bloomquist later?

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Robinson Cano,  Derek Jeter,  Running,  Kevin Long

28 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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pitchingaround

I think there's no doubt that Cano's ability to stay on the field and play 160 games every year is helped by the fact that he doesn't bust it on routine ground balls. When the player in question is consistently a 6 win player, as a fan I should not only look past him jogging down the line, but be happy that he knows when it's best to preserve himself.

Feb 18, 2014 09:31 AM
rating: 6
 
Tarakas

Nice job.

Feb 18, 2014 09:51 AM
rating: 2
 
Matt

Good for Cano. I take this strategy as a sign of intelligence. But maybe he should take up some acting classes.

Feb 18, 2014 09:58 AM
rating: 3
 
bhalpern

I wonder how much of the difference here is due to bunting. Some number of singles and errors may come from sacrifice bunts, which Cano stopped attempting after his rookie season. Adding to that, any player that attempts bunts for hits with any regularity is going to reach base on balls hit to the infield at higher rates. The dichotomy with Jeter may be especially exacerbated by both these factors.

Feb 18, 2014 10:47 AM
rating: 1
 
gjhardy

Terrific article! I love that BP delves into these oddball topics. But there's an inherent issue with the conclusion that "we don’t know how much running all out increases a player’s injury risk, but if the difference is significant, it makes sense to take it easy."

Does it make sense to take it easy? Working from your own examples, one Derek Jeter has been busting his tail down the line for 19 seasons now. Take out 2013's 17-game debacle and 1995's 15-game cup of coffee, and you have a player who has played in 2570 games over 17 seasons, an average of 151+ games per season, all while allegedly playing full bore all the time.

In the same-age nine-year period (age 22-30), Cano played in 1374 games and Jeter played in 1351. That means Cano played in 2.5 more games per season than Jeter, maybe because Cano dogged it at times. But when you look at their plate appearances over the same time period, Jeter had 6193 and Cano had 5791. So "taking it easy" may have possibly saved Cano some injury time -- we don't know that, of course -- but Jeter somehow managed to "hustle" through an extra 402 PAs.

What is the cost of "taking it easy"? I love that you were able to quantify it on the field to some extent. But what about the PR cost? I'm a Red Sox fan and even I like to watch Jeter.

It would be hard to extrapolate the reasons a Yankees fan might choose to buy a Jeter jersey over a Cano jersey, but I am guessing that the public perception that one guy seems to hustle and the other guy doesn't would have some impact.

The PR perception issue was notable this offseason, when Yankee fans watched Cano head to Seattle with a collective "Oh well." Meanwhile, people will be weeping into their over-priced beer cups when Jeter plays his last game…at Fenway even!




Feb 18, 2014 10:48 AM
rating: 3
 
bhalpern

I don't know how to run the numbers, but the plate appearance difference is likely mostly or all a result of where the two bat in the lineup. Over those years Cano has hit all through the lineup, most frequently in the five spot. OTOH Jeter has hit almost exclusively leadoff or 2nd.

Feb 18, 2014 10:59 AM
rating: 3
 
gjhardy

I agree. I was just trying to point out that more games played does not necessarily equal more impact.

Feb 19, 2014 11:02 AM
rating: 1
 
jdeich

Quick-n-dirty adjustment to layman's terms, assuming both players made a pact to lollygag at league-average levels:
Cano's career AVG: .309
Cano's career AVG, adding back 49 singles from lollygagging: .318

Jeter's career AVG: .312
Jeter's career AVG, removing 104 hustle singles: .303, calm eyes

The injury link is very hard to quantify, since you can take Jeter's durability (or Ichiro's, etc.) as disproof as much as you can take Cano's durability as proof. You can't take either as evidence of anything without much more work. Crudely, you could compare home-to-first times vs. (leg) injury frequency for many players (sorted by speed?), but survivor's bias might get gory and leg injuries are going to be small sample size events.

Feb 18, 2014 10:57 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

A slight denominator mistake in a spreadsheet skewed the results slightly--they're now fixed and updated in the article. Jeter's numbers barely change; Cano goes from losing six hits a season to losing only four, which makes his lack of hustle look even less important. Thanks to reader Barry for catching the mistake.

Feb 18, 2014 11:31 AM
 
mdangelfan

The run value to use is .7 - the difference between an infield single and an out.

Feb 18, 2014 13:32 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Of course--good catch. Fixed.

Feb 18, 2014 13:51 PM
 
lopkhan00
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

My favorite and least favorite players of all time are an interesting version of this discussion. My favorite, Eric Davis, basically hustled his way out of baseball early and often due to the injuries he accumulated from busting his ass on the field. Barry Bonds, on the other hand, didn't hustle and was rarely injured, which certainly helped him break the records he did. It's very easy to argue that Bonds way of doing things led to a longer more productive career.

On the other hand, Davis is much loved (Bonds not so much) and has a World Series ring for his efforts. I'd argue that Davis's hustle and the leadership it showed vs. Bonds' lack thereof is the difference between one having a ring and the other not. There are alot of different things to balance on this scale.

Feb 18, 2014 14:38 PM
rating: -5
 
Dodger300

I would say that their teammates have a lot more to do with "one having a ring and the other not."

Unless, of course, you are prepared to prove that the Giants bullpen melted down against the Angels in game six because the relievers were all miffed that Bonds didn't hustle enough over the years.

Feb 19, 2014 08:31 AM
rating: 4
 
lopkhan00

I'd argue that if you went back and watched that World Series you'd see several obvious Bonds failure to hustle plays that cost them that series - including an egregious one in game six. Sometimes relievers melt down because the fielders fail to make plays behind them.

I'd also argue that the only reason why Shinjo (their best defensive outfielder) was DHing was because Bonds (their worst) wanted to be in the field. So Bonds cost his team with his ego in adddition to his lack of effort.

Feb 19, 2014 10:46 AM
rating: -3
 
R.A.Wagman

How many rings did Jeter cost his team by forcing Alex Rodriguez to play 3B, while he - a far poorer defender could keep the glory of SS?

Feb 19, 2014 11:05 AM
rating: 4
 
Pat Folz

You're seriously blaming the guy who hit .471/.700/1.294 for losing the World Series?

Feb 19, 2014 12:08 PM
rating: 2
 
lopkhan00

No, I'm suggesting that had he hustled more in the field (or not let his ego get in the way of allowing his manager to play a clearly superior defensive player) they would have won. I assume without his bat they wouldn't have been in a position to win.

Feb 19, 2014 12:45 PM
rating: -1
 
Drungo

Cal Ripken was a standard-issue hustler, did it enough so that nobody complained. Bill Ripken, possibly in a vain attempt to narrow the talent gap with Cal, used to dive headlong six times a game including into first base on routine grounders to second where he was out by five steps.

So despite sharing quite a bit of DNA Cal didn't hit the DL until his late 30s, and Bill was seemingly injured every six weeks.

Feb 19, 2014 05:14 AM
rating: 3
 
Johnson Magic

Cal hustled, but often for naught. His "hustle" may have turned his 10 speed skill into at best a 20; when he hit a ground ball it was hard, and as often as not ended up 6-4-3 in the scorebook.

Feb 19, 2014 14:33 PM
rating: 1
 
elljay

So Cano admits he won't run hard to 1st to possibly prevent injury, and this article justifies that there is little cost to the team.

My problem is: Where does this self-protection end?
Will he not run hard on a ball possibly in the gap and be content with a single?
Will he not back up 1st on bunts down the line fielded by the catcher?
Why hang in on tough DP chances instead of bailing out?
(Insert your own preventing/adding bases here)

Do you want ALL the players on your team pulling this crap?
Is that a team you could enjoy rooting for?

Feb 19, 2014 07:53 AM
rating: -1
 
Pat Folz

Thing is, I think the cost to the team of each of those things is higher than the cost of not running out routine grounders. Someone might decide running out isn't worth it, but taking the extra base or doing a hard slide into second is. I'm not sure if players can or do "selectively hustle," but anecdotally it seems to me like they do.
(Possibly relevant: Cano's baserunning numbers are average to slightly below)

I think the real argument against this behavior, as alluded to by others, is that lolly-gagging a lot might make a player less able to take advantage in the handful of cases where they do matter, and/or more likely to get hurt while doing so. That's a hard thing to test though.

Feb 19, 2014 12:22 PM
rating: 0
 
gjhardy

So if you lollygag on all the routine ground balls, but then bust it down the line when you hit a gb to deep short in the ninth inning with the tying run on third base and two outs, does that increase the chance of injuring yourself?

You can't lollygag with the game on the line, can you? And aren't some games decided by a fourth inning "hustle play"?

Also, why wouldn't you actually spend the offseason getting your body in shape so you CAN run hard to first base, even on the routine ground balls?

I agree with elljay: Everyone hustles, or everyone doesn't hustle. Why would one player get special handling (unless he is nursing an injury, which is legit)?

The argument that 35 hits over nine seasons is a small price to pay for good health is outweighed by the fact that Cano looks like he is dogging it, IMO. I know this places me in the "You kids get off my lawn" category, but I can't help that.

If advanced sabremetrics lead to managers telling their best players to dog it down the line, then I am going to have to join the legion of "old school" folks who can't accept the "stat heads"!

Feb 19, 2014 09:11 AM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

My only problem with this analysis is the supposition that errors would be different across the board. A player will reach 1B on an error whether he was busting his ass or not.
What percentage of infield errors on plays at 1B come with noted speedsters running? How different is it, rate-wise, between speedsters, those with average speed and slow-pokes?

Feb 19, 2014 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
Johnson Magic

I agree. What is the error rate on their respective GBs? I'd think "hustle", taken to mean "running hard, making the play as close as you can, and forcing the defense to make their quickest play" would lead to more errors. A forced-error rate would seem to be a measureable byproduct of hustle, and the extra bases reached should accrue to the hustler.

Speaking of which, where does Paul Newman come out in all this?

Feb 19, 2014 14:37 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

In general, right-handed hitters, groundball hitters, and faster hitters reach on error more often. Here's a Clubhouse Confidential segment about it.

Feb 19, 2014 14:57 PM
 
Robotey

Ben - this story presents a great line of reasoning for 'gentlemanly' game of baseball. The 'Cano conundrum' strikes at the heart of a fundamental baseball choice: are you playing for this play/game or for the season? When I read this story I immediately thought of Bobby Abreu, known for his strong aversion for approaching outfield walls. Sure, Abreu never made it on Sportscenter, but he also didn't miss a chunk of time like Fred Lynn or Bryce harper did.

Feb 20, 2014 22:05 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yes, that's a very good comp.

Feb 20, 2014 22:06 PM
 
Dan Farnsworth

Ben, I've had some former scouts say that, barring an Ichiro-type swing from the left side, guys actually get down the line faster from the right side. I haven't done the study myself, but that comes from these scouts watching switch hitters post faster times from the right ride than the left. The time it takes to turn toward first base for a lefty cancels out the shorter distance, I suppose.

Not really any bearing on the article, just an interesting observation I heard. Nice work.

Feb 21, 2014 03:26 AM
rating: 0
 
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