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Depending on the day, Robinson Cano is often the third- or fourth-most-talked-about member of the Yankee infield.

  • There's Der-ek Je-ter, who is still handsome and still a useful player. (Note: After I wrote this, the Captain was declared out for the season with a broken ankle. Heal well, Mr. Jeter.)
  • There's Alexander "A-Rod" Rodriguez, about whom I had heard very little prior to the playoffs. He is apparently a platoon third baseman/DH in the Yankee system. I had no idea he was so famous.
  • And then there's Mark Tesh… Texie… the first baseman. I'll just refer to him as "Who." And when they pay him the $20 million plus dollars every year, sometimes his wife comes down to collect it.

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.

Your league leaders in doubles for 2012: Alex Gordon with 51 and Aramis Ramirez with 50. Just admit that you looked it up. I did.

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LorenA19
10/15
But shouldn't Miggy get some points for what he contributed during the final month or two, with playoff berths hanging in the balance for all 3 teams? Miggy had a 1.040 OPS in September/October and 1.092 in August. Cano went .870 and .862, and Trout went .850 and .866 during the final two months (60 games). Maybe sabrematicians won't allow for this consideration, but I'm sure Tigers fans sure can appreciate what Miggy did down the stretch. Sure, go ahead and discount his Triple Crown, but don't overlook Miggy's far superior contributions at crunch time.
pizzacutter
10/15
Cano's September/October OPS was .999. Below that of Cabrera to be sure, but not Neifi Perez-esque either. I wonder what their defensive and baserunning contributions were during those months. I'm personally willing to entertain the hypothesis that performance in crunch time is harder (and more valuable?). But, I'd also suggest that we need to be careful of recency bias. Part of the reason that September is so salient to the minds of voters (whether official or not) is that it takes place right before the voting and is easier to remember than May. Then there's the flip side of the "crunch time" argument: had one of these guys gone nuts in May, his team could have stored up wins, clinched earlier and coasted through September. It makes for a less interesting story, but an equally effective way to win a division.
KerryHofmeister
10/15
Interesting look at the "crunch time" argument. Thanks.
KerryHofmeister
10/15
Most Tiger fans do appreciate what they he did down the stretch. However, games still all count for one no matter how big they "feel".
Florko
10/16
Why do the last games of the year mean more than the second game of the season?
juiced
10/15
The "but so and so was great down the stretch" arguments frustrate m to no end. A game won by Cano in April is equal to a game won by Cabrera in September. Period. End of story.
LorenA19
10/19
It's called being "clutch".
LorenA19
10/19
Using your same rationale, then a 2-run homer in the third inning of a 4-1 game is the same as a 2-run, 2-out, game-winning blast in the bottom of the ninth? I don't think so.
jdeich
10/15
If a team gets plenty of early wins, they can be confident of playoff contention when the front office can still make personnel decisions before the trade deadline, and make more informed decisions about call-ups, etc. It would also impact decisions about giving days off to slightly injured or older players in September, etc. It will never "feel" that way, but in terms of your team's health and fatigue, you want to coast into the postseason vs. making a late run. The psychological effect would be the opposite, of course. How these two forces shake out should be a testable hypothesis: Bin postseason-qualifying teams by their September records, and see how each subset did in the postseason. Conventional wisdom is that 'hot' teams (meaningfully higher win% in September relative to April-August) would do better. But it's possible that April wins actually help you -more- than September wins.
lmarighi
10/16
Jay Jaffe talked about this recently over on SI.com (http://mlb.si.com/2012/10/04/athletics-rangers-tigers-yankees-momentu/), and cited a study he did on BP a few years ago (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=14911) where he found that "momentum" didn't really matter either way.
Shankly
10/15
An OPS of 1.000 is as valuable in April as it is in September. 'Crunch time' is irrelevant.
LorenA19
10/19
So, Josh Hamilton's collapse at season's end had no more "relevance" than if he had done that in April? That's simply ridiculous.
doctawojo
10/19
Please support your assertion.
Oleoay
10/15
In terms of VORP, Cabrera has the edge over Cano. In terms of WARP, Cano has the edge over Cabrera. WARP includes FRAA which I don't trust. So I still lean towards Cabrera.
dethwurm
10/16
I ended up going 1)Trout 2)Cano 3)Cabrera on my IBA AL MVP ballot, because they're actually pretty close in VORP: Cabrera leads by 7 runs. I don't really trust FRAA either, but I estimated that average/slightly above defense at 2B was worth more than 7 runs more than below average defense at 3B.
doctawojo
10/17
Yeah, even if you toss out FRAA, you've still got BRR, which gives almost a four-run lead to Cano. So then you're looking at "did Cano beat Cabrera by three or four runs on defense?" With nothing other than my eyes, I'd be comfortable guessing that he more than likely did. As unsatisfying as guessing is, I'm happier doing that than I am not including defense in my calculations of value.
Oleoay
10/17
When you speak about a 4 run lead, you mean Cano had a -1.7 BRR and Cabrera had a -5.5 BRR right? As for eyes, eh. People insist Pablo Sandoval should be moved off of third base to first base because he doesn't look pretty when he fields, but various metrics indicate suggest he's at least average at 3B.
Florko
10/16
Trout 38 Win Shares Cano 34 Win Shares Cabrera 32 Win shares
AWBenkert
3/12
And to think, in 2005, BP didn't list Cano among the top 50 rookies.