Cano v. Pedroia (Now Including Intangibles!)

So, statistically speaking, Cano is about 6-7 runs better offensively while Pedroia is about 12 runs better defensively. Theoretically, that should make Pedroia about half a win better than Cano. According to WAR, Pedroia has been worth 3.8, 6.9, and 4.9 wins while Cano has been worth 2.9, 4.6, 0.2, and 4.9 wins. According to WARP, Pedroia has been worth 4.6, 8.4, and 4.7 wins with Cano worth 5.1, 5.7, 1.8, and 6.0. So depending on whom you believe, they are either equals (WAR—both tend to be around 4.5) or Cano’s a bit better (WARP likes him, but I’m not sure how much defense plays a part there). Regardless, what we’ve found is about what we expected to find—they’re pretty even.

But what about those intangibles I promised? I know you expect me to rail against intangibles and how they don’t exist, but I’m not here to do that. When it comes down to picking between the two players, intangibles can make a difference. So let’s talk about the perceptions of the two players.

Pedroia is your typical short, scrappy athlete except for the fact that short and scrappy usually mean replacement-level guys like David Eckstein instead of guys worth their weight in gold (oddly enough, he would be worth about $294,867). He plays the part well, too. Always seeming to hustle, dive, get dirty, and grow a beard, Pedroia has never done anything to diminish his image as a blue-collar worker. He seems to give good interviews, is polite, and has never committed a crime (that we know of). When you talk about the types of players you want on your team, Pedroia is it—talented and hard-working.

Cano, on the other hand, hasn’t had the same unblemished past. People questioned his motivation after his poor 2008 which followed signing his shiny new 4 year/$30 MM extension the previous February. The Yankees questioned his weight. Fans questioned his heart. Sabermetricians questioned his walk rates. It seemed as though Cano had not a friend in the world. Well, he lost the weight, played better defense, and recovered his swing for a successful 2009 in which the Yankees won the World Series, and now, he has plenty of friends. Was 2008 merely a blip? Was the blip even a blip?

A few weeks ago, we talked about Orlando Hudson’s claim of racism in the industry in regard to signing players. Down in the comment section, I mentioned that while Hudson was wrong about racism in the case of Jermaine Dye, he might not be entirely wrong about racism in the industry. Okay, I’m going to get into a touchy subject, so stay with me and hear me out. Individual racism, meaning person-to-person, is largely a thing of the past. Yes, there are definitely still instances of racism, and they are definitely too prevalent today. However, the larger population realizes that basing judgments on race is bad, and with each passing generation, the ideology dies even more. Yet, racism still plays a significant role in our lives through structural racism. Structural racism has more to do with the remnants of the individual racism begun in the past that was put into laws, society, stereotypes, etc. and weren’t wiped out with Civil Rights legislation. Often, they aren’t even things we think about or realize are occurring because they have become part of the fabric of our lives—things taken for granted that we don’t associate with racism but have historical associations. The objective here is not (I REPEAT – NOT) to openly criticize anyone here. The idea is to understand how something like structural racism and other perceptions (If you’re wondering, I’m not going to make the intangible comparison strictly about race; it is part of it, however, and I feel the need to make myself very clear on the subject) project onto people. We’re all clear on this, right? We’re going to talk about race a little, but I’m not calling anyone out. I’m simply trying to make us all aware of it so that we can see how it still exists in baseball. Got it? Okay, let’s dive in.

I often wonder how perceptions play into our feelings toward a player. Let’s take the cities they play in to begin. Pedroia plays in Boston, and with Boston being known as a blue-collar town, do we project the city’s image onto Pedroia because he plays in that city and demonstrates our fantasies of an underdog making it? With Cano playing in New York, do we perceive Cano to be the same flashy player with an ego? Of course, there are plenty of rich people in Boston and plenty of blue-collar workers in New York. The ideas are not mutually exclusive, but those are common conceptions of the two cities. We see Boston and think Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, and we see New York and think Sex and the City. Do these ideas, largely portrayed by the media, play a part in our judgments of these ballplayers?

And what about the race issue? How often do you hear an African-American or Latin American player labeled as “scrappy”? Pedroia gets credit for that, but I imagine he hasn’t worked any harder or less hard than 90% of the other players in baseball. Sure, he had to overcome some issues with size, but his size gives him a smaller strike zone, helps him start and stop faster, and gives him a lower center of gravity. It’s not all bad to be small, but because small guys usually don’t make it, Pedroia gets an extra point for being small and scrappy. I don’t know his background, but playing at Arizona State and in a place to get noticed by Arizona State doesn’t exactly scream “I’ve had so many obstacles to overcome in my life!” But he’s small and white and making it in a sports world that has become increasingly more populated by people of other races.

Cano doesn’t have that luxury. Latin Americans have always been given a bad reputation. They’re “hot-headed” , “emotional”, and “lazy”. These stereotypes are part of the structural racism I was talking about. A long time ago (around 400-500 years ago, depending on the place), white Europeans needed a reason to justify colonizing Africa and Latin America, and they used everything at their disposal. Part of that meant dehumanizing the indigenous people of the region, and one way was to criticize the work habits that they may or may not have had. Well, though the original colonizers may or may not have actually believed their accusations, those accusations were passed down through the generations until they became common knowledge. Originally justifications, they became birthrights. A couple summers ago, I did a research project on the globalization of baseball, and a large part of it was on Latin America. One of the better books I read was Sugarball by Alan Klein who talked about the history of baseball in the region and how players are treated before coming to the States, stating that these stereotypes still very much exist and play a part in the scouting and development of Latin American players. Today, we (to some degree) have overcome this impediment. However, how often do you hear about “lazy Mexicans” or “hot-headed Puerto Ricans” (the fact that I associated those adjectives with the people of those countries or territories has nothing to do with how I feel about them; they’re simply examples)? Those are generalizations, and we can’t generalize those things about people of different genders, races, and ethnicities. There are probably some Latin Americans that are lazy, but there are also plenty of white people who could be described as that or worse. Their laziness or lack thereof has nothing to do with what race, ethnicity, or nationality the person is. And, though those examples don’t directly connect to the Dominican Cano, don’t think that all Latin Americans aren’t lumped in together. Again, this isn’t necessarily something we do consciously. It’s just things we’ve heard and picked up from an early age, and try as we might, they still color our perceptions sometimes. So when Cano begins to mess up in the American Dream World of ours, we associate results with work ethic. And when we add on stereotypes that conveniently fit with what we want to see, it becomes reality. Maybe Cano was really lazy in that one season. But are we sure he was? Or did we let his results (which seem to indicate, at least to some non-negligible degree, that he was the unfortunate recipient of some bad luck) color our perceptions? Did they seem to corroborate them? If he has always been lazy, why did he not fail in the other seasons? Or have we seen what we’ve seen, and he really was lazy regardless of how one feels about his race?

I won’t answer definitively either way. It’s a complicated issue that can’t be boiled down to one thing or another. I’m sure Pedroia works really hard, and it is not my intention to take anything away from what he’s accomplished. He’s an excellent player, and I enjoy watching him play. Please don’t take this as an insult to him. He’s really more the victim of circumstance in this argument because he plays on Cano’s rival and is another talented second baseman.

But the question becomes if Cano was really lazy in 2008. Did he show indications beforehand? Was he really that much bigger than the previous season? Would we have noticed his clubbing if he was clubbing the ball a bit better? Did he club before 2008? I don’t know the answers, but I doubt many of you do, either. But sometimes, we let perceptions play into reality. It’s not necessarily your fault or mine. He didn’t hit, Americans associate results with how much work one puts into it, and Cano is Dominican. It unfortunately becomes a perfect storm of awful.

Still, I’m guessing you want me to make a point about how this relates to intangibles. Intangibles are difficult things. They probably exist, but some of them are counted for in the statistics, some can’t be counted, and some just don’t exist. Which ones are which are even up for debate. THEN, you have to account for things like the above. Pedroia gets high marks for intangibles while I imagine that Cano takes a bit of a hit. But we aren’t on the field. We don’t follow Cano around. The only things we find out about him are from the field, the media, and the team. The field gives us a results bias. The media gives us sensationalism. And the team wouldn’t just out and criticize one of its main players anyway. Our judgment of intangibles are often based on the perceptions of a player, but those perceptions are often skewed and may not be accurate. When assessing the intangibles of a player, one has to be careful about things like this. It’s this kind of uncertainty and subjectivity that causes sabermetricians to largely avoid talking about them. Cano might work just as hard as Pedroia, and he might not. But unlike the common saying, you can’t just roll out of bed and hit.

17 thoughts on “Cano v. Pedroia (Now Including Intangibles!)

  1. JP

    Park effects.

    I agree Pedroia is the better fielder and base runner, but are the hitting stats adjusted for park effects?

    My understanding is that wOBA is NOT park adjusted.

    Even when adjusting for park effects, I think Pedroia's numbers need to be deflated further.   I could be wrong, but I think park effects are assumed to affect all players equally.  However,  a pull heavy, fly ball, right handed hitter is going to benefit a LOT more in Fenway, than say a lefty who hits lots of ground balls.  But park effects, like with say, OPS+, treats them the same.

    I don't have spray charts on hand, but my naked eye viewing of Pedroia has him as a pull heavy fly ball hitter, who benefits heavily from the Green Monster.  Sure, Cano probably gets some cheap homers, but I can't imagine that the short porch is as distorting as the Green Monster.   Doesn't that have to be taken into account when comparing these two players?

     

     

     

  2. Mark@IIATMS

    You are right to bring up park effects. Is it better to be Pedroia or Cano, a lefty hitting in Yankee Stadium? I would say it's better to be Pedroia because the wall turns outs into doubles as well, but as you said, let's not think Cano doesn't benefit from his home park as well. You can find a spray chart for Pedroia here (http://mlb.mlb.com/stats/individual_player_hitting_chart.jsp?c_id=bos&playerID=456030&statType=1), but he doesn't seem terribly pull-oriented. That being said, Cano (http://mlb.mlb.com/stats/individual_player_hitting_chart.jsp?c_id=nyy&playerID=429664&statType=1) doesn't look terribly pull-oriented either. Bottom line is that when you try to really differentiate between the two, it's pretty difficult. One, you're splitting hairs. Two, they derive their value from different sources (Cano on offense, Pedroia on defense–though neither are terribly shabby on the other side either), which makes comparing them inherently difficult. Three, there's some skepticism on defensive metrics, which would hurt (rightly or wrongly) Pedroia's value. Four, all of this (including advanced metrics) isn't exactly exact, if you know what I mean. They're largely accurate (a 5-win player is better than a 4-win player), but you can do some fudging when it comes down to a couple tenths of a win. If you made me choose, I'd flip a coin and be happy with the results.

  3. jon

    To your intangibles, I'd have to say a lot is in the appearances, too.  Pedroia just looks like he's working out there, no matter what he's doing.  As you say, he's running, diving, etc, on every play.  (as a Yankee fan, I get sooo sick of hearing about "gritty little Pedroia.")

     

    While on the other hand, I've been watching Cano this year fairly closely, and while he's blown a few plays, he's made some borderline spectacular ones.   The trouble is for Cano, he looks like he's expending the same amount of effort on a ball he misplays as he does on a double-play.  His motion is so smooth and effortless -  I don't know how it ranks or even effects intangibles, but Robinson is one of those players who make baseball look easy – he makes it look like a game, for better or worse.

  4. JP

    I more or less agree with what you've said.  Also, it is interesting that Cano seems to spray the ball around so much.

    Still, the spray charts show a ton of doubles for Pedroia up along the Monster.   To be fair, some of those could be homers turned into doubles, but it sounds like Fenway inflates doubles more than depresses homeruns.  Plus, the monster does produce some cheap homers, it just robs line drive rockets (like one A-Rod hit there earlier this year).

    It also doesn't look like Cano is getting a lot of cheap Yankee stadium homers.

    This isn't even starting to account for the tiny foul territory Pedroia enjoys in Fenway.

     

    My guess is that in a neutral park, Cano is a better hitter than Pedroia.  Maybe it's not a huge gap, but I think it's there.

  5. Mark@IIATMS

    jon,

     

    That's an excellent point. It's funny how we admire grace and also use it against a player in a way. But again, you have to be careful about appearances.

     

    JP,

     

    Absolutely agree. The wall tends to make some fly balls that would have fly ball outs otherwise into doubles, which inflates the slash line. The thing is that I would give an ever-so-slight edge to Cano regardless, and I'd add on a little more for park effects. But I would probably still argue that the difference between their defensive prowess is at least equal to the difference between their offensive prowess. Pedroia is awesome with the glove.

  6. vicki

    full disclosure, i have a yankee bias, but i cant help but see that cano's hr's mostly fly over center and right center, not the short porch, an argument in his favor when factoring park effects.

    id also like to cite reports that on jackie robinson day, a pretty great day for jackie's namesake, after hitting two homeruns, robbie was the last yank player in the clubhouse because he hit the weight room postgame.  if you could ever have said he was resting on his considerable natural talents, and i wouldnt, that's surely not the case now.  further, this guy is hitting 5th and protecting arod.

  7. Mark@IIATMS

    Sure. I would definitely give Cano the edge offensively. His 2008 season drags down his overall performance and makes him appear a bit worse than Pedroia, but his norm is probably a bit better than Pedroia's. I just wish Cano would draw a few more walks because that would make him unquestionably better than Pedroia, and he wouldn't have to draw too many more to do that.

     

    As for the weight room thing, that's exactly what we don't hear enough about. We always hear how hard Pedroia works, but we have no evidence about Cano. He may work just as hard. But if you asked most people about intangibles, I guarantee that 90% (at the very least) would give the edge to Pedroia and by a considerable margin. My question is why. Do they have definitive reasons or just hearsay and preconceptions?

  8. Ben Barton

    Excellent post!  I'm a huge fan of honest talk about race, even if it makes people uncomfortable.  It's funny to me that sports-related blogs seem to do this sort of thing better and more honestly than almost any other forum, on line or in person.  I've likewise noticed how often when praise is handed out the "scrappy" or "brainy" tag is attached to white players, while the "athletic" or "naturally gifted" tag is attached to latinos or african americans.  Between Pedroia and Youkillis the Red Sox have the baseball "scrappy/brainy" all stars, yet another reason to dislike them.

  9. Mark@IIATMS

    Thanks. Race is a tough issue to bring up. We like to think we're past it, but in a lot of ways, we aren't as a society. The fact that it's hard to bring up shows that we aren't past it.

  10. Elgin O

    Confession #1 – I'm a Sox fan

    Confession #2 – Cano scares the crap out of me.

    This is a very interesting post.  You start off with detailed statistical exposition, segue into socio-psychology, and then combine the two into this overall conclusion: Pedroia is narrowly better statistically, if you toss out Cano's worst year, and is generally proclaimed to be much better on so-called "intangibles" but that is likely because we are each in our adaptive subconscious at least a little bit racist.

    I applaud you for combining statistics and biases in this way.  The whole point of statistical analysis is to remove the ingrained bias from observation.  Ironically, I think that two very common observational biases are popping up in the comments above and (a little) in your post.  "Availability bias" is our brains' tendency to exaggerate the frequency and effect of those things that we can picture most readily.  We're more afraid of sharks than riptides despite the fact that the latter are much more likely to kill us. The reason is that we can picture more vividly the shark.  When commenters say stuff like "I think Cano is better defensively than he gets credit for because I remember some sensational plays that he made," that is likely availability bias (if it is unsupported by statistics). "Confirmation bias" is the habit our brains have of valuing new information on its tendency to confirm what we already know.  When you tossed Cano's worst year as aberrant, did you do any statistical analysis to determine whether it was an aberration (hard to show with this small a sample size), or did you just say "I know Cano is a really good hitter, therefore his one bad year must have just been an anomaly…so let's exclude it because it doesn't fit what we think we know???"  If it's the latter, you might be guilty of confirmation bias.

    (BTW…..Do you similarly upgrade Pedroia's power downturn in 2009 when he battled through groin, rib, and wrist injuries (thank you WBC!) while his wife struggled through a difficult pregnancy?  Maybe credit him with an extra 7-9 homers?)

    The race discussion is interesting, even if I disagree with the "it's not Pedroia's fault that he's white and that there is therefore a likelihood that his scrappiness is differentially overvalued" conclusion.  I think it would be fair to say that there would be a tendency to over-ascribe certain traits to certain races.  That doesn't mean that Pedroia didn't actually earn his rep…sometimes scrappy players really are scrappy.  You wouldn't for instance say that the only reason that people think Mark Price was a good free throw shooter was that he was white. (There's a phenomenal book called Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy Wilson, that digs into how our brains really process information at a subconscious level. )

    Personal bias note:  I do a lot of work for a meal center in Massachusetts' poorest city (Lawrence) and Pedroia has been enormously supportive of our efforts.  He and his wife (despite her health issues last year) visit the meal center, help serve meals, donate their time to fundraising efforts, and provide generous direct donations….all while calling little or no attention to themselves. That has nothing to do with his on-field intangibles…but it's a pretty good data point for him being a pretty good guy.

    Like I said, very thoughtful post.

  11. Mark@IIATMS

    Elgin,

     

    You're allowed to be a Sox fan. I'm not a Yankee fan, either. :)

     

    When I talked about the off year for Cano, I mentioned his BABIP being low without an equal drop in LD%, and adding his low HR/FB rate, it seems that it was indeed an aberration. Of course, the following seasons have confirmed this. As for Pedroia's power "loss", his HR/FB rate was up in 2008 (though not terribly so), and as for the injuries, most players have to play through nagging injuries of the sort. You might be giving him a bit too much credit.

     

    As for Pedroia's scrappiness, I tried to make clear that I didn't think Pedroia hadn't earned his rep. He's an excellent player that works hard (at least from what we see). The point, as you saw, was to show how Cano's ethnicity "hurts" his value. Pedroia is just an antithesis, of sorts.

     

    It's an interesting debate, and I'm glad you joined in.

  12. Michael

    I think you're selling Pedroia a bit short- his peripherals in 09 were actually better than they were in 08. I think it's more likely that Pedroia is a 5.0-5.5 win player and Cano is somewhere between a 4.0-5.0 (larger range because he's a bit more streaky).

    I do think you're on to something regarding the way we view Latino ball players.

  13. Mark@IIATMS

    I’m hoping that was a pun.
     
    Anyway, I’ll give that to you. Pedroia is a bit better of a player from my point of view. But I would be careful about “consistency”. The trend is to knock that 2008 season, but according to the peripherals, Cano got jipped much more in 2008 than Pedroia in 2009.

  14. Brendan

    this is a really interesting post, intelligently written.  but you do realize that the phrase "jipped"(sp?) has racist origins, right?

  15. Mark@IIATMS

    Appreciate it. And I would also appreciate it if you would enlighten me on the origin of that word. Showing my nerdiness, I love word or phrase origins.

  16. Elgin O

    It's usually spelled "gypped" and was a reference to being cheated or robbed by itinerant Central European peoples (commonly, "gypsies.").

    See this for more unintentionally racist things we say all the time:

    http://www.cracked.com/article_16967_8-racist-wor

  17. vicki

    yep.  it'll be be reallyreally interesting when the romanian phenom second baseman comes up.  is he scrappy, lazy, brilliant?  don't know, truly, because i have my foregoing ideas about gypsies.  

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