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.