The Real AL Beast

This guest post was written by Mark Smith of The Platoon Advantage, It’s About the Money Stupid, Chop ‘n’ Change, and The Outside Corner.  This is his first guest post for Fire Brand of the American League. 

It’s the elephant in the room. It’s the cliff on which we hang. It’s the 800-pound gorilla. Or as Mike Huckabee once said, it’s the 800-pound elephant in the room. Who is the best second baseman in the AL East?

It’s an interesting question because the answer could be the best second baseman in the majors. You could certainly make an argument for Ian Kinsler, but despite his 7.7 fWAR from last season, that was his first season over 5 wins. While I really like Kinsler, one more MVP-type season would make me feel a little better about putting him here. Chase Utley is another possibility, but considering the injuries and 2012 being his age 33 season, his best years are likely behind him. Brandon Phillips also deserves a shout-out, but he’s in a similar circumstance to Kinsler while being almost exactly a year older (will be 31). And Howie Kendrick certainly had a fine 2011, but it was the first time he’d ever topped 2.5 wins. Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia, and Robinson Cano are the only players to have at  least 2 5+ fWAR seasons over the past 3 seasons.

Overall Value

Name

2009

2010

2011

Average

Ben Zobrist       (fWAR)

8.7

3.9

6.6

6.4

Ben Zobrist      (bWAR)

7.0

3.1

5.1

5.0

Dustin Pedroia   (fWAR)

5.0

3.2

8.0

5.4

Dustin Pedroia (bWAR)

4.7

3.7

6.8

5.2

Robinson Cano (fWAR)

4.2

6.5

5.6

5.4

Robinson Cano (bWAR)

4.9

6.3

4.6

5.3

This might be a bit surprising, especially if you’re one of the people who haven’t recognized the brilliance of Ben Zobrist, but the three second basemen are essentially equal according to Baseball-Reference with Zobrist a win better according to FanGraphs. I used three years because it’s enough to see how good a player is without too many flukes, and it doesn’t go too far back in a “Who’s better now?” argument. We’ll take these metrics apart, but I thought it would be a good place to start to give us an idea of what we’re looking at, mainly so you Red Sox fans don’t just assume Mighty Mite is better than the other two.

Offense 

Name

2009 wOBA

2010 wOBA

2011 wOBA

Average

Ben Zobrist

.408

.323

.360

.362

Dustin Pedroia

.360

.377

.377

.370

Robinson Cano

.370

.389

.375

.378

I’ll go ahead and apologize for the iffy-looking tables, but you know what, I give you brilliance and not tech support. Deal with it. Anyway, Robinson Cano clearly takes the cake (damn, should of found a pie idiom) here, and Cano, in fact, is the best offensive second baseman in the majors over the past three seasons, narrowly edging Utley but in 106 more games (it should be noted that Utley has 17.6 fWAR in these years, which puts him second behind Zobrist). Cano’s walk rate is below-average, but he hits for average, doesn’t strike out, and has easily the highest ISO of the group at .215. Zobrist has the highest walk rate (13.5%), but he does strike out a fair bit. Your boy Pedroia is the only one of the group to walk more (11%) than he strikes out (9.4%), but he also has the lowest ISO. According to FanGraphs’ batting runs, Cano has added 85.7 to Zobrist’s 74.1 and Pedroia’s 59.9 with Pedroia’s low total mainly due to his injury-shortened 2010.

Advantage Cano.

Defense

Name

2009

2010

2011

Average

Ben Zobrist        (UZR)

11.5

2.3

6.8

6.7

Ben Zobrist       (DRS)

18

8

17

14.3

Dustin Pedroia    (UZR)

8.4

4.8

17.9

10.4

Dustin Pedroia   (DRS)

14

4

13

10.3

Robinson Cano   (UZR)

-2.8

-0.9

-2.9

-6.6

Robinson Cano  (DRS)

7

7

6

6.7

One of the most frustrating things about using defensive metrics is that they really fluctuate year-to-year, so the best thing, in my opinion, is to look at the pattern over three years and compare systems. Before we look too much at Zobrist’s stats, we have to remember he played a lot of outfield in 2009 and a lot in 2010 (I used only his 2B stats in the above chart), but if we look at the general pattern, he looks like an above-average second baseman. Looking at Pedroia, he lost significant time in 2010, which messes with his stats that season, but it’s pretty clear that he’s a plus defender and the best of the three. Cano should be the easiest to look at as he’s played pretty much all of the last three seasons and at second base, but as you can see, the systems disagree. In that case, we’ll look to the FANS Scouting Report for a tie-breaker, and it surprisingly (to me, anyway) says that Cano is above-average, making DRS seem more indicative of his skills. This is important to note as UZR is used in fWAR, and if we switch DRS for UZR, you would add about a win to each of Cano’s seasons, putting Cano much closer to Zobrist in fWAR.

Advantage Pedroia 

Baserunning

Name

2009

2010

2011

Average

Ben Zobrist          (FG)

2.5

3.6

2.9

3

Ben Zobrist             (B-Ref)

2

5

2

3

Dustin Pedroia      (FG)

1.3

-0.3

-0.9

0

Dustin Pedroia        (B-Ref)

2

1

5

2.7

Robinson Cano     (FG)

-0.3

2.2

2.5

1.5

Robinson Cano        (B-Ref)

-2

1

1

0

I’m a little surprised by this. By reputation, I would have expected Zobrist and Pedroia to be better baserunners than this, but that’s why we look at the stats. None of the players are bad. They’re all about average, but it does appear that Zobrist is just slightly better than the other two.

Advantage Zobrist

Projection 

Name

FANS 2012 fWAR

Ben Zobrist

6.3

Dustin Pedroia

7.1

Robinson Cano

5.9

If we’re trying to look at who is the best in the game now, it’s important to look back (as we’ve done) and to look forward to next year. If we expect them to severely decline, then they would take a hit in the discussion. I used the FANS projections because I thought they were pretty reasonable and about what I would expect out of them. Looking at this, Pedroia is expected to be the best second baseman out of the group, and that isn’t much of a surprise. His 2011 season was an MVP-type of season, and while the other two were still All-Star caliber, there is a difference. If we’re asking who’s the best in the game, 2011 and 2012 are the most important seasons (though not the only relevant seasons), and those clearly favor Pedroia, your man-boy.

Intangibles

This discussion doesn’t really merit much of a chart, and I think a chart would be rather inappropriate for a non-number part of the discussion. That being said, this is a part of the discussion that should be … uh … discussed. While I absolutely believe the metrics we use are way more important (despite whatever positive or negative attitudes they have, the numbers are their production), you’d still rather have the better teammate, all other things being equal.

Pedroia’s reputation is pretty much that he’s the best thing since sliced bread. Always a hard-worker and one of the few actually talented players that still gets the adjective “scrappy”, Pedroia appears to be the ultimate teammate. Zobrist appears to be a positive teammate, but it seems more because nothing negative ever seems to be said about him. This is the hard part when we talk about intangibles and being a good teammate – we don’t know. You have to be in the dugout and clubhouse to really know, and we just don’t have access to that information unless the media endlessly harps on it. As for Cano, he’s the one that has received the most criticism. Considered lazy and a partier early in his career, his intangibles were part of the suggestions as to why Cano was so bad in 2008, but I haven’t heard anything negative about him in recent years (hmm, that seems kind of weird, doesn’t it?). Hey, people make mistakes and learn from them. Maybe Cano has done just that. But between the three, I’m guessing the general consensus would be to have Pedroia as a teammate, even though that could just be because the Boston media talks about it all the time.

Advantage Pedroia

Overall Conclusion

I’m sure you could make decent arguments for each of the three second basemen, but I’m going with Pedroia. The question we started with was who the best second baseman in the division was, and that implies at the moment. 2011 and 2012 are the most important years in that timeframe, and Pedroia was the best last season while also being considered the best for next season. We look a little farther back in order to make sure that none of the players had fluky seasons, and I think it’s pretty fair to say that Pedroia’s season wasn’t terribly fluky, though expecting the same from him again is quite a lot. Zobrist has had the best season and the best combination of seasons, but 2009 had a career-high BABiP and a .246 ISO that is way out of line with the rest of his career. Cano is surprisingly the most consistent of the three, but if Pedroia plays a full season in 2010, he’s probably worth 5-6 wins that season and looks more consistent. It is, in fact, that 2010 season that makes me feel better about saying Pedroia is the best of the three. I don’t like “If he had played …” arguments, but 2011 showed that he is still an elite player. I can’t put a concrete number in the place of those missed game because we simply don’t know, but from what we do know, it would be hard to not give him another 2 wins or so based off the rest of his career.

It will be interesting to see who does the best out of the three this season, and the AL East clearly has a stockpile of talent at the keystone with all of them worthy of All-Star appearances. But Pedroia seems to be the elephant with Zobrist and Cano the gorilla and baby elephant (you can choose which is which).

This article was written by Mark Smith.  You can find his baseball thoughts at The Platoon Advantage, It’s About the Money Stupid, Chop ‘n’ Change, and The Outside Corner.  You can follow his clever musings on Twitter @Braves_and_Pie.  I highly recommend it.

Categories: Ben Zobrist Boston Red Sox Dustin Pedroia Robinson Cano

15 Responses to “The Real AL Beast” Subscribe

  1. ChipBuck January 16, 2012 at 2:59 PM #

    Great article Mark.

  2. vtbasser January 16, 2012 at 5:01 PM #

    You just said Pedroia because you wanted to be invited back. Great read.

    • ChipBuck January 16, 2012 at 5:05 PM #

      Haha. That's what I initially thought Jody. Knowing Mark though, he would have said Zobrist or Cano if he was trying to irk me. The fact he said Pedroia leads me to think he's really the best.

      • Mark Smith January 17, 2012 at 9:55 PM #

        Yeah, no trolling here. I don't care if I get asked back to this piece of crap site. Luh you, Chip.

        • ChipBuck January 18, 2012 at 8:05 AM #

          Oh, pipe down pie boy.

  3. marcos January 16, 2012 at 6:00 PM #

    i didn't know Zobrist was this good. Although he plays other positions too

    • ChipBuck January 16, 2012 at 6:08 PM #

      Not as much recently. Last year he was limited to mostly 2B and RF with the vast majority of games at the former.

      • Mark Smith January 17, 2012 at 9:52 PM #

        He broke in as the utility guy, but they've essentially made him their second baseman. Really excellent player.

  4. eduff56 January 16, 2012 at 8:36 PM #

    Nice article here, as a Sox fan I would make the same conclusion, as I think his intangibles give him an edge. Living in SW Fla now I see Zobrist all the time and the guy can play anywhere, all at a high level. Cano has that sweet swing and great power but still seems to me he falls asleep at times in the field. Tough to argue against any one of the three as well as Kinsler.

    • ChipBuck January 17, 2012 at 8:36 AM #

      Or even my boy Chase Utley who is still spectacular and incredibly underrated.

  5. eduff56 January 17, 2012 at 10:20 AM #

    Yeah Chip, although he has been injured a lot in the last few years. He certainly belongs in the conversation when healthy.

    • Mark Smith January 17, 2012 at 9:54 PM #

      I love Utley, but I think it's hard to assume he'll remain healthy as he moves into his mid-30s. Still an excellent player, and I hope I'm wrong.

  6. @johncate73 January 18, 2012 at 4:08 PM #

    I really don't care which one of them is the best. All three of them are going to Cooperstown if they keep it up. I'm just glad that one of them is wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform.

  7. Jim Peters January 22, 2012 at 4:23 AM #

    Good God. How Silly.