Everyone loves a player that hustles. As spectators of a display of physical talent, we expect the players that we pay good money to watch to try hard, exert energy and exhibit the skills that they are paid for. When a player jogs to first base, or looks and acts like he isn’t giving 100 percent effort, it is understandable to be disappointed and to feel as if we are getting ripped off.
Robinson Cano is a brilliant baseball player — one of the best in the game — but time and time again he is accused of being lazy, of not working hard, even of being a worthless player because he “doesn’t hustle.” It is time to end this train of thought.
Let’s suppose that these fans are correct — Cano doesn’t hustle, he’s lazy, plus he could be and should be making a stronger effort. That means that what we have seen from Cano thus far in his career has not been his peak. That means that Cano could be performing even better than a top-5 MVP finisher, but that he’s not doing so because he’s lazy.
OK. That’s fine. I can accept that this is a possibility. But that doesn’t mean we should discount what he has provided for the Yankees. He has hit over .300 with 25+ home runs and 85+ RBI in each of the past four years. His slash line in that time has been .314/.365/.534. That adds up to an .899 OPS, and a 136 OPS+, remarkable numbers for a second baseman.
By fWAR, Cano has been the sixth most valuable player in baseball since 2009. He’s been more valuable than Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, Dustin Pedroia, Prince Fielder, Joe Mauer – you get the idea. Cano has been, and is, one of the best players in baseball.
But wait. Maybe you think that WAR is biased because it doesn’t take context (i.e., clutch) into account. In that case, let’s sort the list by RBI. What do you know? Cano is eighth in baseball in RBI since 2009. Again, as a second baseman. Of the seven guys ahead of Cano in that list, six — I repeat, six – are first basemen. The other is Ryan Braun, a left fielder. If you want to take the sabermetric route, Cano is 14th in baseball in WPA/LI, and 22nd in RE24. A little worse than the traditional marks, but outstanding nonetheless.
Maybe you think that Cano’s laziness plays out the most in his “lackadaisical” fielding. Let’s filter this list of qualified players since 2009 to show only second basemen. By fielding percentage, Cano is fifth overall with a .990 fielding percentage. He’s barely behind Dustin Pedroia, who is praised for his strong defense and hustle. By UZR/150, Cano is weaker at 12th overall — however, his 0.8 rating is still above average.
So Cano has been a fantastic hitter and at least an above average defender, at a premium position, even while being lazy. Maybe you think that laziness makes a difference in beating out infield hits. It’s true, Cano only had a 5 percent infield hit rate last year, while the league average was 6.5 percent. But Cano’s Speed score was only 2.7, well below the league-average 4.6. Anyone who has seen Cano run can confirm that speed is not one of his strengths, so this infield hit rate is about what we should expect. Not to mention, Cano has a .314 batting average since 2009; I can deal with a few missed hit opportunities if he’s getting on base at that rate.
I understand why many fans dislike Cano’s playing style, and I can’t say that I haven’t been frustrated by his lack of hustle on occasion. But the fact of the matter is that Cano is one of the best players in baseball, and whatever laziness he may have has had negligible effects on his overall performance. Maybe Cano could be a slightly better player if he ran out more ground balls. But we shouldn’t tar and feather him for not doing so, and the Yankees certainly shouldn’t let this perceived lack of hustle influence their contract negotiations.