Cano, Pedroia and MVP Second Baseman

The race for AL MVP will likely be determined by how much credit Robinson Cano receives for playing second base rather than a position from which more offense is expected. There are several sluggers having good years who will also be strong candidates including Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera. Both players have put up very strong numbers .341/.435/.645 for Cabrera and .357/.409/.630 for Hamilton. The success of the Texas Rangers this year may also help persuade voters to support Hamilton. Cano’s numbers are not quite as strong as the other two, as he is “only” hitting .325/.387/.566, but doing it while playing a strong second base and assuming the role of top slugger on a contending team. There is, of course, still roughly one fourth of the season remaining, so other candidates could emerge or one of these three could pull away from the other two by playing even better over the rest of the season.

If Cano does not win the MVP, it will in no way be a great injustice, but it will, at least partially, demonstrate the ongoing import of narrative as a way for people, in this case sportswriters, to understand baseball. If Cano comes up short in the MVP balloting, it will partially be due to the impressive offensive credentials of the eventual winner, but the voters’ decision will make an interesting contrast to the 2008 AL race. In 2008 Dustin Pedroia won in a year when there was no dominant slugger and two of the league’s top players, Alex Rodriguez and Joe Mauer, had strong seasons but lost some time to injury. Nonetheless, Pedroia’s numbers were not very strong for an MVP winner in the 21st century.

Pedroia had a good year in 2008 hitting .326/.376/.493, but his MVP award rested as much of the story of Pedroia’s season as on the season itself. Pedroia, according to the story, was the heart and soul of a very good Red Sox team in the way that only 5’9” second basemen can be. In a year when Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was limited to 109 games due to injury and Manny Ramirez was traded away late in the season, Pedroia, according to the story, emerged as the reason the Red Sox stayed in contention and won a playoff berth. In reality, a bigger reason was probably the guy who played next to Pedroia in the infield. Kevin Youkilis hit .312/.390/.569 while playing in 145 games. However, Pedroia’s 2008 season fit very nicely into a narrative-scrappy second baseman puts up decent numbers but brings strong intangibles as well-with which sportswriters are very familiar.

Cano’s 2010 fits into no such narrative. The story of Cano in 2010 is six foot tall second baseman slugs the ball well all season, while playing excellent defense as well. Cano is not a scrappy heart and soul kind of guy who puts up good numbers with little power. He is a slugger who happens to play a pretty good second base. Thus far, the numbers suggest that Cano in 2010 has been a better fielder than Pedroia was in 2008. Cano’s range factor per nine innings is 5.22 this year, significantly better than Pedroia’s 4.75 in 2008. Cano is also 4 total fielding runs above average thus far in 2010, one better than Pedroia’s total in 2003. This will also be hard for voters to recognize, as the belief that big slugging middle infielders are not as good fielders as smaller guys with less power is well accepted.

There is some precedent for slugging second baseman to win the MVP award, most recently Jeff Kent in 2000. Joe Morgan also won back to back MVP awards in 1975 and 1976, but Morgan in those years was a truly extraordinary player who, in addition to hitting for power, was a great base stealer and defender, so was difficult to characterize as simply a slugger.

Cano and Pedroia are both 26 years old and among the best second baseman in the game. The rivalry between the two players could energize the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry for years to come. It is likely that fans of both teams believe they have the best player. This is supported by the narrative, but the numbers suggest that Cano has become the better player. It will be interesting to see if the awards voters reflect this.