Posted February 19, 2014

Tussle over Cano’s hustle is unfair to Mariners’ new second baseman

New York Yankees, Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners
Lloyd McClendon, Robinson Cano

Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon smartly backed superstar Robinson Cano after his ex-hitting coach questioned the player’s hustle. (Rick Scuteri/AP)

Even before Robinson Cano reached free agency, it was suggested in some corners of the media that his occasional lack of hustle was an ongoing concern within the Yankees organization, with some even expressing the belief that it was grounds for the team letting him depart. This week New York’s hitting coach, Kevin Long, made waves by bringing up that sore subject. Long’s comments — which predictably drew a response from Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon — were out of line, and beyond that, they stand as one more data point in the trend of minority players drawing disproportionate criticism for their perceived lack of hustle.

As reported by the New York Daily NewsJohn Harper, Long praised Cano’s accomplishments and hard work but couldn’t resist taking a few shots at the departed second baseman, his pupil from 2007-13:

“As a young kid there were holes everywhere. There were holes in his swing, in his makeup, in his body composition. This kid grew and grew and grew.

“All the other stuff … he’d take plays off in the field, he’d give away at-bats in RBI situations. He made a lot of personal decisions to get over the hump in those areas. People don’t know how hard he worked, how many times he was the one asking me to do extra work in the cage.’

“…But he just wouldn’t make that choice to run hard all the time. The reasons aren’t going to make sense. He might say his legs didn’t feel good, or he was playing every day and needed to save his energy. To me there was no acceptable answer.”

McClendon, entering his first year as Seattle’s manager, made it clear that he has his new superstar’s back. After wondering aloud whether Long spoke for the Yankees organization, he related his own philosophy regarding the matter:

“I get it. I was a major league player. There are times when you hit balls and you’re frustrated as hell and you don’t give it 100 percent. As long as you don’t dog it down the line, what’s the difference between 65 and 85 percent? Just run down the line. Sometimes that stuff is blown out of proportion.

“To me, the most important thing is the guy goes out there for 160 games a year, he hits .330, he drives in over 100 runs and he hits 25 to 30 home runs. I just need Robinson to be Robinson. Like all the rest of my guys know, just don’t dog it. Am I expecting you to give me 110 percent down the baseline every night? No. I’m expecting you to give me a good effort.”

In a year where the Yankees failed to make the playoffs due to a rash of injuries, Cano’s day-in, day-out presence in the lineup made him stand out. He played in 160 games, the seventh year in a row he’s reached at least 159; in that span, only Prince Fielder has played more games, and only Albert Pujols has accrued more value according to Wins Above Replacement. If Cano hadn’t been so lazy, he’d rank number one in both categories, right?

Cano’s 2013 performance was fairly typical; he hit .314/.383/.516 with 27 homers en route to 7.6 WAR, which ranked third in the league and marked his third year out of four above seven WAR. It’s that combination of consistency and durability that made him the winter’s most desirable free agent and induced the Mariners to sign him to a 10-year, $240 million deal, tied with Pujols for the third-largest in major league history.

Long certainly played a role in helping Cano reach his full potential, but the player is the one who deserves the majority of the credit for turning his raw tools into bankable skills. Besides, it’s not as though Cano was an unformed lump of clay before Long showed up. In 2005 and ’06, his first two years in the majors, he hit a combined .319/.342/.490. In fact, it’s the evolution of Cano’s glovework — not Long’s domain — that has turned him into an elite player. He was 26 runs below average in those first two years according to Defensive Runs Saved but has been 49 above average since, with only one season in the red.

While there were occasions when New York manager Joe Girardi was moved to comment on issue of Cano’s perceived lack of effort, neither he nor general manager Brian Cashman dwelled upon it in the past, which made Long’s criticism all the more surprising.

Media members have certainly noted the issue on multiple occasions. ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor (a serial critic of Cano’s effort) took a stand during the final series of the year by suggesting the Yankees should part company with Cano for his lack of hustle on Sept. 28 against the Astros, even though the Yankees had been eliminated from playoff contention.

Lost in that particular gripe was the still-fresh memory of Derek Jeter reinjuring himself by straining a quad running out a routine groundball in his first game back from the disabled list on July 12. Jeter, who famously inherited his hustling ways from previous Yankees captain Don Mattingly, has often been praised for “setting the tone” for the team with the visibility of his effort over the past two decades, but what’s important to remember is the context. The combination of talent and durability that pushed Jeter into the all-time top 20 in plate appearances and top 10 in hits is a bigger reason for the Yankees’ continued success than that little extra effort here and there. Last summer, Jeter’s extra effort consigned his team to 15 more days of sub-replacement level play by Eduardo Nunez. It wasn’t worth the price. New York’s season continued  to slip away, as it went 4-8 before Jeter returned.

As has been noted in the past, there’s a discomforting imbalance between the frequency with which allegations of non-hustle are leveled at minority players compared to white ones. A 2010 study by Walkoff Walk’s Rob Iracane, who Googled the phrase “lack of hustle” and the word “baseball,” turned up accusations against 21 minority ballplayers (including Cano) in game stories, op-ed columns and player quotes, compared to just one against a white player (David Wright). Recent years have furthered the trend, as B.J. Upton, Alex Rios, Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez — some of whom were on Iracane’s list — have been among those charged with not hustling, sometimes pulled by their managers in mid-game. Bryce Harper has been the rare white one to draw similar criticism, and his brief time in the majors has also included incidents where he’s been accused of playing too hard.

Underlying that alarming imbalance is the fact that most positions of authority within baseball as well as most media coverage tends to come from white males, who may not be taking the time to understand minority players and their points of view, particularly if there’s a language barrier and/or a generation gap involved. A recent Associated Press-commissoned study showed that 90 percent of sports editors are white, and 90 percent are male. Among current major league managers, only five out of 30 are minorities, and higher up — among team executives and ownership  — the diversity only decreases.

That imbalance makes extrapolating from a player’s performance to his character all the more dangerous a game. Even in this era of saturated coverage, the vast majority of athletes give us only the barest glimpses into their minds, and those glimpses are heavily filtered through the media. A 2012 study of major league broadcasts by Adam Felder and Seth Amitin for The Atlantic showed that minority players were disproportionately represented among those most criticized by broadcasters, and that foreign-born players were at a considerable disadvantage when it came to being praised for effort, character or other intangibles.

All of which means that it’s worth treating allegations of players not hustling with skepticism. While it would be nice if everybody could be like Captain Jeter in every way, the hustle stuff rarely matters from a performance standpoint. As ESPN’s Jim Caple put it back in a 2004 column:

Hustle is easy. Talent is rare… Much of the hustle we applaud is false hustle anyway. So Pete Rose always ran to first base after he was walked. Big deal. Did that help his team win in any way? No. Ken Griffey Jr. occasionally doesn’t run out routine groundballs. So what. Does it hurt his team that he’s out at first base by four steps instead of one step? Maybe one time in 100, because of a bad throw. But how many times did he help his team by diving for a ball or crashing into a fence without regard to injury? A whole lot more often.

Just because you’re not hustling on a given play doesn’t mean you didn’t bust your ass improving your game, and it doesn’t mean you’re not trying.

As it relates to Cano, Long’s words smack of sour grapes. Even if he was otherwise praising Cano, he had little to gain by bringing up the hustle issue; the second baseman is no longer the Yankees’ “problem,” and they can only hope that his replacements can paper over his absence; they’ll be lucky to cobble together a league-average performance from their second basemen this year, and all the hustle in the tri-state area won’t turn a two-win player into a seven-win one. McClendon, given a golden opportunity on the first full day of spring training to show his new team that he’ll go to bat for them, did the right thing by backing Cano, at the same time making it explicitly clear what his expectations are in that area.

In the end, Cano’s occasional lack of hustle isn’t something to celebrate, but it does little (or nothing) to reflect the countless hours he has put in to make himself an elite player on both sides the ball. Nor does it diminish his value; it certainly didn’t cost him any money this winter. It’s possible that with the sun setting on Jeter’s career, the Yankees might have been concerned about the example their next centerpiece would set for impressionable young players, but given the dearth of position player talent in their system, that’s a hypothetical anyway.

In the end, the Yankees made their choice — not an unreasonable one given the way other 10-year deals have turned out thus far — as to the value of retaining Cano versus letting him depart. They would do well to continue moving on from that decision instead of picking at old wounds.

13 comments
Don12
Don12

The argument that foreign born players in MLB are disapportionately criticised is getting old. And any manager who publicly condones anything less than 100% effort is sure to lead his team into self distructing.

Munson15
Munson15

I am a Yankee fan and a Cano fan.  For the last few years I have watched most of the team's night games on TV.  I feel qualified to voice the opinion that Cano can be maddening to watch.  He doesnt dive for balls - even to his left - where he would have an easy toss to first base.  Sometimes when he's at bat you can just tell that he is not concentrating.  More than once I have impressed my wife by telling her "watch, this pitch is going to be a foot outside in the dirt, and he's going to swing over it."  His lack of hustle down the line is aggravating because it's the most obvious - but it's the least of his shortcomings.  Seattle is probably a good fit for him.  It's a laid back town with low expectations for its team.  I expect that Robbie will put up big numbers for a team that misses the playoffs by a mile.


And yes, having this opinion does make me a racist.

JoeDi
JoeDi

Shame on you for connecting the lack of hustle issue with racial issue. It is true the great talent is rare and a hot commodity, it is a total shame for not giving all you got. Being lazy is should be the issue and you missed the mark by miles.

DugoutBoyz
DugoutBoyz

How disgusting to give players like Cano a pass...by playing the race card.  Shame.

William27
William27

for $240 million Cano can put up with it

anyone that defends Cano is a bumblebrain

this is a public profession where everything he does is under examination

he made his bed he can sleep in it with his 240 million dollars

tracejuno
tracejuno

1. The only thing racist here is this article. You don't have to make everything a racial issue.


2. Googling "x + baseball" is not a study.


3. If this was in fact racially motivated, shouldn't Jeter "lack half a hustle"?

settingsun
settingsun

The only nonsense is this article. the guy dogs it and he gets called out but its by a white guy so he must be racist, if the situation was reversed nothing would be said, he said many nice things about him but you pick the one thing that will bring headlines, you know I used to believe all reporters used to be fair people, but now you are nothing but progressive robots that spout party propaganda,

JPeeterman
JPeeterman

Great, thoughtful take as always, Jay.  Appreciate your willingness to call out this nonsense.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

Jaffe doesn't have a clue about real baseball, typical of these stat-heads.

Jeter would have fit in on the dominant post-WWII Yankees.  Cano would have been eaten alive and run off the team.

settingsun
settingsun

What's wrong with you people, un-believable, why do you guys always break it down to a racial thing. Hustle is hustle, it's what they are PAID to do, so I don't think it's too much to ask them to run out grounders. Anybody who has played any organized baseball at the little league level to major leagues the one constant is to hustle and run out EVERY ball because you never know what might happen. And to you Jay Jaffe, telling people it doesn't matter to always try to do your best as long as you try just sometimes. Those are words of a loser and it's that thinking is why this country is in trouble. To para-phrase the great Rev. King "If you sweep the floor, you be the best floor sweeper you can be."

Sneeral
Sneeral

I've watched the majority of Cano's games since he was called up by the Yanks. He deserves every bit of criticism for not hustling. And it's not just ground balls to the infield. In the space of one week this past season Cano was thrown out at third base going for what should have been an easy triple because he stood at the plate admiring what he thought was a home run. Then he was thrown out a second when a pop up fell between fielders and he loafed out of the box. The guy dishonors his talent and disrespected his teammates by not going all out.


And for Jaffe to suggest that they Yankees were hurt because of Jeter's 100% hustle... what can I say. Jaffe's long seemed to prefer fantasy baseball played with pure numbers and stats than by real athletes on the field getting dirty. Give me Derek Jeter every time. I loved Curtis Granderson because for all the homeruns he hit at the Stadium which were no-doubters, the man always dropped his bat and RAN towards first base. 

TayToe
TayToe

Kevin Long should've kept his mouth shut, but it doesn't make his point any less valid. Cano is a great player. He will be missed in New York. What will not be missed is his loafing down the line to first base. It looked bad. Yankee fans did not like it. Throughout his career, Yankee fans made it perfectly clear what they thought of it with a rousing Bronx cheer or two. It isn't sour grapes. It was a long running issue in the Bronx. Now it's over. Personally, I'd be more than willing to put up with it, but it would still look bad.