Sunday, May 25, 2014

Where Does Cano Rank Among Yankee Second Baseman?

Now that Cano's tenure with the Yankees is over, is he their best 2B ever? 
I'm still getting used to the idea that Robinson Cano is a Seattle Mariner. But now that he is one and his days in Pinstripes are most likely over, I wondered where he rates among the Yankees' best second basemen in franchise history. Here's my top-five list:

5. Gil McDougald (.276/.356/.410, 111 OPS+, 40.7 bWAR
Though the native Californian actually played more games at other positions (shortstop and third) than he did at second, of the positions he did play he logged the most time at the keystone. The 1951 AL Rookie of the Year (an honor Minnie Minoso deserved) was the first Yankee to win the award and first rookie to hit a grand slam in the World Series, though he's probably best remembered for how he altered the career of another Rookie of the Year, Cleveland flamethrower Herb Score, with a line drive that struck Score in the right eye and effectively finished his career at age 23. History seems to have forgotten that McDougald was exceptionally consistent throughout his ten-year career, worth at least 2.5 bWAR every year as he helped Casey Stengel's Yankees capture eight pennants and five World Series. A five-time All-Star with a trio of top-ten MVP finishes, McDougald could be counted on for between 10-14 home runs per year (something he achieved in all but his two final seasons) and a good OBP, usually around .360. The versatile teammate of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford could bat almost anywhere in the lineup and play three difficult infield positions well, making him a valuable asset during the New York dynasty days of the 1950s.

4. Willie Randolph (.275/.374/.357, 104 OPS+, 53.7 bWAR)
The Pirates traded him (along with Dock Ellis and George Brett's older brother Ken Brett) to New York for pitcher Doc Medich when Randolph was just 21, with only 70 major league plate appearances to his name. While Medich lasted only one season in Pittsburgh Randolph went on to make a name for himself in the Big Apple, manning the keystone position for the next 13 seasons and playing more games at second base than any Yankee who has ever lived. Batting first or second for many of the great Yankee teams of the late 1970s and early '80s, Randolph was an on-base machine (.373 career OBP while walking nearly twice as often as he struck out) with a good deal of speed, swiping at least ten bases in all but his final season in pinstripes and topping 30 four times. The sparkplug second baseman made five All-Star teams with the Bombers and though he never won a Gold Glove award, he was a great defensive second baseman on par with contemporaries Frank White, Lou Whitaker and Ryne Sandberg. Randolph was as steady as they come and could be counted on to hit around .280 with a very good OBP, usually around .370, and great glovework every year. With more than 60 career WAR according to both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, Randolph has a compelling case for the Hall of Fame.

3. Tony Lazzeri (.293/.379/.467, 120 OPS+,  48.3 bWAR)
"Poosh 'Em Up Tony" was the first great Yankees second baseman and a key contributor for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig's great Yankee squads, playing on six pennant winners. A mainstay at the keystone position for a dozen years from 1926 through 1937, Lazzeri held the record for most games played by a Yankees second baseman for nearly 50 years, until Randolph passed him late in the 1986 season. Lazzeri's numbers were never spectacular but consistently great. He hit between eight and 18 home runs every year, had ten seasons with at least 80 RBI, and registered an OPS+ below 100 only once, in his final year with the Yankees. He also played decent defense and could run a bit as well, exceeding ten stolen bases eight times and nabbing as many as 22 in 1927. Lazzeri was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran's Committe in 1991, 45 years after his death.

The top two: Robinson Cano and Joe Gordon

This is a very tough comparison for many reasons. Gordon debuted nearly 70 years before Cano did and the game played today is very different from the one played during the Great Depression. Gordon was also a righthanaded hitter who had to contend with the Old Yankee Stadium's Death Valley, whereas Cano was able to take advantage of the short porch in right. Gordon also missed two prime years to war. Who knows what would have happened during those years? (I have to think he would have continued to play well, and consequently would have been inducted into Cooperstown much earlier than 2009).

The best way to compare them, then, is to see how well they played compared to their peers while simultaneously comparing them to each other. Here goes:

Cano was clearly the better hitter, but not by much. Though Cano's batting average and slugging percentage were nearly 40 points higher than Gordon's, Gordon walked much more actually got on base at a slightly better clip, and because he played in a much more difficult ballpark their Adjusted OPS figures are almost identical. Their power numbers are also very close, as Gordon averaged 22 home runs and 88 RBI per season while Cano averaged 23 and 91. That said, Cano produced almost twice as many runs with the bat as Gordon did (180 to 97) during their respective Yankee careers, so I feel pretty comfortable saying Cano was a better hitter.

Cano's a good defensive second baseman, but Gordon was great and one of the best to ever play the position. Cano saved 23 runs with his glove in his nine seasons with New York, winning two Gold Gloves, but Gordon saved 103 in seven years and probably would have won the Gold Glove every year had the award existed back then. To put Gordon's greatness in perspective, he saved 21 runs defensively in one season--1939.

Both players were slightly below average baserunners. Cano was a touch better, but not enough to swing the argument. Any advantage you give Cano for baserunning, however small, would just be canceled out by Gordon's superiority in the postseason anyways.

Cano was a better hitter, but Gordon was nearly as good and more than made up for the difference with his glove. Gordon was the more valuable player on a per season basis. The numbers bear this out, as Cano averaged five bWAR per season with New York, while Gordon averaged 5.4. Gordon was also the only Yankee second baseman to ever win an MVP award, though Cano (and Bobby Richardson) came close. Thus, the choice is clear. Joe Gordon is the best second baseman the Yankees have ever had, but there's certainly an argument to be made for Cano, especially if you're skeptical of defensive metrics and/or give more weight to hitting.

2. Robinson Cano (.309/.355/.504, 125 OPS+, 45.1 bWAR)
Cano's Yankee career can essentially be split into two halves. For the first four years of his career, Cano was a good-not-great hitter (109 OPS+) who hardly ever walked and was still searching for his home run power. He showed flashes of brilliance, nearly beating out Joe Mauer for the batting title as a sophomore, but went through growing pains and had trouble remaining conistent under Joe Torre. His defense was also erratic, characterized by smooth glovework and lapses in focus. In the second half, Cano matured into a superstar under Joe Girardi. With his Ken Griffey Jr.-sweet swing, Cano blossomed from a frustrating, but clearly talented young player into a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. After exceeding 15 home runs just once in his first four seasons, Cano hit no less than 25 in each of his next five seasons in addition to clubbing at least 41 doubles and batting well over .300 every year, ranking as baseball's fourth-most valuable player during that span (tied with Joe Votto behind Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist). He exhibited more patience and became the biggest bat on teams that included greats such as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Mark Teixeira. He also emerged as one of the best defensive second baseman in the game. Had he stayed with New York, he surely would have retired as the best 2B in franchise history. But that would have meant turning down a contract that will pay him nearly one quarter of a billion dollars over the next decade, and who in their right mind would do that?

1. Joe Gordon (.271/.358/.467, 120 OPS+, 37.5 bWAR)
Like Lazzeri, Gordon shined bright but not for very long, and as a result he was not inducted into Cooperstown until decades after his death. A 23 year-old rookie in 1938, Gordon succeeded Lazzeri as New York's everyday second baseman and immediately proved himself to be just as good as his predecessor. His 25 home runs broke Charlie Gehringer's record for a rookie second baseman, a record that stood until Dan Uggla parked 27 in 2006. With his marriage of elite power and terrific defense, Gordon was named to the All-Star team in each of his next nine seasons, taking MVP honors in 1942 over Triple Crown winner Ted Williams (not to mention teammate Joe DiMaggio) and finishing in the top-ten four other times. Gordon lost two prime seasons, 1944 and 1945, to World War II and was not the same when he returned, as a combination of rustiness and injuries caused him to endure the worst season of his career in 1946. That fall, Larry MacPhail dealt him to the Cleveland Indians for Allie Reynolds, a swap that worked out wonderfully for both sides. Gordon revived his career in Cleveland, helping the Tribe win the pennant in 1948 with arguably his finest season, while Reynolds helped pitch New York to six World Series titles, including five straight from 1949-'53. Gordon finished his Yankee career with exactly 1,000 games played and 1,000 hits, the only player in history to do so.

Honorable Mentions: Alfonso Soriano, Bobby Richardson, Horace Clarke

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