90 feet of hustle; does Robinson Cano’s speed to first base matter?

Earlier this week, New York Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long made headlines for criticizing former Yankee, Robinson Cano, who signed with Seattle this offseason.

Long was largely complimentary of Cano in the New York Daily News article, but what stood out most was Long’s criticism of the second baseman’s hustle, or lack thereof, when it comes to running out ground balls.

“If somebody told me I was a dog,’’ Long told the Daily News, “I’d have to fix that. When you choose not to, you leave yourself open to taking heat, and that’s your fault. For whatever reason, Robbie chose not to.’’

Long went on to say: “We all talked to him. I’m pretty sure (Derek) Jeter talked to him a number of times. Even if you run at 80%, no one’s going to say anything. But when you jog down the line, even if it doesn’t come into play 98% of the time, it creates a perception.

“It’s too bad because Robbie cared a lot. By his last year here he was becoming a leader in the clubhouse. He went out of his way to talk to some of the younger guys, and he helped them.

“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.’’

New Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon responded strongly in support of his new player, saying it was “disappointed” and “surprised” by Long’s comments.

“I was very disappointed,” McClendon said Tuesday after his team’s first full-squad workout in Arizona. “I’ve been in this game a long time, particularly at the Major League level. And one thing I was taught was, you worry about your players and getting them ready, and not players on other teams.”

Not only is McClendon calling Long out for talking about another team’s player here, he may very well also be getting in a little dig at Long by saying “particularly at the Major League level” seeing as McClendon enjoyed a long career as a big-league player, while Long never got out of the minor leagues.

McClendon continued: “I didn’t know he was the spokesman for the New York Yankees. It is was it is. My concern is Robinson Cano in a Seattle Mariners uniform and what he does moving forward. I don’t give a damn what he did for Yankees. I have no concern whatsoever. We had a great talk this morning, and he’s looking forward to being very productive in a Seattle Mariners uniform and being a very good teammates, and that’s what’s important as we move forward.

“One of the messages that I’m trying to send to my players is that we don’t have to take a backseat to anybody, and that includes the New York Yankees or anybody else. We’re the Seattle mariners, and my concern is my players and the family atmosphere that we build here. And anytime anybody attacks one of my players, then I’m going to defend him. And if you don’t like it, tough (stuff).”

Only it’s possible McClendon didn’t actually say stuff.

But while a good old fashioned war of the words makes for some nice preseason entertainment, and while it should be seen as a good sign that McClendon is setting a tough tone early, sticking up for his players and his team, just how relevant is the actual topic in question?

Does the speed with which Cano runs out a routine ground ball really matter?

I mean, sure, all things being equal, more hustle is better than less, right? But if Cano is producing in Seattle like he was in New York, should anybody care if he’s thrown out by two steps or eight on a ground ball to second base?

In an attempt to answer that question, the folks at BaseballProspectus.com crunched the numbers to see if they could quantify the effects of running hard to first base. The link above breaks things down rather thoroughly, but the short answer they come up with is that Cano could cost himself roughly four hits per season by not going full speed. The article also notes that Cano’s lone trip to the disabled list in nine seasons came in 2006 while legging out a double. Perhaps he’s reevaluated his base running since then, and it’s worth noting that Cano has played in at least 159 of 162 games every year since 2006. The article also points out that Derek Jeter, the player so often lauded for going hard on every play, suffered a calf injury last year trying to leg out a ground ball.

Oh, and maybe you remember a guy named Griffey who made a pretty nice career for himself in Seattle despite not running hard to first on most routine grounders.

In the end, we probably won’t talk about Cano’s hustle, or lack thereof, if he keeps putting up numbers like he did in New York and in doing so helps the Mariners win more games. But if his numbers do fall off, and if the Mariners are on their way to another losing season, don’t be surprise if this conversation comes up again.

In the end, perhaps the best answer to the “hustle” debate comes in the form of a question posed at the end of the Baseball Prospectus article: “Would you rather have slow Cano now or risk a lot of (Willie) Bloomquist later?”

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