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The Strike Zone

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

Lloyd McClendon, Robinson CanoMariners 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 News' John 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.

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