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Robinson Cano and the lineup protection myth

There's an increasing amount of chatter that says the Mariners have to "protect" Robinson Cano in the lineup or his offense will be wasted. Don't fall for it.

Christian Petersen

Superstars have a tendency to be followed by narratives. Often they write their own with spectacular performances, but other times people start to make them up to help rationalize. Many wrestle with the idea of a star player being as good as advertised, and find ways to highlight flaws to be contrary by nature. These flaws are often overstated, and take on a life of their own. That's certainly been the case with Robinson Cano, who has been bombarded with claims of being lazy through his years in New York. He's stayed remarkably healthy, but that doesn't matter because it doesn't fit. Nobody wants to hear something rational, the numbers already do that. Dispelling a narrative doesn't exactly grab the same kind of headlines that creating one does.

There's been an increasing amount of buzz that the Mariners haven't done enough to protect Robinson Cano in the lineup, and that nobody will pitch to him unless they surround him with better hitters. Part of this is based in traditional baseball beliefs, articles remembered or passed down during times of a player's struggles. It's the kind of narrative that's used to explain great production or excuse poor ones, but usually the latter. Baseball has constantly masqueraded as more of a team sport than it actually is, and the idea of lineup protection is one that enforces that exaggerated belief. Fans constantly remove responsibility from individuals and shift blame to others, a struggle to view a group of players wearing the same hat as individuals.

This blame game is typically seen with the arrow pointing straight up -- to the hitting coach, to the manager, to the general manager, to the ownership. The Mariner organization has witnessed this process run its course time and time again.

The season has yet to begin, and fans are already shoving that arrow straight up in the air. The Mariners haven't had a legit superstar position player in so long that maybe fans have forgotten how to sit back and appreciate greatness. The excuses and worries have already begun. Unfortunately, the narrative that Robinson Cano is lazy has even more legs than the idea that he won't produce unless the Mariners surround him with better hitters. And the first narrative is terrible, so what does that make the second?

The Mariners didn't have a particularly great offense last year. You can reasonably prove the Yankees offense was even worse. Though they managed to score a handful more runs, it was certainly aided by their hitter's paradise of a ballpark. Despite that advantage, the Yankees only scored 26 more runs than the Mariners. Strip away the park, and examine their park-adjusted wRC+ -- only the White Sox and Marlins had a lower ones.

Runs wOBA wRC+
2013 Mariners 624 0.307 92
2013 Yankees 650 0.301 85

The Yankee offense was unquestionably miserable last year. They were destroyed by injuries and old, ineffective hitters. Cano hit 3rd most of last year (42 games hitting 2nd), and produced a 142 wRC+, the third highest total of his career. He was undeniably the same superstar hitter that he was when the Yankee offense was stacked from top to bottom.

Yankees wRC+ Cano wRC+
2013 85 142
2012 113 149
2011 113 134
2010 112 143

From 2010-2012, when the Yankees had one of, if not the best offense in the majors, Robinson Cano was an outstanding hitter. In 2013, when the Yankees had one of the game's worst offenses, he was equally outstanding. This came when Cano was bookended by hitters like Travis Hafner, Mark Reynolds, and Ichiro. Hitters that used to be good. In order to believe that Cano was protected by these hitters, you have to presume that pitchers pitch to reputation and not ability. You have to believe that pitchers are stupid. They're not. Pitchers knew that Ichiro wasn't the threat he once was, and that Pronk and Mark Reynolds were easily exploitable, or that it generally wasn't 2008 anymore.

Examine the 2013 Yankee offense.

YanksStats via

Can you guess the spots where Cano hit the most? Does that look like "lineup protection" to you?

Even if you do believe that reputation goes a long way in the mythical protection of Cano, then you should think Corey Hart will provide plenty of it. Kyle Seager is an upgrade on most that hit around Cano last year, and Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison probably will be as well. They won't be the 2010-2012 Yankee offense, but Cano did just fine without that support.

This isn't meant to be a commentary on the idea of lineup protection as a whole, which has been fully rationalized by writers more accomplished than I. It may apply to some hitters and some teams, but it's probably often assigned incorrectly. The biggest change a hitter may see in reduced protection is a drop in RBIs, and that comes from having worse hitters in front of him. Much of the reasoning behind lineup protection is based on traditional stats that are inappropriately associated to individuals. Even if you're into that, Cano's RBIs didn't show any particular drop last year either.

This is simply about Cano, a hitter who has demonstrated he is a star with all levels of talent around him -- including some worse than the current Mariner offense, despite how bad it has been for a number of years. Cano has been lobbying the Mariners to sign fellow Dominican Ervin Santana and Kendrys Morales. The narrative will be that the Mariners need Morales to protect Cano in the lineup, but don't bite. If he sees a decline in production this year, it'll be because of Safeco, his age, or injury. It won't be because of his teammates. He's a stud. Treat him like one, and place blame correctly.