We’re now five weeks into the season, heading into tonight’s game in Texas and I thought it would be a good time to check up on the team’s defense. We spoke about the offense a bit in today’s paper, specifically how Russell Branyan is crediting a vision training program, at least in part, for turning his career around at this latter stage. The Mariners are looking at possibly bringing some of that training to the team on a more formalized basis. They are already using an evaluative part of that program, Vizual Edge, to screen potential draft candidates. Each prospect being considered by the Mariners for the draft is being asked to take a 15-minute computer test, Mariners scouts write down the scores and they are shipped off to Chicago, where the program’s creator, Dr. Barry Seiller, reviews them. Just one more way the Mariners are trying to get a jump on most of their competition. Some teams already use this program, but most do not. And vision, as any of you who have ever played elite level sports can attest, is crucial. Some athletes literally have the game “slowed down” in front of them. That’s how they run roughshod over other athletes. Like setting a video game on slow. Good vision does that for you. The Mariners are trying to target which amateurs have exceptional vision right off the bat.
I’ll admit, though, that not everybody liked the story. For your listening pleasure, our call of the day, straight from my office machine.
Back to defense.
The thing with new defensive metrics is, the bigger the sample size, the more revealing they tend to be. We’ve looked at stats like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) a couple of weeks into the season and things seemed to be going well. They still are, as of this morning, with the Mariners holding at fifth best in the majors and thid in the AL. The Tampa Bay Rays are running away with the UZR race, at +23.7 runs saved. Second in the AL is Texas. yes, that’s right. The Rangers are at +9.5, followed by the Mariners at +8.8.
The Mariners are actually doing slightly better than when we last checked in on them two weeks ago. Some of that is because Ichiro is proving to be, as expected, a positive with his glove in right field compared to the slow start he got off to statistically after a couple of miscues. Like I said, over the long haul, these things are more accurate. Some of you are jumping on Adrian Beltre because of his errors total. But as I’ve told you before, errors are the wrong way to judge a fielder’s total package. These new metrics are more reliable because they tell you how a fielder did even when he never got close to a ball. With errors, a good fielder may get to a ball and not field it cleanly. A bad fielder may not get within two feet of the same ball. But the good fielder gets charged with the error, while the bad fielder gets off clean. How can that be a good way to judge? Beltre is actually more than holding his own defensively, even while some of the infielders around him are causing problems. They need to step it up.
Not saying UZR is perfect. Even the system’s creator, Mitchel Lichtman, will tell you that it isn’t. But I think it’s better than errors or fielding percentage at gauging defense. So, let’s chart the Mariners, courtesy of FanGraphs.com.
Franklin Gutierrez +4.8
Endy Chavez (LF +3.3; RF +1.1; CF -1.1) +3.3
Adrian Beltre +3.0
Wladimir Balentien (LF +2.8; RF +0.2) +3.0
Ken Griffey Jr. +0.5
Russell Branyan +0.1
Ronny Cedeno (LF +0.8; -0.2; 3B -0.3; SS -0.4) -0.1
Mike Sweeney -0.4
Jamie Burke (1B) -0.4
Jose Lopez -1.5
Yuniesky Betancourt -6.4
Remember, catchers and pitchers do not get scored in UZR.
Let’s look at some more defensive metrics on the next page.
One favorite defensive stat, used by Mariners executive Tony Blengino to gauge players, is Revised Zone Rating (RZR), found on The Hardball Times website. Blengino likes RZR because it separates itself into two categories — plays a fielder makes in his zone, and outside his zone. Like we talked about with errors, the traditional defensive stats don’t tell you who’s getting to balls with a high degree of difficulty. A fielder making many Out of Zone (OOZ) plays is obviously an asset to have. So, let’s see how the Mariners are doing in this area:
Tampa Bay again leads the league with an OOZ of 136. Their fielders have made that many plays outside their zone.
The Mariners are second in the AL with 126 such plays. So, you can see that two different defensive metrics agree the M’s currently stand among the league’s top two or three teams. When the new metrics agree on something, you can generally assume it’s fairly accurate becasue some of the systems can have widely varying results. Like I said, these aren’t perfect ways of judging. But they’re the best things out there for defense.
Let’s look at individuals, starting with Gutierrez, whose 28 out of zone plays are third in the league among all players — one behind Adam Jones (commence groaning here).
Chavez (LF 21; CF 2; RF 2) 25
Balentien (LF 5; RF 1) 6
Cedeno (LF 3; 2B 1) 4
Burke (1B) 1
As you can see, the order of the rankings is primarily the same. Remember, Beltre is playing a tougher position, so he and Branyan are not exactly equals defensively even though they have similar scores. And Balentien has not had the playing time to be able to fare well in this type of stat, since he’s been limited in the total chances he’s had to make plays in. Hopefully this gives a little better indication of who is doing what with the glove. Enjoy.