Been seeing a little too much of this line of reasoning lately, so I thought I’d tackle things straight away this morning. The problem with this Mariners team is not Adrian Beltre’s defensive play at third base. Nor is it the rest of the team’s defense in general. Yes, there have been some Yuniesky Betancourt plays that make everyone want to pull their hair out. And Jose Lopez did not distinguish himself yesterday. But Lopez has not been making lethal mistakes in the field on a nightly basis. In fact, it’s why Don Wakamatsu made his comment yesterday about not wanting players to carry their offense into the defensive side of their game. He felt Lopez, consumed by recent struggles at the plate, might not have been as focused as he could be in the field.
For all the streaks a team goes through on offense, the defense generally doesn’t change. And that’s why Wakamatsu doesn’t want a lack of focus to hurt this club’s gloves. So far, it really hasn’t.
Forget about errors. Yes, they happen and yes, the Mariners have more of them than other AL teams at the moment. But the M’s are making plays defensively that don’t get recorded by outdated stats like errors and fielding percentage.
Once again, the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) stat shows Beltre with a team-high 7.7 runs saved. That’s taken over the team lead from center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who has 5.7 runs saved. Ichiro is next at 4.2, followed by Endy Chavez at 2.7 and Wladimir Balentien at 2.5. Over a full season, Ichiro actually projects to finish with the team’s best defensive numbers. So, he is still a highly valued contributor on offense and defense.
These are the team’s glove stars.
Lopez isn’t one of them. But his UZR of minus-2.9 is not the worst score possible. It’s a step back from prior seasons, yes, but it would be more than mitigated if he was hitting the way he is supposed to. Betancourt’s minus-9.1 is much more concerning.
Overall, the Mariners remain the seventh best defensive team in baseball and fourth best in the AL with a UZR of 10.4. The errors being made are not killing this team on a grand scale. If you don’t believe me, check out the pitching numbers, which remain strong. That wouldn’t be the case if these errors were causing big time hurt. And the reason they aren’t is that the Mariners keep making the other plays to minimize the damage. I can’t put it any more clearly than that.
Offense is what is hurting this squad.
Beltre’s on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .563, Lopez’s .579, Betancourt’s .641, Balentien’s .652, Gutierrez’s .697… and the list goes on. All of those guys have to do more. This team has two-thirds of the starting lineup sporting an OPS below .700. Only Russell Branyan, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro are higher.
And I defy anyone out there to show me a pre-season prediction that “called” that right there. Either traditional or sabermetric prognosticators. Show me anyone that “predicted” an offensive calamity like this. Don’t bother because it does not exist. Six of nine guys below .700 this late in a season is catastrophic. And the worst thing is, now that Kenji Johjima is out, this team heads into tonight with a third of the starting lineup — Beltre, Lopez and Rob Johnson — taking a sub-.600 OPS into the game.
Offense is what is killing this team, not pitching or defense. And this offense is supposed to be better than this. Not 1927 Yankees better. But at least adequate enough to give the club a shot at winning if the pitching and defense shines through. Too many bats are not living up to expectations.
But those expectations have a right to be there. It’s the players who have to justify their lack of production. Not the other way around. The folks who expect them to perform up to standard, based on history and age trends, don’t have to apologize. This team should be contending in this weak division right now. The fact that it risks dropping out of contention in coming weeks is all on the hitters. Not hitting coach Alan Cockrell, seen in the photo above, the manager, the rest of the staff, the trainers, the GM, the team president, the CEO, the absentee owner in Japan, the media. the blogosphere or anyone else. The hitters have to hit the way they’re supposed to — period. End of story. If they do and they’re only a .500 team, then fine. They’re only a .500 team.
But this is not a team that was “supposed” to score two runs or fewer in five of the last six games. The M’s have scored one run or fewer in four of the past six. They have been held to one run or fewer their last three games against AL opponents.
They have scored two runs or fewer in 11 of their last 20 games and three runs or fewer in 13 of those contests. In other words, the pitching staff has had to hold opponents to two runs or fewer to avoid defeat in 13 of the last 20 games. How can any team compete that way?
Still not convinced? Let’s check out a list of the number of regulars each AL team has posting an OPS of at least .700. That’s not some high water mark or anything, just bare minimum production. The average OPS in the AL this year is .766. The major league average is .755. We’ll make the cutoff at a minimum of 100 plate appearances, just so it’s regulars we’re looking at, not guys with two ABs skewing the numbers. So, teams with players posting a league-average OPS of .700 or better include:
Blue Jays 9
Red Sox 8
White Sox 5
So, again, when we say this offense is not up to major league caliber, we aren’t kidding. And the above stats don’t even paint a true picture of how bad things are. For instance, the five Orioles at .700 or better are all over .800. The Mariners have just two such hitters in Branyan and Ichiro.
So, forget about Beltre’s glove for now. Forget about the mound and fielders in general. Put the heat where it belongs — squarely on the hitters. When they decide to show up for the 2009 season and the team still loses, then you can look at the gloves. For now, though, that’s like worrying about the quality of the first class food when the plane is about to crash into the mountainside.