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May 30, 2009 at 12:04 PM

What is going on with Raul Ibanez in Philadelphia?

We’ll take a short break from the Mariners this morning and deal with an ex-Mariner who is finally getting his due around baseball. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to debating the merits of Jose Lopez and company in a few hours. Two wins in a row is nice for the M’s, but we’ll see whether they can build that into something the next two days here.
Let’s talk first, though, about what on earth is going on with Raul Ibanez in Philly. We all knew he could hit, but the numbers he’s now putting up — including 17 homers and a 1.109 OPS — have him getting noticed all over the country. I like these kinds of stories. Not because the Mariners got jobbed and should have signed him for $31.5 million to play left field everyday. There are reasons they didn’t and I can respect those. There is also no doubt he’d look great in the middle of the Seattle batting order right now. But I don’t think the team wanted to spend that much on a first baseman or DH, which is what Ibanez would have been had he remained here. So, that’s a non-starter as an argument. He didn’t fit here anymore, pricewise or position-wise and has moved on to bigger and better things. Simple as that.
What has startled me as much as anything else, and sparked some blogosphere debate locally, is what has happened with Ibanez’s defense. He was criticized often in Seattle for his lack of glove prowess in left field. We all remember the blooped hits that would drop in front of him. I thought he was criticized unjustly for some balls hit to the wall, replayed often on video from a single game against Oakland last year. What those videos didn’t portray was how hard those balls were hit off, I believe, Miguel Batista. They could have burned a hole in the wall. But yes, he had trouble with the shallow bloops. We all saw it.
And as such, Ibanez was skewered by modern defensive metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) as I went into detail on in this spring training story back in March.
So, imagine how shocking it is to look at UZR stats this morning and see that Ibanez is actually on the plus-side of the runs saved equation for the first time since 2004. As of today, Ibanez has a +4.6 score in UZR and is projected to finish with a +9.8.
With his offensive numbers thrown in, he’s arguably an MVP candidate.
Last year, he finished with a minus-10.4 and was a minus-23.3 the year before that. So, again, what’s going on.
I suspect the ballpark has plenty to do with what’s happened for Ibanez at the plate and in the field. Citizens Bank Park is much more of a hitter’s park than Safeco Field. One could argue that Ibanez has gotten a bit lucky with a .331 batting average on balls put in play (MLB average is usually about .290). His line drive rate of 14 percent is lower than it usually is, which tells you he’s not scorching the ball all the time. But his career average on balls put into play has been about .316, so I’m not sure he’s that lucky on balls falling in for hits.
Where he is getting a bit of a bounce is on fly balls. His percentage of fly balls is about the same as in 2008, but they are turning into home runs at a 27 percent rate compared to 10 percent last year.
That tells me he’s possibly getting a home park lift. True, he’s hit only eight home runs at home compared to nine on the road. But two of those nine homers came in another launching pad at Great American Ballpark in Cincy. So, I do think park factors have something to do with it. Homers will obviously greatly impact slugging percentage and OPS. Ibanez was already a very good hitter. But a slight home ballpark boost has probably been behind what’s carried him from very good to the level of an elite MVP-caliber hitter. Two months in, another six to eight homers will do that for you.
Same thing with his defense.
We all know Ibanez had trouble running in on balls. But what isn’t mentioned often is that he’s pretty good going back on fly balls to the wall and warning track. I had a conversation about this subject with The Fielding Bible author John Dewan, inventor of the Plus/Minus defensive stats system. Dewan told me Ibanez was a much better fielder than he got credit for. Not a Gold Glover, but far better than the guy he replaced in Philly, Pat Burrell.
The reason was Ibanez’s ability to go back on balls.
Now, in Philadelphia, he’s got less ground to cover in left field. So, I’ll take a stab at why his UZR is so much better. I think the ballpark in Philadelphia plays to his strengths. If you know he can cover ground running back to the wall and you know there is less distance to cover in left field there compared to at Safeco Field, it makes sense that Ibanez could be cheating further up towards the infield.
By doing so, he can cut down the number of blooped hits that drop in front of him and penalize him on the UZR front. At the same time, he can still track down balls he runs back on because there is less ground to cover before he gets to the wall. And, he has the skills to make the tougher plays when he’s running back.
For me, that’s the easiest explanation for why he’s gone from very good player to superstar in the span of a season. Sounds like the Phillies knew what they were doing when they went out and got Ibanez. They looked at his skillset and saw a guy who could fit into their home park pretty well.
And now, instead of being penalized for skills that did not fit Safeco very well, he is maximizing what he does have at a home park that plays to his stengths.
In any event, Mariners fans should be happy for him. He is one of the good guys in this game and always found time to give to others less fortunate.
Photo Credit: AP



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