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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

August 26, 2009 at 8:19 AM

Mariners keep winning because of defense, errors notwithstanding

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Don’t forget my Talkin’ Baseball segment, coming up at 9:15 a.m. on KJR AM 950’s Mitch in the Morning show.
We’ve spent the last two days looking at some of the shortcomings of this Mariners team on the situational hitting side. Now, let’s take another look at what has worked. We saw it again last night, as the Mariners won for the second straight day despite heading into the ninth inning having scored three runs or fewer. Michael Saunders deserves a shout-out here for the plays he made, since he caught some grief over the weekend for that costly error he made. They eventually won 4-2 on that Ryan Langerhans home run, but seriously, where would this team be without its defense?
When the Mariners score just three-to-four runs, they are an impressive 21-18 this season. When they score two-to-four runs, they are 26-28. That’s still nearly .500 and very good. A result of opponents often not penetrating Seattle’s defensive armor.
Contrast that with an offensive-powered club like the New York Yankees, just 18-25 when scoring two-to-four runs, and 14-18 when scoring three-to-four. And that’s a club looking like a World Series favorite with each passing day. Something to ponder.
It kills me every time I hear someone talk about the errors given up by this squad. Yes, errors matter. But they are just one part of the overall defensive package. It would be like me judging Seattle’s situational hitting based exclusively on its ability to move runners over from second base.
Can’t do that. There are other components. And when you throw all of those together, at least one measuring system feels the M’s are the best defensive team in baseball.


That’s right, if you go to FanGraphs.com and look at the far right corner where the UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) stats are, you’ll see the Mariners now have “saved” 56.4 runs this season, just ahead of the 54.8 by the San Francisco Giants. This should not surprise anyone who has watched this team perform so far this season.
Yes, the Mariners have made a ton of errors. But that’s because they are getting their gloves on balls that they would not have even come close to in past seasons.
And systems lile UZR try to measure the totality. The “range” of players. The level of difficulty of some of those fielding plays that guys like Franklin Gutierrez, seen in the photo on the opposite page, have made look routine. In fact, Gutierrez is now seen by UZR as the top fielder in all of baseball. Not just the AL. Both leagues.
Gutierrez leads the team at +18.4 in UZR. Second place isn’t even close, with Ichiro coming in at +8.4. Adrian Beltre is at +8.1, while Endy Chavez (as a left fielder) was at +6.4 before he got hurt, followed next by Langerhans, at +4.8. Over a full season, Langerhans is projected to finish even higher than the pace Chavez was on.
When I spoke to stats maven John Dewan back in spring training, he told me a Gutierrez-Ichiro-Chavez outfield had the potential to be baseball’s finest. Looking at where things stand now, he appears to have been right.
The M’s had been a top-10, even a top-5 defensive team for much of the first half. So, what’s vaulted them higher — to the very top of the UZR stats?
Jettisoning Yuniesky Betancourt, who returns to Safeco Field for the first time tomorrow night.
“One of the weaknesses was the shortstop,” Dewan told me, in speaking of the 2008 team. “And I don’t know what the perception in Seattle is. The perception used to be that Betancourt was a very good shortstop. But our metrics are showing that…in 2008 he graded out as the worst shortstop in baseball.”
Looks like Dewan was right.
Betancourt had been Seattle’s worst defensive player by a wide margin, checking in at a minus-8 and projecting to a minus-15 for the season before he was traded back in July. For the Royals, he’s been even worse, posting a minus-8.6 so far and headed for a minus-32.2.
In 15 games at shortstop, Jack Wilson is now at a +2.3, factoring to a +25.3 for an entire season. That would make him the team’s best defender, even better than Gutierrez, if he could keep it up. We don’t know that he could. He’s already missed a bunch of games due to injury. But let’s just say, he’s been great while in there. Josh Wilson scored a +0.2 in the 11 games he played, factoring to a +2.3 over an entire year. These are very limited “sample sizes” (not a dirty phrase, folks) but you can see how they differ from Betancourt.
Ronny Cedeno, in 40 games at shortstop, was at +1.6 and going for +4.3 over an entire year. So, if you’re seeking reasons for the defensive improvement, look no further than the shortstop position.
But we would be remiss in not mentioning Jack Hannahan and his play at third base in Beltre’s absense.
Hannahan is at +4.4, factoring to a +22.0 over a full season. Nearly double the pace Beltre was on. Again, I caution, there is a big difference between playing a full season and fielding in only 29 games at third base as Hannahan has done. But so far, so good.
Seattle’s worst fielding regular right now is Russell Branyan. But he’s only at minus-0.3, which is about average. And if your worst fielder is at first base, you can usually live with that. In fact, every team in baseball would since it’s not as critical as the other positions on the field and the guy’s power bat at that spot can often more than offset the glove.
For all the grief he takes, even second baseman Jose Lopez is on the positive side of the ledger, checking in at +0.6 so far. Again, that’s about average. I’d wait another season or so to see if that’s for real because part of me feels Lopez’s range has declined. But I could be wrong. Again, these stats tend to see what the naked eye can’t.
But still, since defensive stats tend to be less exact than offensive ones (which are imperfect in their own right) the longer sampling of stats you get, the more certain you can be, What we can be fairly certain of is that the M’s are an above average defensive team, errors or not. They’ve been up there in the top-10 all season and, for now at least after recent changes, are No. 1 in this particular system. One that goes a whole lot deeper than errors or fielding percentage.

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