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August 12, 2011 at 9:19 AM

Huge finish to road trip by Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez

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Be sure to read today’s feature on Kyle Seager, who shared his story about having open heart surgery as a baby with an 11-year-old boy in Tennessee.
There were winners and losers in the grand scheme of things for the Mariners on this past road trip. And among the biggest winners was center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who finally looked like the guy missing in action for much of the past year-plus.
Sure, it’s just a four-game hot streak he’s on. His seven hits over those four games are as many as Jack Wilson had on the trip and he wasn’t even a regular until last week. But for Gutierrez, it was something.
For the first time in a while, he actually looked like a threat at the plate. A guy who could do something in a key situation. And a guy who did more than produce good at-bats. He produced good at-bats that translated into results. When you hit enough good balls, they won’t all be caught. The guys who keep getting “victimized” by luck also tend to be the guys who just don’t create enough chances for balls to fall in.
Gutierrez hit so many good balls on this trip that the law of averages simply stated that a few had to drop.
And two of them dropped for doubles.
That was big because missing power has been a serious concern when it comes to Gutierrez. It’s mistaken to say that “all” he has to do to be the center fielder for years to come is up his average from .200 to .260.
No, that’s not all. Many centerfielders can produce empty batting averages and catch at the same time. The good ones — those you find on championship teams — can hit for extra-base power as well.
Gutierrez hasn’t hit a home run since May 25. That’s when he belted his only long ball of the season.
Up until Monday in Texas, he’d managed just six doubles in three months. In total, seven extra-base hits all season. On his way to 14 extra-base hits for the year.
There were 32 centerfielders with at least 300 plate appearances in the majors last season and only five of them had fewer doubles than Gutierrez was on his way to having in extra-base hits.
The MLB center fielder with the fewest extra-base hits last season (min. 300 PA) was Cameron Maybin of the Marlins with 18 of them in 291 at-bats — and eight of those were home runs. Even with his latest flurry, Gutierrez still has only nine extra-base hits in his first 232 at-bats.
So, no. This isn’t only about his batting average. It’s about the depth behind it.

The sight of some doubles on this trip was big. And when a guy starts hitting doubles, we often see some home runs to follow. Gutierrez doesn’t have to pop 25 of those. But we just saw his on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) climb above .500. That stat needs to be at least 200 points higher before any of us can begin discussing him as the starting center fielder for a championship club.
There were four centerfielders in the big leagues last year who received at least 500 at-bats and posted an OPS below .700 — including Gutierrrez at .666. The others played for Oakland, Washington and Houston. See any championship teams on that list?
Now, to be fair, Gutierrez did miss most of spring training. For practical pursposes, he pretty much missed all of it. And he’s learning to deal with a stomach condition that was partly to blame for that .666 OPS last year.
But he’s had three months to warm up. Spring training only lasts seven weeks and you only play games for a month down in Arizona. So, yes, Gutierrez has had time. And now is when he really does have to kick things into gear. Otherwise, this team will have a lot of hard thinking to do over the winter.
We saw that stronger batting stroke for Gutierrez the first part of 2009. That’s what led to Gutierrez’s four-year contract. The promise of a center fielder with a Gold Glove who can also hit for average and a fair bit of power.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge also feels we started to see more of that Gutierrez on the road trip.
“His strike zone recognition is better,” Wedge said. “My biggest issue with Gut has been just a lack of aggressiveness sometimes, whether it be early in the count or in hitter’s counts. He’s a strong young man and he has something to offer offensively. What we’ve been seeing the last week to 10 days is what we need out there offensively.”
Gutierrez is 12-for-36 (.353) over that span with an OPS of .813.
Wedge has been saying for weeks that there are no lingering physical issues with Gutierrez — either from his stomach or lack of spring conditioning.
“I don’t think strength’s been an issue for a long time,” Wedge said of Gutierrez after Wednesday night’s game. “I think it most definitely was early in the season. But I think it’s been more about him just getting his swing and his confidence for a while now.
“He was most definitely behind the eight-ball early on. That’s why I think it’s just real important for him to find it, get that confidence back and just keep going here throughout the rest of the season. He can take that over the winter and into next year.”
And so will the Mariners.
Believe me, they would much rather head to the winter months looking at all of their possible young outfield combinations knowing that Gutierrez is still the center fielder going forward. Makes things a whole lot easier if you’re worried about Trayvon Robinson finding time in left field rather than in center. Between Robinson, Casper Wells and a whole bunch of other guys, left field should be OK going forward. Then, we can all start worrying about what to do in right field, right?
Leave that one for another day.



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