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June 11, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Mariners defense hardly great, but not reason for team’s bad record

Michael Morse, Jason Bay and Michael Saunders (left to right) have manned various outfield positions far more than expected so far in 2013. Photo Credit: AP

Michael Morse, Jason Bay and Michael Saunders (left to right) have manned various outfield positions far more than expected so far in 2013. Photo Credit: AP

There is this theme I keep seeing popping up in which proponents of advanced defensive metrics suggest the reason the Mariners sit nine games under .500 is because the team “traded” outfield defense for slugging bats. Now, that would make sense, I suppose, if the idea all along had been to play Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay together in the outfield night after night.

Or, one of those guys and Michael Morse in the outfield night after night.

As we know, however, that was not the plan. The plan was supposed to be Franklin Gutierrez in center field, Michael Saunders in one of the corners and Morse in the other. Ibanez and Bay were supposed to occasionally spell one of the corner outfielders depending on the handedness of the pitcher.

This may seem a somewhat trivial distiction to make, but once again, if this team’s season is actually finished before mid-June, it’s important that we — and the franchise itself — understand the reasons for why that is. If the wrong reasons are blamed, there is a good chance the wrong areas will be focused on for improvement and lead to identical mistakes and failures being repeated down the road.

Yes, this team does not have very good outfield defense at present. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the Mariners had outstanding team defense overall in 2010 and 2011 — along with Felix Hernandez at the top of his game and some other solid starters — and still had historically terrible offense and seasons of 101 and 95 losses.

No matter how much some folks have tried to revise history and negate the value of bigger bats, you can’t get around those facts. Decent pitching and above average defense could not come close to overriding an inept offense in 2010 and 2011 that lacked big bat power and saw the numbers of even traditionally good on-base guys take a nosedive as they pressed to hit six-run homers to make up for poor lineup construction.

Back to the present. Yes, the Mariners do not have very good outfield defense. But as I said, that outfield was supposed to consist of Gutierrez and Saunders in two thirds of the positions the majority of the time, in which case the outfield D would be a whole lot better.

Gutierrez got hurt again and foiled those plans. That’s one area the team can focus on for next year — make sure the guy you pick to play center field full-time actually has a history of staying on the field.

But that’s still not the biggest problem hurting the Mariners right now.

No, the biggest problem is still that the young core of players this team placed so much time and effort into developing the past four seasons wound up crashing and burning.

Blaming this team’s demise on the outfield defense of Ibanez and Morse is a bit like saying the Seahawks lost that playoff game in Atlanta because of their inability to block a last-second field goal and not because of all the yardage they gave up on a handful of passing plays prior.

Nobody would be focusing on the outfield defense had this team’s young core done what it was supposed to do from the get-go.

Now, I’ll give you that no plan should have had Jesus Montero as a primary catcher. That’s another lesson the team can keep in mind for next year, along with the center field reminder.

But had Montero at least managed to hit somewhat close to what he was touted as, once again, it’s a problem this team could have lived with for a short while, then changed course mid-season without plunging to 10 games under .500.

Instead, Montero flopped at what he was supposed to be best at. Dustin Ackley flopped as well. Michael Saunders came back from a shoulder injury in April, looked good for a week or two, then vanished as a hitter — but is supposedly healthy. Justin Smoak improved his on-base numbers but has yet to deliver the power expected from a corner infielder.

That’s four out of nine projected regulars not doing enough. Toss in Gutierrez — no longer “young” in a core sense — and that’s five of nine players delivering less than expected results.

That’s your problem with the 2013 Mariners in a nutshell. That and the fact that pitchers Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen got hurt, Blake Beavan disappointed and Brandon Maurer needed to go to Class AAA before the big leagues.

But those pitching problems — you’d think — will be fixed by next year as long as Ramirez and Hultzen stay healthy. It might behoove the team to spend a bit more money shoring up the back end of the rotation in 2014, but still, that’s a problem easily handled if addressed the right way.

Again, the main problem this team has had is the failure of five of the projected nine lineup regulars to deliver something reasonably close to what was expected.

Don’t take my word for it. Back in January, some folks well-versed in advance stats were predicting the Mariners might be a sub-.500 team based on simulated games played on a computer using ZiPS Projection stats. Today, with the team well below .500, some of those same people now chirping about the outfield defense are in “I told you so” mode.

But what did those ZiPS projections show?

Well, for one, they showed that most of the team’s top offensive producers would be the young core members. Let’s look at their projections — in terms of weighted on-base average — versus what players have actually delivered, which I will put in parentheses.

Ackley .305 (.236)

Montero .305 (.261)

Smoak .305 (.316)

Saunders .300 (.274)

Of those four young, full-time players, only Smoak has matched his expectations, which weren’t all that optiistic to begin with. Again, with him, the problem is power. He was projected to slug a very modest .383 and has only managed .344.

As for the rest, the underperformance is telling.

In Gutierrez’s case, his numbers have been fine. The problem is, he only posted them for a few weeks before once again going on the DL the majority of the season to date. So, that doesn’t work.

Now, let’s take a look at the guys who have over-produced versus their ZiPS projections.

Seager .311 (.356)

Morales .325 (.355)

Morse .311 (.327)

Bay .289 (.323)

Ibanez .296 (.327)

There you go. Seager is the one “young core” member who has significantly overachieved his advanced stat projections.

Every one of the veteran OF/1B/DH types has done so as well. In Morse’s case, he’s done so while playing through a variety of injuries. If you want to make the case that he’s too injury-prone to give a long-term deal to, I’ll listen to that logic. But Morse has outperformed even the pessimistic forecasts of his offense despite swinging with one hand for several weeks and now staying in the lineup with the use of only one good leg.

Ibanez and Bay continue to outperform the very pessimistic projections made of them despite being forced to play the outfield on a daily basis for weeks at a time, which was not what they were brought to Seattle to do.

So, to sit here now and claim that the defensive downsides of a handful of those players is what has sunk the team this year is absolutely ludicrous given the context of what has gone on. Everybody knew the defensive downsides of some veteran players going in. But the plan proposed by the 2013 Mariners was that those downsides would be mitigated by their offensive contributions, in conjunction with — and this is the kicker here — the additional contributions of the young core and Gutierrez.

So, when that young core fails on an epic scale and veterans are forced to be overplayed outside their stated roles, we blame…the outfield defense?

Keep thinking this way, the Mariners won’t win a darned thing for another decade or more. There are plenty of teams in baseball that can get away with a corner outfield that doesn’t play good defense as long as they can hit and the rest of the team does its job. What those teams can’t get away with is the majority of the everyday lineup falling on its face.

This doesn’t amount to giving up on Saunders, Montero, Ackley, or Smoak. The team has an option on Gutierrez and will have to make that call at season’s end.

But if you want to focus on why this team sits nine under .500, focus on the root cause. I just laid it out. It’s not what those using ZiPS projections to run pre-season simulations were telling you might happen. It’s pretty much the exact opposite and far more serious.

This offense will eventually need bigger bats down the road to help take it someplace — and yeah, in a perfect world, they’ll play all-star level defense, too. But right now, the big decisions facing this team are which core members are going to become the everyday players once envisioned. That is the No. 1 area the Mariners must focus on going forward, or we’ll be having this exact same conversation a year from now.




Comments | More in analysis | Topics: michael morse; jason bay; michael saunders; dustin ackley


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