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Mariners prove competent on defense, not exceptional

The Mariners topped the charts in routine plays last season, but fell short of the mark when things got trickier.

Thearon W. Henderson

In the pursuit of all-encompassing fielding metrics, FanGraphs released fielding data from Inside Edge at the beginning of the 2014 season. Professional scouts track and file each play under one of six categories: Impossible (plays that no fielder can be expected to make), Remote (highly difficult plays), Unlikely (moderately difficult plays), Even (plays neither difficult nor easy), Likely (fairly easy plays), and Routine (plays that every fielder is expected to make with minimum effort).

The data is then compiled into the number of plays made by each fielder and the percentage of plays successfully completed. While this method of evaluating fielding performance is subjective, and as such, not quite perfect, it still offers a fairly reliable way to examine each player’s competency on the field.

As a whole, the Mariners performed excellently in 2014 – on a very basic level. They led all American League teams with a completion rate of 98.3% on Routine plays, just a hair behind the Braves and Reds at 98.4%. From there, the Mariners dropped to the bottom of the pack, ranking 21st on Likely plays, 23rd on Even plays, 16th on Unlikely plays, and 27th on Remote plays among major league teams. Here are their completion rates for each category:

Team Innings Impossible (0%) Remote (1-10%) Unlikely (10-40%) Even (40-60%) Likely (60-90%) Routine (90-100%)
Mariners 13068.0 0.0% (207) 3.2% (187) 26.2% (164) 56.6% (99) 79.1% (215) 98.3% (2657)

In order to gauge the full implications of this data, however, we have to break it down further. Because so many players suffer from small sample sizes due to limited playing time, we’ll only look at the Mariners who logged 900 or more innings at a single position.

Player Innings Impossible (0%) Remote (1-10%) Unlikely (10-40%) Even (40-60%) Likely (60-90%) Routine (90-100%)
Kyle Seager 1402.0 0.0% (11) 0.0% (24) 30.0% (20) 62.5% (16) 70.6% (34) 98.6% (361)
Robinson Cano 1304.0 0.0% (13) 4.8% (21) 6.7% (15) 41.7% (12) 68.0% (25) 98.6% (427)
Dustin Ackley 1130.0 0.0% (43) 8.3% (12) 11.1% (9) 50.0% (6) 93.8% (16) 100.0% (225)
Mike Zunino 1121.0 0.0% (15) 8.7% (23) 40.0% (40) 28.6% (7) 71.4% (7) 100.0% (33)
Brad Miller 924.0 0.0% (12) 0.0% (18) 16.7% (12) 33.3% (15) 50.0% (18) 96.2% (315)

When I first looked at this chart, the player who most interested me was Dustin Ackley. Ackley was flummoxed by 43 plays deemed "Impossible," 18th-most among major leaguers (though nothing to Brewers’ center fielder Carlos Gomez, who saw 74 Impossible plays in 2014). He also held an unusually high completion rate on Likely plays, those deemed playable 60-90% of the time, and didn’t drop a single Routine play in 225 chances.

Mike Zunino, on the other hand, saw the fewest simple plays among the group. Although he also carried a high success rate on Routine plays, at 100%, he saw just 33 plays to Ackley’s 225, as might be expected given his position. His fielding opportunities fell on the opposite end of the spectrum, clustering around Remote plays (23) and Unlikely plays (40) instead of Even plays (7) and Likely plays (7). Here, he performed best when faced with an Unlikely play – say, throwing a runner out at second base. He sustained a team-best 40% success rate on Unlikely plays in 40 chances.

Of course, it’s not entirely fair to compare the capabilities of a backstop and a left fielder. A left fielder doesn’t often face the challenge of preventing a stolen base or catching a runner at home plate. Likewise, a catcher isn’t forced to patrol the outskirts of the field and nab home runs at the wall. In order to adjust for the discrepancies that different fielders face, then, Beyond the Box Score’s Jeffrey Bellone charted the frequency of difficult plays at each position in 2013. He found that while most fielders’ work was comprised of Routine plays (approximately 74-90%), catchers’ fielding opportunities broke down into 34% Routine plays and 41% Unlikely plays.

When we examine each of the Mariners’ top performers against other fielders at those positions, these numbers look a little less impressive. Among major league catchers with 900 or more innings, Zunino cracked the top six backstops with a 100% success rate on Routine plays, but presented a significantly deflated completion rate on Likely plays with a sixth-worst rate of 71.4% and a last-place rate of 28.6% on Even plays.

Among infielders, Brad Miller and Kyle Seager kept company at either end of the leaderboards. Miller came dangerously close to touching Derek Jeter’s numbers in second-to-last place with a 96.2% completion rate on Routine plays and 62.5% rate on Likely plays. At third base, we get a glimpse of Seager’s Gold Glove material – he lead all major league third basemen with a 98.6% success rate on Routine plays, and sat among the top ten performers in categories ranging from Even to Unlikely. (When it came to Remote and Impossible plays, however, Seager had a 0% success rate in 35 opportunities.) Not to be overlooked, Robinson Cano sat between the two with a middling success rate of 98.6% on Routine plays, good for ninth among second basemen, but scraped the bottom of the list in Likely, Even, and Unlikely opportunities.

Last, but not least, Dustin Ackley found himself keeping company with the top five left fielders in MLB, just a smidgen behind Miami’s Christian Yelich with a 100% success rate in 225 chances (Yelich held a 100% completion rate in 226 plays). Ackley also held his own in Likely plays with a 93.8% success rate in 16 opportunities, which, while good enough to lead the league, wasn't quite as good as Alex Gordon’s 92.9% rate in 28 plays.

Granted, playing with such small sample sizes doesn’t give us a clear picture of the Mariners’ defensive abilities, but it’s an interesting starting point – especially considering that Seattle pulled itself up from an eighth-worst defense in 2013 to third-best.