I used to brag about Brendan Ryan a lot. Back in 2012, before the perfect game, the no-hitter, or the 27-run slaughter in Texas, I was acclimating to the particular brand of apologetics that only Mariners fans understand. When King Felix wasn't on the mound, I hinged my fandom on Ryan slinging a double play or leaping for a line drive to make the final out.
Ryan's wizardry in the infield lulled me into a false sense of security about the Mariners' defense. I mistakenly transferred my pride in his glovework to pride over the entire defense (though Franklin Gutierrez, when healthy, lent credibility to my claims).
According to FanGraphs, I had more than enough reason to be impressed -- but perhaps not enough reason to lord this over non-Seattle fans. In 2012, the Mariners put up their best defensive numbers since they finished over .500 in 2009, placing fifth in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) with 27.7 runs above average and ninth in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with 17 runs above average. For the second year in a row, Ryan led the team in most defensive categories, earning him the Fielding Bible Award and another Gold Glove snub.
Fast-forward to 2013, where Ryan played 50 fewer games after losing his starting gig to Brad Miller. FanGraphs lists backup catcher Humberto Quintero as the team's leader in defense -- close behind him, Ryan, Michael Saunders, and Henry Blanco. Small sample sizes are by nature unreliable, but it's fair to say that the two part-time catchers on the list won't be found on MLB leaderboards anytime soon. The team's overall defensive numbers plummeted to the bottom of the league, where they finished with an ugly -78.4 Defensive rating, -73.0 UZR, and -99 DRS.
Where does this leave the Mariners' defense heading into 2014? That's difficult to answer, given the shaky nature of defensive metrics and the absence of a clear-cut leader. Franklin Gutierrez will return for another season, but it's ill-advised to rely on him for any sort of stable production. Brendan Ryan and Ichiro will continue to work their magic in the Yankees' camp. The infield is young and crowded, making it hard for any player to garner enough consistent playing time to establish reliable defensive numbers.
Seattle's best bet may be Robinson Cano. In 2012, he put up the best numbers of his career, winning the Gold Glove with an 11.2 UZR and 15 DRS. 2013 saw a dip in his numbers, with fewer balls in his zone and, predictably enough, fewer plays made both in and outside of his zone. He finished with just 0.8 UZR and 6 DRS, the third-best numbers of his nine-year career.
The Steamer projection system has Cano locked in for 2.2 fielding runs above average (Fld) in 2014, presumably the only player on the Mariners' current roster to finish above 1.0 Fld. Oliver projections are much higher on Franklin Gutierrez with 7.8 runs to Cano's 0.9, but have each player locked in with a full season of playing time, something that we can assume won't happen for Guti. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system relies on Defense, FanGraphs' fielding and positional adjustment in runs above average, with Cano landing at four runs in 2014, the only Mariner to contribute above average numbers.
Accurately projecting a player's defense is nearly impossible to do. Even advanced fielding metrics are imperfect and can be unreliable when considered on a year-to-year basis. While it's unlikely that the Mariners will find another Brendan Ryan anytime soon, Robinson Cano's glovework may be enough to raise them from last place by the end of 2014.
Who do you think stands the best chance of improving their defense in 2014? Will Cano repeat his Gold Glove performance from 2012?
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