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LL Season Preview: Defense

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Jerry Dipoto ran a backhoe through the sun-bleached boneyard of the 2015 Mariners; how do these moves affect things from a defensive perspective?

The 2016 Mariners: Better, Faster, Less Crazy of Leg
The 2016 Mariners: Better, Faster, Less Crazy of Leg
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After years of Jack Z importing bat-first players with all the grace and athleticism of a 1975 Frigidaire, it shouldn't be surprising that Jerry Dipoto's first roster moves, among those that dealt with the cratered-out bullpen, addressed the lack of athleticism in the outfield. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is a metric that attempts to measure a player's total defensive value in terms of runs saved (a positive number) or lost for his team (a negative number).  In 2015, the Mariners recorded the worst team DRS mark in the American league, at -50. It's highly unlikely the Mariners will repeat that dismal performance in 2016, but how much improvement can one reasonably expect? N.B.: Defensive statistics are notoriously difficult to standardize. This article will use UZR, Ultimate Zone Rating, which is a compilation of measurements that attempts to describe a player's ability to save runs with strong, accurate throws (ARM), initiating double plays (DPR), error-free plays (ErrR), and ability to range around their positions to get to a ball (RngR). In measuring UZR, 0 denotes league average; a positive number indicates runs saved, whereas a negative number indicates runs coughed up. You can read more about UZR here at the Fangraphs site.

The Infield

Dipoto went right after the Mariners’ most inefficient members of the infield in 2015, dealing away fan favorites Logan Morrison and Brad Miller. While the other half of the first base platoon remains an enigma, Adam Lind should hold down a steady enough first base in addition to bringing more offensive pop to the position. I will love LoMo forever, but his UZR for last year was a sad -2.9, with -7 DRS. Lind, on the other hand, recorded 3.8 UZR with 5 DRS, although it should be noted that 2015 was an aberration, as he didn’t put up anything nearly that positive while with the Blue Jays. Maybe he’s just really bothered by Canadian spelling? ("In God’s country we spell it c-e-n-t-e-r, dangit!") Given his career, however, it's fair to say Lind is a below-average fielder, like most first basemen. Trading Miller was a vote of confidence in Ketel Marte, who impressed in his limited campaign. Mariners shortstops had the fifth-most assists in the league last year, partly due to the fact that Felix (2.49 GB/FB ratio) was seventh in the league in inducing ground balls, and new addition Wade Miley (1.74 GB/FB ratio) promises to add to that number. It's nearly impossible to compare the two performances because Marte has such a small sample size in the majors--only 51 games--but in his brief appearance, Marte was worth 2 DRS last year at SS, whereas Miller was worth -4. A better place to look for an understanding of what we can expect out of Marte might be scouting reports, such as this one from MLB's Bernie Pleskoff:

What I really appreciated about Marte's game in Chattanooga was his outstanding defense. He made easy plays look really easy. And Marte made some very difficult plays look easy as well. He showed excellent range with first-step quickness to both sides and coming in on the ball. Marte has the soft hands and agility to play shortstop.

I'd like to see a bit more arm strength, but Marte gets to balls quickly and can take care of business at shortstop. He might be even better playing second base. Regardless of which middle-infield position he plays, Marte is an advanced fielder.

There’s every reason to see Marte as an upgrade at a key position, solidifying an infield held down by Kyle "Like a Rock" Seager and a (hopefully) surgically repaired Robinson Cano. Luis Sardinas is also a plus-defender who looks to have the backup utility infielder role well within his sights, and would be a capable backup to Marte or Cano.

Expect to see a lot of defensive shifting from your 2016 Mariners, as they have been aggressive with the shift in spring. Per Mark Simon of ESPN:

The shift doesn’t always work—David Peralta beat the shift twice in the March 19th game the Mariners played against the Diamondbacks—but Servais is committed to having players learn and practice it this spring. If you are a Shift Hater, gird your loins now. Or maybe take up Frisbee Golf or something.

Catcher

The dying star known as Mike Zunino’s bat clearly needed to be ameliorated, but there was always an expectation that whatever catcher replaced him would be a downgrade defensively. For all his struggles at the plate, Zunino is an above-average catcher, and one of the best pitch framers in the game. However, the 6.9 run value he brought defensively was nowhere near enough to offset the 24 runs he cost offensively, and Jerry swept in like beatific Punjab lifting Annie off the railroad bridge to send him to Tacoma to heal. Having developed a taste for rescuing players from bad situations, Jerry then picked up old friend Chris Iannetta from angry tomato Mike Scioscia, in what Nathan called perhaps the most obvious move of the off-season. But Iannetta might not be the downgrade at catcher some expect; he netted a 5.4 run value defensively last year, and a 14.4 in framing runs. Iannetta spent last year working hard on his pitch framing, changing his body positioning to let the umpire see the ball better, and as a result jumped from the bottom of the framing list to the top. Dipoto also brought some depth in with Steve Clevenger and Rob Brantly; neither of them will replicate the 3 DRS Jesus Sucre brought (for all his woes at the plate, Sucre is a darn fine defensive catcher), but their numbers aren’t terrible, which is a fair enough tradeoff for not being black holes on offense. Overall, it looks like the Mariners didn’t get much worse at catcher from a defensive standpoint, and since a sentient hot dog bun would have been better at the plate than what the Mariners sent up last year, the net gain here is certainly a positive.

The Outfield

Of all of Jerry’s roster retooling, nothing will look so different in 2016 as the outfield. Which is good because

and

and…oh no, I just have to stop. How bad was the Mariners’ outfield last year? So bad. Via Bbref, the Mariners had the worst team DRS mark last year, at -50; the WS champion Royals, for contrast, had 51. The next closest team was the White Sox, who were 23 runs better. While not all of this falls on the outfield, most of it does. The M’s outfield cost the team 45 runs. (The Tampa Bay Kiermaiers, on the other hand, had +44. Symmetry is so fun!) For an outfield manned by Rickie Weeks, who probably needed directions to left field, to converted second baseperson/perpetually terror-stricken Dustin Ackley, a wayward Brad Miller, and two players with the beauty and fragility of a ship in a bottle in Guti and Cruz, it’s perhaps surprising those numbers aren’t worse. In fact, the 2015 Mariners outfield managed not to have the worst UZR in the American league (-22.7), narrowly beating out the White Sox (-26.8).

Not surprisingly, the outfield was one of the first things Jerry addressed, acquiring Leonys Martin and his laser arm from the Rangers in one of his earliest moves, back in mid-November. If you haven’t already read Eric’s piece on why Leonys Martin might be the best Mariners center fielder since the days of dial-up internet, you should rectify that immediately.  Jerry also re-signed Franklin Gutierrez, because handsome recognize handsome, to platoon with Seth Smith. Both Guti and Smith are bat-first players, although Guti's instincts and first step are still sound, if not as fleet of foot as Mariner fans will remember. In December, Jerry signed Norichika Aoki, whose defense has been described as "adventurous," and "gif-able," but nonetheless put up a UZR of 3.4. Overall, the addition of Martin, a bona-fide Gold Glove candidate, along with some degree of consistency in the outfield—as opposed to the merry-go-round of sadness the Mariners trotted out last year—should improve the pathetic numbers put up in 2015. Furthermore, Jerry amassed some depth by acquiring defensive standout Boog Powell, for whom I will happily road-trip down to Tacoma to watch his scansorial center field defense. As the current M's outfield ages (Smith and Guti are both 33, Aoki is 34), it will be interesting to watch how Jerry continues to build depth through the minor leagues and possible trades, for Jerry never sleeps.

Much has been made of the Mariners’ offensive improvements, but Jerry also addressed glaring holes in the defense over the off-season. In 2016, we should see more balls find gloves rather than dugout, and will hopefully witness the Kill Machine in action. Jerry Dipoto went into the offseason with a clear goal in mind—to make the Mariners more athletic—and his signings bear out that philosophy. Now, we will watch how well philosophy translates into practice.