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The Defensive Demise of Franklin Gutierrez

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Why it's time to give up on Franklin Gutierrez, outfielder, and perhaps even Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle Mariner. (But first, an ode to Death to Flying Things.)

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a happy article.

Sure, the Mariners are currently in the midst of a dispiriting, traumatic, perhaps season-ending five-game losing streak. Sure, much of the mid-August hope has faded away into early-September gloom. But that's not why this article is so sad.

No, this article aims to confront a difficult truth, one that has been staring us in the face for much of the year but is glaringly apparent now. This truth is that it's time to consider moving on from Franklin Gutierrez after this season, or at the very least reconsider how he has been used. Because he's just not the same player as the young center fielder we were first introduced to, the one nicknamed "Death to Flying Things," the exciting six-win player that seemed like a franchise cornerstone back in 2009.

***

Remember those days? Remember what Guti was capable of?

We're talking Superman-level feats here.

He burst onto the scene after coming over in the JJ Putz trade, and he quickly made Mariners fans remember that deal instead as the Franklin Gutierrez trade. Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs graded his season as worth 6+ WAR, and it's not hard to see why - a 103 wRC+ combined with elite defense at one of the most important positions on the team? Sign me up.

But he also won over fans and remained emblematic of the new Jack Zduriencik regime. Jack Z built his first team around speed and defense, two perennially undervalued traits, and they surprised nearly everyone en route to an 85-77 record (though, of course, coupled with a -52 run differential). Guti was this new wave, a suddenly-elite player stolen in a trade.

Of course, a year later, the bottom fell out. Acquisitions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins could not prevent the M's from cratering to 61-101, and that same stink even pervaded Gutierrez, who hit just .245/.303/.363 though put up a respectable 2.1 fWAR.

After that season, as we all know, injuries robbed Guti of his prime. From 2011-2014, Guti played in just 173 of a possible 648 games. Scott Weber wrote this beautiful piece when it was announced that Franklin would miss the entire '14 campaign.

Something is wrong with Gutierrez. Something internal. This isn't a normal set of circumstances, this isn't a prolonged string of bad luck. Forget Death to Flying Things, forget the random flashes of power, forget the speed, and the carefree magic that he popped out to show. This goes beyond the game. This is a player that we've loved watching, that made jaws drop on TV and imaginations run wild on the radio as Dave painted a picture we couldn't possibly believe. Gutierrez was brilliant at a very difficult sport, and is now terrible at digesting food. It isn't supposed to happen like this.

Derek Jeter is retiring at the end of the year. When he's reflecting on his career, I wonder if he'll remember that he was supposed to have one more hit. It isn't supposed to be this easy, but Gutierrez often made it so.

Guticatch

And yet, he came back. He was outstanding last season, but he was also a completely different Franklin Gutierrez than the one we'd seen before. This version slugged .620, hit 15 dingers in just 189 plate appearances, posted career-best numbers in average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

Following that abbreviated season, Guti re-upped with the M's on a steal of a contract: $1.5 million, with nearly $3 million more available in appearance-based incentives. Clearly, he only wanted to play in Seattle and the Mariners were more than happy to oblige him.

***

But that brings us to the present, where the Mariners are fighting for a playoff spot and/or relevancy, where every single spot on the 25-man roster is valuable and every game could make the difference.

In this world, Franklin Gutierrez has played 66 games as an outfielder for the M's, and he's been...uh...bad. It doesn't matter if you look at advanced stats or if you prefer the eye test - this isn't just a crazy opinion I have.

He just doesn't have the speed any more to chase down fly balls. Witness, the play that made Divish tweet that out:

This is a play that, in my mind, should be made by the average right fielder. The ball hangs up in the air for a loooooong time, and it doesn't require much of a special route - just run as fast as you can toward the foul line. And yet.

I miss the old Guti
The catch 'em all Guti
The fly around Guti
The Golden Glove Guti

- Kanye West

A statistical analysis reveals, unfortunately, the same thing. In 427.2 innings this season, Guti has a UZR/150 of -11.2, which roughly puts him between "Poor" and "Awful" according to the Fangraphs glossary on defense. Now, UZR is a notoriously tricky stat that often requires a very large sample size. But if we take the average of his past four seasons - he played over 300 innings in the outfield in each of those - then his UZR/150 remains below -10, with only one season indicating that he's an above-average, or even above-poor, outfielder.

And it's not just UZR that indicates Guti may be on his last legs defensively. Baseball-Reference uses defensive runs saved instead of UZR, and their calculations say the same thing: Strongly negative this year, barely better than replacement last year, and pretty bad the two seasons before that.

Now, this isn't to say that Gutierrez has been useless. He still has a wRC+ of 110, and that figure jumps to 142 when one looks only at his plate appearances against lefties. Anybody that can mash lefties like that has some value, especially given his bargain of a contract.

But that doesn't mean he should keep playing right field with any sort of regularity - and that's where the Mariners roster crunch comes into play.

The M's have a number of poor fielders in the outfield, with Seth Smith and Nelson Cruz both counting in the "good hitters" category and Norichika Aoki falling in the "well, he's on the roster for now" category. Given that Cruz is an everyday designated hitter, that basically means the platoon of Guti/Smith in right field creates a serious defensive hole, one that the Mariners should look long and hard at once November rolls around.

I've talked with some people who wouldn't be surprised if Guti retires this offseason. And honestly, that wouldn't surprise me too much. It must be hard to have your playing style change so dramatically, and it's not like he's going to get more athletic or more sprightly in the outfield. Could the Mariners keep him around? Absolutely, but they would do so knowing that he should play in the outfield as little as possible, which is difficult given the bat of Nelson Cruz.

If this is it, however, then thank you, Franklin. You've had a wonderful career, and I only wish you could've kept that dazzling defense just a bit longer.