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40 in 40: Ryon Healy

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The Mariners’ likely Opening Day first baseman is a statistical anomaly.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics

Despite what Ron Washington may have told you, first base shouldn’t be this hard. For athletes good enough to compete in the major leagues, first base is least demanding defensive position by a significant margin. Good defensive play at the cold corner is useful, but you are there to hit, and Seattle’s 1Bs have been unable to do so for over a decade. We’ve gnashed our teeth and made jokes and begged John Olerud to reverse the witch’s curse he placed on Safeco’s south side, all to no avail. Richie Sexson posted a 117 wRC+ in 2006, earning a 2.4 fWAR season. Since then, only Russell Branyan’s 2009 campaign has been even an average showing. Only the Texas Rangers have had worse production at first since Sexson’s decline began 11 years ago, and nobody else is even close.

1B Production 2007-2017

Group PAs fWAR wRC+
Group PAs fWAR wRC+
League Average 227906 21.8 114
Mariners 7350 0.8 98
11 years of bizarre futility. Fangraphs

Seattle ranks 29th in all of baseball in both wRC+ and fWAR from the 1B position during that stretch. To fill the hole, most of our site hoped for a spicy Carlos Santana signing. Instead we got the massive flank of mutton that is Ryon Healy.

Healy’s best skills are apparent to baseball novices and experts alike. He’s massive - one of the ten or fifteen tallest position players in the MLB last year - and his power is unsurprising. He ranked 19th in average home run distance (413 feet) and was in the top 10 percent of players by number of hits with a 95+ exit velocity in 2017. The soon-to-be 26 year old is colossal and has the titanic power to match.

A pitch that was handled.
Baseball Savant

It’s beautiful in its simplicity.

If Healy gets another 600 PAs, he should hit another 25-30 HRs this year. Whether that will be enough to carry his other limitations is another matter. Ironically, Oakland, the root of Moneyball and the team popularly credited with the the spread of sabermetrics to the masses, is the origin point for Healy, a player whose inability to draw walks is such a detriment that it may hold an otherwise strong offensive player back.

Healy hit 25 homers in 2017 and walked 23 times in his 605 PAs. Only eight other players since 1900 have hit 25 or more homers and walked 23 or fewer times in a season. You and I might think it’s easier to draw a walk than hit a baseball 400 feet, but Ryon Healy thinks we’re chumps. As prospect writer emeritus Ethan Novak has noted, Healy’s struggles have come on pitches low and away from him, and he’s struggled to avoid chasing them. Even still, it’s not that Healy strikes out too much, it’s that he had the 5th lowest BB% (3.8%!) among qualified hitters in 2017. When the entirety of your value is dependent on contact, you better make really good contact and/or be extremely fast. Healy is quicker than one might expect, with a 26.7 ft/sec sprint speed that matches Taylor Motter, but he’s still not been a plus baserunner.

Put it all together and that’s a narrow pathway to success for any player, especially a first baseman. With lefties Mike Ford and Daniel Vogelbach around, it’s possible a platoon emerges to start the season allowing Healy to expand upon his 135 career wRC+ vs. LHPs. I wouldn’t expect that to last, however, as the limitations of the pitching staff seem destined to force Seattle to an eight-man bullpen.

In many ways, Healy is the perfect distillation of what 2018’s Mariners feel like right now. There’s something there, and Healy’s torrid offensive showing in 2016 wasn’t a total fluke, but he has to be more than what he was last year to help Seattle in 2018. He’s a proactive swing changer, who worked with Bobby Tewksbary (a la Mitch Haniger) and fits the mold of mechanically curious players the Mariners have frequently targeted in Jerry Dipoto’s tenure. He’s an interesting young player who should benefit from playing a easier defensive position, but that ceiling may be capped without offensive improvements. It’s not outlandish to predict Healy is around league-average and breaks the cycle of suffering at first base. The trouble is, Seattle’s roster is packed with players boasting a wide range of potential outcomes.

Healy has the tools (and the biceps) necessary to break the wretched cycle Seattle has endured at first base, but he’s a worrisome Plan A.