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The Mariners’ Defensive Illusion

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The 2018 Mariners built on speed, defense, and making contact, but one part of that trifecta might not be carrying its weight.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One thing about having a transparent GM is that it’s a little like being the student of an exceptionally engaging, occasionally verbose, science teacher. Dipoto lays out the ingredients on the table, explains to us what each one is intended to do, and then mixes up the compound before our very eyes. Sometimes things go off as planned, and Marco Gonzales emerges from a puff of smoke, brandishing a new and improved cutter. Other times, a miscalculation occurs—a flyball pitching staff in the year of the juiced ball, for instance—and we’re all left running to the eyewash station.

Dipoto has been clear about his desire to build a retro Mariners team in the style of a ‘80s National League team, a small and scrappy outfit that, recognizing it can’t compete with the Astros’ shooting gallery of pitchers or the heavy artillery of the Bronx Bombers, will swipe bases and steal hits and LeBlanc themselves into wins. Eschewing heavy hitters and overpriced free agent arms, Dipoto’s acquisitions have focused on all or part of the trifecta of youth, speed, and athleticism. Dipoto went so far this off-season as to bank on the idea that Dee Gordon could make a convincing center fielder, so deep is his belief that raw athleticism trumps defensive polish. He freed Ryon Healy from the yoke of pretending he was a third baseman and stationed the 6’5” slugger at first full-time. He replaced the Easter Island heads manning the outfield with players who might slug less but are also less slug-like. Over the past two years, the Mariners shot out of the basement for defensive runs saved as an outfield unit, mostly thanks to the elite play of Jarrod Dyson and Leonys Martin.

Yet for a team that wishes defense to be one of its calling-cards, this 2018 Mariners squad has put up some relatively ho-hum numbers. Defensive metrics are WAH (Wack As Heck), but each of the major sites sees the Mariners’ defense as average to slightly below average.

Defensive Rankings - Mariners

Site Defensive Measure Ranking (all MLB teams) Ranking (AL) Ranking (AL West)
Site Defensive Measure Ranking (all MLB teams) Ranking (AL) Ranking (AL West)
Baseball Prospectus Defensive Efficiency 17 9 2nd
Baseball Reference Defensive Efficiency Rating 15 9 3rd
Fangraphs Defensive Runs Saved 21 10 5th
Fangraphs UZR 11 8 4th

Even with a hearty degree of doubt built in for defensive metrics, the numbers do not inspire.

Obviously, the Canó suspension has shifted things for the Mariners, but not in a way that should meaningfully impact the numbers. If anything, the numbers should be better with Dee Gordon at his natural home of 2B, where he has already posted 1 Defensive Run Saved compared to the -9 he racked up as an outfielder. In center field, Dee was only making 44% of plays deemed “likely” by Fangraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding, a number he’s more than doubled now that he’s back in his comfort zone. Dee’s continued presence at second should augment the Mariners’ overall defensive numbers.

Who, then, is the culprit on a team that is supposedly built to defend close leads? It’s certainly not Mike Zunino, who has already racked up a team-high 6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). While Z’s offensive numbers have been nothing spectacular this year, even in this, our month of Junino, his defensive numbers are off the charts. Z is making 100% of plays deemed both routine and likely, 67% of those he has an even chance at, and 44% of plays Fangraphs terms “unlikely.” He’s also been a top-ten catcher in RAA, Runs Above Average, and is also top ten in getting calls in his favor. Fangraphs has him as the #4 defensive catcher in all of baseball.

Like Zunino, Kyle Seager is also making up for some offensive wimpiness with an especially strong defensive season. His 3 DRS ranks third on the team, and UZR likes him the most out of any Mariners defender, at 5.3. UZR doesn’t like Jean Segura’s glove as much, but also tabs him for 2 DRS. The infield is dragged down by big boy/best bro Ryon Healy, whose -2.3 UZR and -6 DRS almost entirely offset all the good done by his teammates. The eye test tells me Ryon hasn’t been as bad at first as the numbers say he is, although bringing up the number of Likely plays he makes at first (75%—for contrast, last year’s AL Gold Glove winner Eric Hosmer made almost 90% of those plays) will do a lot to make those numbers look more palatable. As Healy has never played a full season at first, and is learning to move in the opposite direction he did as a third baseman, the hope is some of these kinks will iron themselves out.

That leaves the outfield. First, the good: your eyes tell you Mitch Haniger is a better outfielder than you expected, and the numbers back that up. Haniger’s 5 DRS are second-highest on the team, despite only making Likely plays 62.5% of the time. Having a cannon for an arm and solid instincts will help with that. Unfortunately, Hanimal’s fellow outfielders don’t fare so well, with Guillermo and Gamel putting up a combined -10 DRS between them despite Inside Edge Fielding liking both of them—Gamel has made a startling 33% of catches labeled Unlikely, the highest on the team by a significant margin. Since neither Gamel nor Guillermo hit much—Gamel because he’s been relegated to a platoon role since the arrival of Denard Span, and Guillermo because the magic pixie dust of the beginning of his season seems to have worn off—having these two play plus defense is a must.

Defensive statistics are notoriously wonky, and it’s still early to make any grandiose proclamations. Position switches for both Gordon and Healy cloud the numbers, and the addition of Span upsets the apple-cart of the outfield. However, the fact that the Mariners—who depend heavily on each part of the speed-defense-contact trifecta working in tandem— rank as middle of the pack or worse across so many defensive ranking systems is something to keep an eye on. A three-legged stool is functional. A two-legged stool is an accident waiting to happen.