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40 in 40: Ryon Healy

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First baseman Ryon Healy could prove his worth to the Seattle Mariners by simply showing more restraint at the plate

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Seattle Mariners Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Ryon Healy?

Is it that O that is normally an A? Maybe his protruding ears that add to an undeniable charm? Perhaps you think of his ineffable goofiness as he took the “Aw shucks, fellas, I’m just happy to be here” role on an extremely talented 2018 Mariner roster. Many of you will remember how amped he was during James Paxton’s no-hitter.

Unfortunately, the first images that spring to mind when I think of Healy is a big swing-and-miss, usually followed by an Eeyore trot back to the dugout. In one season, Ryon Healy already placed himself nicely in the box of Mariners who I love as a person but can’t really buy into as a baseball player. The big, huggable bro whiffs a lot and possesses maddeningly inefficient plate discipline. In just over 1,400 MLB plate appearances across three seasons, the 26-year-old sports a 22.3 K% and 4.4 BB%. In counting stats, that’s 315 career strikeouts against just 62 walks. 49 patient hitters drew more walks last season.

Of the skills needed to be a productive MLB hitter, plate discipline seems like the one that’s easiest to learn. Morphing into a massive power hitter in one offseason is unreasonable, and completely transforming a swing path is also hard work. Some guys take years to learn how to hit the ball the other way, while others have to face thousands of live reps before finally figuring out how to hit the breaking stuff. But the act of, just like, not swinging sometimes, seems like it can be learned fairly easily, at least in theory.

Among 24 first baseman who qualified for the 2018 batting title, only Miguel Rojas and Yuli Gurriel had lower walk rates than Healy. Both of those players also brought more than Healy in other areas: in Gurriel’s case, by being a significantly better all-around hitter; and in Rojas’ case, handling defensive duties at every infield position. Gurriel and Rojas also each posted strikeout percentages under 13.5%, well below the league average of 22.3%.

Healy’s 2018 K-rate came in at 21.6%, just under the league average, and smack-dab in the middle of those 24 qualified first basemen. His wRC+, a better indicator of his entire offensive value, was…bad. If not for the toothless year from Ian Desmond, the historically inept season by Chris Davis, and the not-really-a-first-baseman Rojas, Healy would have had the lowest first baseman wRC+ in all of baseball.

Bottom-Five First Basemen wRC+ (2018)

Team Player PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Team Player PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
BAL Chris Davis 522 .168 .243 .296 46 -3.1
MIA Miguel Rojas 528 .252 .297 .346 79 1.0
COL Ian Desmond 619 .236 .307 .422 81 -0.7
SEA Ryon Healy 524 .235 .277 .412 90 -0.8
BAL Trey Mancini 636 .242 .299 .416 93 -0.2

Unsurprisingly, Healy also ranked in the bottom five of batting average, bottom four of Win Probability Added, and bottom two of on-base percentage, BB/K, and fWAR from last year’s first baseman class.

Now, for the good news. Healy did club 24 home runs, which, despite our collective understanding of rate stats being better evaluators than counting stats like HR/RBI, is nothing to sneeze at. Taking big-league pitchers deep 24 times is wildly difficult. RBI, as teammate-dependent as they are, still have value as well. You can’t win without driving some people in, and Healy did that 73 times in 2018. And boy, does his swing look pretty when he’s swatting dingers.

The BABIP gods had him in a stranglehold too, as RyOn’s .257 batting average on balls in play was both 46 points lower than his career average and 39 points lower than the league average. As much grief as we gave him for being largely disappointing at the plate, dude was getting a little unlucky. Some of Healy’s batted ball stats paint a sunnier picture than other advanced metrics.

He mostly avoided soft contact and created hard contact at a similar rate to the average MLB hitter. A 44.2% groundball rate probably isn’t where you want it to be, but that’s also just about in line with the league average. When he hit fly balls, they cleared the fence 17.3 percent of the time, which points to the California native’s prodigious strength and need to elevate the ball more often. While Healy rarely serves the ball to the opposite field, that doesn’t really seem like his biggest offseason priority.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

If Healy is to come back with one major skill improvement in 2019, let’s cross our rain-stained fingers that it’s plate discipline. Healy’s swinging strike percentage (11.4%) isn’t completely outlandish. It’s his propensity for swinging at pitches out of the zone that gets him in trouble. The former Oregon Duck swung at 36.1% of wayward pitches he faced in 2018. That is way too high. While not as bad as Dee Gordon’s inability to lay off the bad stuff, Healy extended the strike zone more than Jean Segura and Mike Zunino, both of whom became poster children for free-swinging approaches during their tenures in Seattle.

Even more troubling is how little Healy actually connects with these would-be balls. To use an example, last year Yuli Gurriel offered at slightly more pitches outside the zone than Healy did. However, the Astros’ first baseman made contact on 77.3% of those swings, while Healy did just 57.6% of the time. In other words, Healy tries and fails to hit pitches outside of the zone at distressing rates, completely zapping any chances he has of walking, and in turn, becoming a good enough hitter to receive every day playing time at a premium offensive position. Pitchers surely understand this too, and realize that there’s no reason to ever throw the ball over the plate to #27 in blue.

Joey Votto became a god-like hitter by spitting on pitches off the plate, but also by getting bat to ball when he does chase. For Healy to ingratiate himself to Mariner fans, he needs to do at least one of those things. Either keep the bat on your shoulders more frequently, or at the very least, pull the trigger on off-the-plate ones that are actually hittable.

It’s not like he’s dramatically gotten worse, either. The 2018 version of Ryon Healy is almost the same as the 2016 and 2017 versions that played for Oakland. While his walk rate ticked up slightly in his first Mariner voyage, most of the other peripheral numbers live in close proximity to his career stats.

Ryon Healy 2018 vs. Career Stats

Split O-Swing% O-Contact% Contact% BB% K% LD% GB% FB% Hard%
Split O-Swing% O-Contact% Contact% BB% K% LD% GB% FB% Hard%
2018 35.6 53.9 75.8 5.2 21.6 19.2 44.2 36.6 34.3
Career 35.9 57.4 75.9 4.4 22.3 19.2 43.1 37.7 33.3

Advanced defensive stats weren’t kind to Healy either. By FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), our latest first base experiment grades poorly. For the fellow armchair GM’s out there, I’ll point out that Healy still has minor league options, meaning the team could send him to Tacoma if things don’t improve, or even have him start the season there. Should the newly-added Edwin Encarnación and Jay Bruce both make the Opening Day 25, they pit Healy and Daniel Vogelbach directly against each other for a roster spot. Given that Vogelbach is now out of options, I’d like to see the Mariners give him a starting role to begin the season, while Healy hopefully finds his swing in the Pacific Coast League after some grooming at big-league Spring Training.

San Diego Padres v Seattle Mariners
There’s a lot of pictures where he looks like this :(
Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Look, it’s no fun kicking a guy while he’s down. But Ryon Healy was bad last year. There’s no way around it. He truly seems like a sweet guy with a heart of gold, which makes me feel queasy about ripping him so viciously, but facts are facts. By both fWAR and bWAR, Ichiro was a more valuable member of the 2018 team.

After trading Emilio Pagan and Alexander Campos to get Healy, the corner infielder posted a season with more multi-homer games (3) than multi-walk games (1). We haven’t even addressed the preposterous—and low key concerning—differences between his day game production and night game production. If there’s any silver lining to be found from his yearlong vomit fest, it’s that it would be hard to be worse in the future.

Welcome to the 2019 Seattle Mariners, where the new players are fun, the good players are gone, and the bad players can’t possibly be this bad!