Mariners Get Defensive

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seattle-mariners-logoThe Seattle Mariners are in the midst of a fine rebound season from their 101 loss 2008 season. The organization has changed the culture in so many ways. First year General Manager Jack Zduriencik had quite a challenge in rebuilding the once proud franchise. The 2008 offense finished 13th in the American League in runs scored, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. Their pitching staff had a 4.73 team ERA and 1.512 WHIP. This season, the Mariners currently rank 13th in runs scored and on base percentage and 12th in slugging percentage. Their pitching has improved a bit as evidenced by their 3.96 ERA and 1.396 WHIP. So, with limited improvement to the pitching staff and virtually the same offense, how have the Mariners gone from winning just 61 games in 2008 to already having 63 wins in 2009? It often goes unnoticed and it won’t get much offseason headlines, but Zduriencik and his staff made defense the number one priority.

Why defense? In the current marketplace, defense is still relatively cheap. All organizations realize that players who get on base at a high percentage are the most valuable hitters. That’s why one doesn’t see the bargain hitters being signed or easily acquired as the Red Sox did with Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, Todd Walker, and Kevin Millar in the 2002 off season. Everyone knows that on base percentage is valuable and will pay for it. It’s quantifiable. Defense, to a degree, is still undervalued and still under defined. Because of the multi-faceted nature of defense (positioning, outs, shifts, etc.), the question still remains how to properly evaluate it. For most of Baseball’s history, scouts have been the main evaluation source. The eyes were depended upon to make judgments as to the player’s range, arm strength, defensive awareness, and other defensive abilities. With the information explosion in Baseball, sabermatricians began to devise defensive metrics. Statistics such as the zone rating, ultimate zone rating, and range factor are just a few of the defensive metrics bandied about amongst sabermatricians. Their value has been hotly debated, but there is little doubt that they are, at the least, another source of valuable information.

Evaluating Defense in Seattle
Many speculated that Jack Zduriencik would be a traditional General Manager in the sense that he would eschew the statistical analysis part of player evaluation. Zduriencik calmed those doubts right away and has operated the Mariners with a balance between statistical analysis and traditional scouting methods. While supporters of either side will argue that their method of evaluation is proper and the only one needed, the Mariners (as well as most organizations) utilize the best of both evaluation practices.

Tony Blengino, a Special Assistant to the Zduriencik, believes that all successful organizations utilize both methods to achieve success. “It’s a blend. The scouting information is just as important. The statistics add another level. It shouldn’t be scouting against numbers. Successful organizations have to find a way to blend the two. It’s our (front office executives) responsibility to blend the two.” Indeed, teams that utilize all tools are the ones that will be successful. In reality, all teams—even the A’s and Red Sox, use some form of both methods. In fact, both evaluation methods shouldn’t even be pitted against one another. Blengino agrees, “Moneyball brought it to the floor the first time and pitted scouts and statistical analysis against each other. It shouldn’t be that way. A GM has to synthesize the two in order to get accurate information and make the correct decisions.”

It makes sense to have both forms of evaluation as reliable defensive statistical data is not readily available when organizations are scouting players for the draft. Most high schools and colleges are not spending their resources on defensive metrics. Major League organizations depend on their scouts to evaluate amateur talent. As players progress to professional baseball, teams collect their own data. Even then, using statistics is not completely efficient as proper defensive analysis requires a large sample size. “Sample sizes have to be large in fielding. Hitting is precise measurements. Fielding is more of an art”, sates Blengino. Take a look at New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. The defensive metrics say he is having an “off” defensive season, but that’s just it. His body of work shows that he’s an excellent defensive player who is simply having a down season. Blengino says this is common and shouldn’t be an argument against statistical analysis, “When you look at that data and see an odd poor season, you go to your scouts to see why. If there is nothing wrong physically and he still has the same reactions and skill set, it’s just a blip. There are more blips on defense.” So, the data is relevant, but there still needs to be some common sense and further analysis when it comes to interpreting that data. In the case of Teixeira, he may be having a poor defensive season by his standards (thus far—remember sample size is important), but that does not mean he is a poor first baseman. The data says otherwise.

With defensive metrics still relatively new, teams are still finding the most efficient ways to use them. The Mariners are certainly aware of Ultimate Zone Rating and Range Factor, but they are more inclined to use their own metrics (as most teams are). Blengino gives a reason for teams using their own measurements, “Our own are easily adjustable measures as they build in nature of our pitching staff and our defensive positioning. There’s a margin for error with positioning with many of the public metrics. If you over-shift quite a bit, the shortstop may have skewed out of zone ratings. When we were in Milwaukee, we would see this all the time as we tended to over-shift a lot. (JJ) Hardy’s and (Rickie) Weeks’ numbers were always skewed because of this. To properly evaluate teams have to know the context of how those numbers are generated. So, we use our own metrics to account for that. HIT FX will be the breakthrough for reliable defensive measurements.”

To illustrate the Mariners’ varied approach one doesn’t have to look too hard to find more of a traditional scout. Andrew Percival, The Mariners’ Advanced Video Scout, relies completely on what he sees when evaluating defense. “To be honest I don’t do very much sabermetric evaluation of defense.  When I write reports on the outfielders we’re about to see, I focus on their arm strength, the jumps they get off the bat, their range, their hands, whether they get behind the ball, how aggressively they play the position (to stop extra base hits, etc).  All of those things are done through observation (on video).  I might be aware of what a player’s Ultimate Zone Rating is, how many errors they’ve made, or how many OF assists they’ve recorded (relative to how many innings they’ve played out there), but these numbers are really just a quick brainstorm to potentially pound me in the right direction or ask some questions before viewing the video.”

The Plan Comes Together
The integration of both methods has allowed the Mariners to already improve upon their 2008 record. They used that combination of methods when making their three team trade in the winter in which they acquired centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez and veteran outfielder Endy Chavez among their seven player haul. Gutierrez was the key to the deal; Zduriencik would not have made the trade otherwise. What made the Mariners think Gutierrez was so valuable and capable of being a quality centerfielder? Of course, the answers came from their scouts and the statistics. Blengino explains, “Franklin Gutierrez had tremendous defensive numbers and the scouting eyes agreed with the metrics. We thought that this was a guy who was playing right field with Cleveland only because Grady Sizemore was blocking him from being in center. He was targeted as the player we could get. We had much to improve on over last year’s team. It’s a lot easier to gain value in defense in trades and free agents. Building a strong outfield was attainable.”

The acquisition of Gutierrez has had an immediate impact according the defensive metrics. In 2008, the Mariners’ centerfielders had a UZR (ultimate zone rating) of 2.9 which was 12th in Baseball. This year, their centerfield UZR is 20.5, by far the best in Baseball. Their 2008 centerfield range factor was 10th best a 2.5. This season, it is 2.9, second in the league (behind Baltimore’s 3.0). What does this all mean? It means that Gutierrez is getting to more balls in centerfield. It means that the pitching staff is having more plays made for them because of Gutierrez’s find defensive range and play. Obviously, the scouting eyes agree as Gutierrez is widely regarded as one of the best centerfielders in the game. Throw in his .290/.348/.439 batting line with 14 homeruns, 52 RBI, and 9 stolen bases and it is easy to see that the Mariners got the best player in that 12 player trade. He was certainly overlooked when this trade occurred as most focused on JJ Putz and Joe Smith being the valuable assets moved. That was because Gutierrez’s offensive numbers didn’t impress.  What the Mariners received is arguably the best defensive centerfield in the game as only Baltimore’s Adam Jones has better all around defensive metrics.

It is that same thought process that spurred the Mariners to acquire Jack Wilson after trading their shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals. “Betancourt was not exhibiting range at shortstop that we needed. Shortstop is the most important defensive position on the field and we just weren’t getting the defensive production from him. Jack Wilson has done it over a long range of time and he is the type of defense player who is reliable and who can be spectacular player. That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you get a player who is reliable but incapable of making the spectacular play and vice versa. Wilson gives us both”, adds Blengino.

The metrics do illustrate Blengino’s point as Betancourt’s UZR was minus-8 for the season, a poor mark, especially for a shortstop. Jack Wilson’s UZR for 2009 is 12.8 which represents an incredible gain of defensive range for the Mariners. A look at Wilson’s career defensive metrics illustrates that “blip factor” that Blengino mentioned. Wilson has a reputation of being a top defensive shortstop. The numbers show that, but in 2006, his UZR was minus-5, an almost Betancourt-like number, made worse by the fact that his 2005 rating was 15.5. What happened? Perhaps Wilson was battling an injury which decreased his range. Whatever the reason, Wilson has performed within his career averages over the past two seasons, proving that “blip factor”.

The Results
For the season, the Mariners’ team UZR is 52.1, second best mark in Baseball, behind the San Francisco Giants. Last season, they ranked 20th in Baseball with a minus-20.9 mark. Perhaps this explains how the Mariners have already topped their 2008 win total despite similar offensive production and a pitching staff decimated with injuries. Of course, it always helps to have Felix Hernandez, a Cy Young Award favorite, throwing every fifth day. Hernandez is one of the most talented pitchers in the game and seems to be helped by the improved defense. His 2009 strikeout rate and walk rate are similar to his career marks. Yet, he has given up 20 less hits than innings pitched. In his four full seasons, he’s only managed to give up fewer hits than innings pitched just once, last season when he gave up just two less hits than innings pitched. Make no mistake, Hernandez is talented, but he compiling his best season with the Mariners’ best defensive team in quite some time.

The Mariners have shown remarkable improvement in just one short season. There is still much work to do, especially on the offensive side of the ball. However, Zduriencik and his staff have improved the team quickly by addressing the defense. It was easier this season to do this as defense is still undervalued. But, as teams see the quick Mariners’ improvement, one can be sure that defensive value will be adjusted. The difference is that unlike hitting, defensive evaluation is more of an art form. A batter either gets on base or he doesn’t; it’s definitive. However, defense has so many factors that go into proper measurement. The real race for proper defensive evaluation is how good teams are at analysis. It’s why teams come up with their own metrics and won’t share them with the public. It’s also why teams employ scouts as the scouting eye still has value and can either validate the numbers or challenge the numbers. The Mariners’ combined approach has yielded great results.

Rest assured, other teams will follow their lead.

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