Why Nelson Cruz and the State of Mariners Outfield Defense Matter

Posts from Jim Bowden on Twitter and Buster Olney link Seattle to signing Nelson Cruz, probably some time this week.  No need to lose this in the celebration of the week’s Super Bowl hype, but according to them the M’s will add Cruz to the melange of outfielders the M’s have accumulated during the offseason.

Of all the positions the M’s tinkered with the past couple of years, their vision of who should play the outfield at Safeco Field, a pitchers park that suppresses power, astounds me.  I’m a great believer that an outfielder’s number one responsibility in the game is to reduce the number of hits his pitchers give up. A good outfield makes your pitching staff better. A bad outfield makes mediocre or poor pitchers even worse. Yet in 2013, and apparently in 2014, the M’s opted for outfielders who range from questionable to bad defenders. They’re too old, too injured, are playing out of position, or are inexperienced.

Try to remember when the Mariners were good; I know that’s hard.  Say 2000-2003, they depended on at least one very good outfielder, center fielder Mike Cameron, combined with at least league average defenders in the corners.  In 2000 those were Rickey Henderson (!) and Jay Buhner.  Though they were both nearing the ends of their careers, they were close to league average for range. (No UZR for 2000.)  The M’s went on to win 91 games, and their division, before losing to the eventual world champion Yankees in the ALCS.

In 2001, the M’s got a huge upgrade with the addition of Ichiro in right field and filled in with an assortment of pieces in left.  The M’s won 116 games.  The pitching staff was quite good, led the league in WHIP, top 5 in BB/9, HR/9, but were middle of the pack in K/9. Importantly, they led the league in defense, in traditional statistics like fielding percentage and more advanced stats like Rtot/yr.

In the M’s last year of greatness, 2003, the M’s had a very good outfield. This was the year after Lou Piniella left for Tampa, and they’d received outfielder Randy Winn in compensation.

LF Randy Winn 3.6 UZR     CF Mike Cameron  19.2 UZR     RF Inchiro Suzuki  21.1 UZR

That team won 93 games with a pitching staff that could hardly be considered household names. 2003 is our first year for Ultimate Zone Rating statistics, so we can have a clearer idea of the quality of each of these outfielders. Previous years we can only make comparisons based on what the rest of the league did. In UZR, positive numbers represents run saved, negative numbers represent runs lost.  A 0.0 rating is league average. The pitching staff included Jamie Moyer, who went on to win 21 games, but also had good years from such household names as Ryan Franklin and Joel Piniero.  As a team the M’s again led the league in WHIP, but gave up more home runs.  Notably, this team was first or second in defensive statistics including Rtot and Rdrs

The last year the M’s finished above .500, 2009, when they surprised the world by winning 85 games.  They mostly did it with pitching and great defense. The outfield, with centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez having arguably one of the greatest defensive years in history, was very good.  It was the year Felix Hernandez won his Cy Young Award. But the rest of the pitching staff was pretty forgettable. Lots of injuries and Jarrod Washburn traded midseason to Detroit forced the team to cobble together a staff.

Even so the outfield defense, saved a ton of runs and kept fly ball pitchers like Washburn and Jason Vargas respectable. Left field became a bit of a black hole after shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt ran over Endy Chavez early in the season, but the guys who replaced him could at least catch the ball and didn’t hurt the team.

LF Endy Chavez 4.3 UZR;  LF Bill Hall 1.5 UZR;  LF Wladimir Balantien 7.0; UZR  CF Franklin Gutierrez 31 UZR; RF Ichiro Suzuki  9.1 UZR

These are what good outfield defenses look like.  Unfortunately the past two years the M’s have changed their philosophy.  After several years of historically bad offense, Jack Zdurencik sought some help wherever he could get it to aid his struggling youngsters.  In doing so he brought in a crop of aging veterans and bad defenders to pump up the M’s runs scored. Mostly they played in the outfield.  Zdurencik also counted on Gutierrez to once again roam center field, recovered from his host of injuries and illnesses, but he never made it out of Spring Training, forcing Michael Saunders to play center.  Saunders is a plus corner outfielder but isn’t suited for center. The outfield was decimated by injury forcing guys to play out of position or with much greater frequency than they should have.  This is the result, a historically terrible outfield.

LF Raul Ibanez -16.7 UZR; LF Jason Bay -4.7; CF Michael Saunders -9.6 UZR; CF Endy Chavez -4.6 UZR; RF Michael Morse -11.9 UZR; OF Dustin Ackley -7.0 UZR

This year Zdurencik has assembled a similar motley crew of outfielders. Michael Saunders is likely the only true starting outfielder in the bunch.  The rest is a cobbled together assemblage of players who are either broken, bad, out of position or trying to learn the position.  Corey Hart is coming off knee surgeries, and according to a January 27 interview with Bob Dutton, is not yet sufficiently recovered to begin practice in the field.  Logan Morrison, likewise coming off knee surgery also has poor defensive ratings in the outfield.  Dustin Ackley, likely in the mix for an outfield spot since Robinson Cano is a lock at second base, looked lost in centerfield last year, but will likely be in the melange for something out there. The UZR ratings are simply ratings for games played in their most recent season.  Rating players over 150 games look much worse.

LF Corey Hart (2012)-0.4; Dustin Ackley .7.0 UZR, CF Michael Saunders -9.6 UZR (RF 5.4 UZR); OF Logan Morrison (2012) -6.9 UZR, OF Franklin Gutierrez -2.4 UZR; RF Nelson Cruz -4.3 UZR

There are lots of criticisms of Nelson Cruz in the blogosphere.  All are pretty legit.  Is he really much of a hitter; will he provide the right-handed upgrade the M’s need? Will he cost too much? How many years? How much power will he provide in spacious Safeco’s notoriously cool, damp air?  And how much of that power was previously PED amplified?  What is clear is that Cruz is a below average outfielder joining a crowded, bad outfield in a big ballpark.

What is equally clear is that with Hart probably not ready to go, the M’s need an outfielder.  He’s certainly not the kind of outfielder I’d choose.  I want guys who can get to balls hit in their general direction.  The thump is much less important to me. Lots of teams, including the 2010 and 2012 world champion San Francisco Giants, have gotten by on lots of defense and less thump.

It isn’t clear who all the members of the Mariners rotation will be, but you can write in Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma in indelible marker, and it will probably include a couple of rookies who need the confidence that catchable balls will be caught, and not drop in for singles or go for doubles.  Zdurencik isn’t doing these guys or their mates any favors by adding one more range-limited player to the outfield pastures. Outfield is an incredibly important defensive position requiring speed, reflexes and athletic ability.  It is not a place for an assemblage of sore legs, mediocre arms and bats one puts together in the hope it will improve the team.  That’s fantasy baseball, not the major league game.   You can’t win that way.

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