The Deplorable State of Mariners Defense

Kyle Seager error
Kyle Seager bobbles a ball on opening day in Texas.

I’ve blathered relentlessly about the shaky condition of Mariners pitching.  I haven’t focused quite so much on the M’s problems in the field.  A defense can make your pitching lots better, or can make it seem much worse.

There’s no nice way to say this.  The M’s suck defensively.  How sucky?  Well, let’s approach this from a few different angles. Let’s begin anecdotally.  Listen to the Mariners television coverage and resident M’s veteran and rooter, Mike Blowers comment on their lack of defensive prowess.  Blowers often turns to traditional stats like fielding percentage as his reference and we’re going to see that is not our friend if we’re looking for support. We’ll also see that advanced metrics show the 2016 Mariners to be lousy in the field.

Do they catch the ball?

Traditional statistics take a look at numbers of errors vs. numbers of chances and calculate a fielding percentage.  So lets take a look at that using the stats compiled at ESPN.com. We find the M’s rank 13 out of 15 AL teams in fielding percentage with a .982 rating, tied with the Angels. The M’s are also tied with the Angels for 13th for most errors with 58.  So near the bottom of the league for most plays converted into extra outs for the bad guys. Only the Twins are worse.  The M’s are also near the bottom of the league for converting those errors into enemy runs.  The Mariners have allowed 35 unearned runs in 2016. Only the Twins and Red Sox have allowed more, with 36 and 41 (!!) respectively. The Mariners have allowed lots of extra base runners, which also extended innings, and created lots of extra opportunities for opposing teams to score.  Their numbers are much worse than their division rivals:

  • Texas-50 errors, .985 fielding pct., 29 unearned runs
  • Houston-41 errors, .989 fielding pct., 21 unearned runs (best overall numbers in the AL)
  • Seattle-58 errors, .982 fielding pct., 35 unearned runs
  • Oakland-57 errors, .983 fielding pct., 22 unearned runs
  • Los Angeles-58 errors, .983 fielding pct., 29 unearned runs.

Using a less traditional measure, Revised Zone Rating (RZR) which measures “the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out” (Hardball Times) the M’s are poor as a team.  Their RZR of .777 is 13th in the American League and considered poor to below average according to standards set by designer John Dewan of the Hardball Times.

Do they get to the ball?

The other part of defense is range.  Players who can get to more balls also make more plays.  Sometimes that means more errors because players are getting more chances.  But it can also mean that double in the gap gets caught instead of being an extra base hit that scores runs. Traditional statistics don’t measure this very well. When we were building our teams for Sherco Grand Slam Baseball we’d take a look at Assists and Putouts.  But that doesn’t really measure range very well. Using that as a measure the Mariners rank pretty much in the middle of the pack.

But range is better measured by a couple of advanced statistics, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).

DRS combines many defensive ratings to reach a description in runs saved.  A rating of 0 is average.  In Defensive Runs Saved the Mariners rank 12th, behind the Rays and ahead of the woeful Twins with a -21 rating. That is not good, but much better than the statues on the Athletics who scored a whopping -70.

UZR is amazing statistics found in the Fielding Bible that tracks each defensive play and divides the field into zones.  A player’s range rating is determined by the balls he gets to in zones that are in, adjacent to and beyond his zone.  We’ll take a look at individual zone ratings soon.  But as a team, the M’s struggle with UZR.  They rank 12 th with a UZR of -17.2, with 0 being average.

Looking for a bright spot?  The Mariners have a positive DPR (Double Play Runs saved) of 1.2.

What does this all mean?

Well, the big take away is that the M’s aren’t very good defensively.  Measure it by any statistic you want, old statistics, new statistics, the M’s are a lousy defensive team.  If you are Jerry Dipoto and one of your team goals is run prevention, this team of guys is probably not the one that’s going to get you there.

The other point is that a bad defensive team makes a   pitching staff look much worse. A great example of that is in Cleveland where they supposedly had the best pitching in baseball that would take them to the ALCS (where they would beat the Mariners) in 2015.  But their fielding was so terrible, the Indians were nothing more than an also-ran. Today, the Indians have the best defense in the American League.  It’s no accident their pitching is also superb.  This weekend they will likely pass Texas for the best record in the AL.

Despite the shortcomings of the Mariners pitching staff, it’s impossible to believe the defense has not contributed to their struggles.  If the M’s are going to make a run in the second half, the defense must improve immediately.

 

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