Seattle Mariners

For Seattle Mariners: DEE-FENSE!

General manager Jack Zduriencik changed the course of the rudderless Seattle Mariners on Dec. 10, 2008, when he acquired outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez in a three-team deal that sent closer J.J. Putz to the Mets.

Zduriencik changed the way a lot of us looked at the Mariners later that evening when he explained the logic behind the blockbuster deal in a radio interview.

“With Gutierrez and Chavez in the same outfield as Ichiro Suzuki,” Zduriencik said, “there won’t be too many balls dropping in for hits.”

With those words, fans who grew up believing in the sanctity of offensive statistics – “the back of a baseball card tells you everything you need to know,” is as familiar an axiom as “the key to winning is pitching, fundamentals and the three-run homer” – were goaded into looking at the Mariners from a different perspective.

With Chavez and Ichiro on the outfield corners and Franklin “Death to Flying Things” Gutierrez chasing everything hit in between, speed and agility had turned from an afterthought into the team’s identity.

Chavez’s knee wouldn’t survive the season, but a blueprint designed for the Mariners to take advantage of spacious Safeco Field had been put in place. If they were going to win, they’d win on the strength of their fielding and pitching, with just enough offense to get them through the night.

A run saved …

Before “run prevention” became baseball’s trendiest term since “moneyball,” before statisticians crunched numbers to help quantify performances that had never been accurately quantified, before the Mariners (no world championships since their 1977 debut) embraced a concept that would be emulated by the Red Sox (two world championships since 2004), the late Casey Stengel cut to the chase.

“I don’t like them fellas who drive in two and give up three,” Stengel used to say, demonstrating the logic, if not the grammar, of a man who came to be known as “The Old Perfessor.”

Stengel, who was born in 1890 and retired as a manager in 1965, would seem an improbable proponent of a cutting-edge theory. But when baseball executives in 2010 refer to run prevention as primary component in putting together a cost-effective roster, it comes down to this: A run saved by defense in the top of an inning means just as much as a run scored in the bottom of an inning.

For teams that aren’t prone to scoring in bunches, or teams that can score but are reluctant to overpay free agents whose price tags have become inflated by a market inherently favorable to offensive numbers, it makes both practical and fiscal sense to be wary of “them fellas who drive in two and give up three.”

The Mariners scored 31 fewer runs last season than they did in 2008. But thanks to a commitment to defense that began by identifying Gutierrez as their everyday center fielder, the Mariners gave up 119 fewer runs than they did in 2008. Not to underestimate manager Don Wakamatsu’s work in repairing a clubhouse that had devolved into splinter factions under John McLaren, but nothing explains Seattle’s jump from 61 victories to 85 victories more succinctly than the 119 runs opponents didn’t score.

Although Zduriencik’s work was recognized by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which awarded him the Andrew “Rube” Foster trophy as AL Executive of the Year, it’s not as though he pioneered the concept of run prevention. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays gave up 233 fewer runs than they did in 2007, a transformation that vaulted the Rays from AL East bottom feeders to AL pennant winners. In any case, between the ’08 Rays and the ’09 Mariners, the rest of baseball has taken notice.

The Red Sox, traditionally a franchise that puts a premium on right-handed mashers fit for Fenway Park, made a succession of offseason moves that found some Boston fans wondering if the front office had forgotten about the hitter-friendly dimensions of home. Former Mariners center fielder Mike Cameron, who at 37 still plays the position with an intuitive flair that masks his grasp of the fundamentals, was signed as a free agent. Cameron’s arrival allowed last season’s center fielder in Boston, Jacoby Ellsbury, to move to left field, a position previously occupied by Jason Bay, a solid hitter overmatched in the field.

“We needed to improve our run prevention,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said in December when Cameron was introduced to the Boston media.

Epstein wasn’t finished. A few weeks later, he signed third baseman Adrian Beltre, another former Mariner known for his elite defense. With Beltre at third, Kevin Youkilis goes to first base, where he could contend for a Gold Glove. The Red Sox infield has been further improved at shortstop where free agent Marco Scutaro represents an upgrade over Nick Green.

Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s, whose affinity for castaways with shrewd strike-zone judgment and the ability to blast the occasional three-run homer was chronicled in the 2003 book “Moneyball,” have shifted their emphasis from power to speed, from offense to defense. The new-look, left-to-right outfield of Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp and Ryan Sweeney combined for 12 homers last year, but general manager Billy Beane is nothing if not flexible.

“At the end of the day, if you score 500 runs in a season and your opponents score 400,” Beane said recently, “it’s the same as scoring 1,000 and giving up 900. You try to use some equation and some combination that allows you to succeed. For us and the Mariners, it’s defense.”

No offseason transaction more defined baseball’s trend toward run prevention than the Houston Astros’ decision to unload shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was paid $15 million last season while producing a minus-16 runs saved in one defensive metric. Tejada’s ability to swing a bat has never been an issue – he hit .313 last season, with 14 homers – but he’s the classic example of Stengel’s least favorite player: the fella who drives in two while giving up three.

Instead of re-signing Tejada, the Astros promoted 26-year old rookie Tommy Manzella from Triple-A. An impressive fielder whose road to the big leagues has been stalled by a mediocre bat, Manzella figures to make all the plays Tejada couldn’t make, while earning a fraction ($400,000 in 2010) of Tejada’s salary.

You still need hitters

Fifteen months after Zduriencik touted the uncommon range of the Mariners’ outfielders, the team revealed that Milton Bradley, nobody’s idea of a stellar defender, will be their starting left fielder in 2010. Which poses a question: Has Zduriencik already abandoned his bedrock belief in run prevention?

No, the Mariners still value defense. It’s why they re-signed shortstop Jack Wilson, a superior glove man who plays the most important position in the game. It’s why they picked up free agent first baseman Casey Kotchman, who hasn’t committed an error in 1,584 chances. It’s why they acquired another free agent, Chone Figgins, to anchor the middle of the infield at second base, enabling the range-challenged Jose Lopez to move to third.

But the object of any baseball game is to score more runs than the opponent, and the Mariners believe Bradley’s bat will more than make up for any problems he has in the field.

Know this: If Bradley struggles on defense, the Mariners will be privy to information gleaned beyond the naked eye. Digital cameras pointed at every fielder break down tendencies. The tendencies are converted into numbers, and when the numbers suggest concern, a statistician with the baseball acumen of a scout intercedes.

The Mariners’ resident authority on such statistics is Tony Blengino, who understands the arcane formulas used to rate defensive aptitude, and, just as important, how to apply them.

“At certain positions, the ability to make the spectacular play determines whether you’re a plus fielder or not, whereas at other positions, reliability is what determines it,” Blengino said in January during the Mariners’ prespring training media luncheon at Safeco Field. “Second base, you’ve got guys that make two or three errors a year, so reliability is huge. Center field, you’ve got guys that make one or two errors a year that aren’t very good, because they don’t get to a lot of balls.”

Once upon a time, and for about a hundred years, fielding percentage was used as the primary measurement of baseball defense. That there was no apparent difference between the fielding percentage of the best teams and the fielding percentage of the worst teams spurred an interest in further review. If you’re a casual fan who didn’t excel in math class, it’s difficult to consider such formulas as “fielding runs above replacement” and “probabilistic model of range” without suspecting your head will explode.

But the front office that’s ill-equipped to analyze advanced fielding statistics is a front office that shouldn’t be entrusted to invest $20 million a season on free agents with defensive deficiencies. Although such stats as UZR (ultimate zone rating) never will be seen on the back of every baseball card, they’re becoming an essential piece of player evaluation.

The problem for the Mariners and the other clubs that have moved to the forefront of run prevention is the fact there are few secrets in baseball. Not long after Billy Beane built a playoff roster with bargain-basement types who were proficient at coaxing walks, others followed Oakland’s “moneyball” cue. Thanks to the A’s, on-base percentage (OBP) and on-base percentage plus slugging average (OPS) became commonplace terms.

Same with defense. When every opponent is as proficient at preventing runs as the Mariners are, there is no edge.

“This offseason, I think, defensive stats have become a very significant factor in a number of clubs planning and the way the free agent market has played out,” Blengino said in January. “I think we’re still in the emergent phase, but if defense becomes fully valued at some point along the way in the marketplace, then something else will become undervalued, and we’ll just try to stay one step ahead.”

Whatever happens, Franklin Gutierrez figures to be two steps ahead in center field, where the flying things over his head will continue to meet a sudden, often spectacular, death.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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