Following the emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, fans around baseball – and rightly so – began paying more attention to the value of defense. I’m sure that by now you’ve heard about the difficulties involved in measuring defensive skills ad nauseum. But just know that we are getting better. You know how we know? Because results are reflected in win-loss columns.
Take the Seattle Mariners for instance. The news around baseball on December 12th, 2008 was how the New York Mets upgraded their much-ridiculed bullpen by acquiring J.J. Putz from Seattle. Much less talked about was how good of a deal this was for the Mariners.
While Putz was certainly a very effective reliever, Seattle saw a chance to parlay his skill into something the team needed more – outfield defense. In the very same trade that brought Putz to Queens, the Mariners obtained Endy Chavez from the Mets and Franklin Gutierrez from Cleveland, two of the finest defensive outfielders in the game. Chavez would play left, Guttierez center, and Ichiro would move back permanently to right where he would be more effective. None of these three players would offer you much in terms of power. But the Mariners were OK with that. And, so far, so good.
As of this writing, the Seattle pitching corps has an MLB-leading 3.33 ERA. And I think a good chunk of that early success can be attributed to the OF who have not disappointed, leading MLB in OF Revized Zone Rating (a stellar .968) AND plays made out of their fielding zones (49), which is certainly no easy feat.
Predictably, their team offense does leave a bit to be desired with an AL-worst .308 OBP and a .370 slugging percentage (13th in AL). But this has surprisingly been offset very well by how many runs they’re not allowing to opposing lineups. Consequently, they lead the AL West with a 13-8 record, which is really amazing if you think about the lack of offense.
Now obviously it’s way too early to know for sure that their defense can keep this many runs off the board for much longer. However, I’m inclined to believe that the Mariners are for real. Sure, Jarrod Washburn is going to have more nights like he did on Sunday. But neither Carlos Silva nor Chris Jakubauskas (or whomever will take his spot in the rotation) is going to be this bad either. Plus, we know enough about Adrian Beltre to trust that he’s better than his current OPS+ of 16 suggests, which should offset the eventual decline of Russell Branyan’s performance.
However, even a believer like myself didn’t exactly predict this (alright, fine, I didn’t at all). I had little idea of just how much of an impact this defense would have. But like I said, we’re getting better at evaluating this stuff, and baseball’s going to be more fun as a result.