You won’t hear a pin drop in the M’s outfield because no pins WILL drop!
by Jim Silva
Are you one of those people who gets excited about outfield defense? While it doesn’t sound particularly romantic when your outfield doesn’t combine for 90 home runs but instead accumulates 40 DRS (defensive runs saved), the Mariners might just pull off that kind of defense in 2017 after remaking their outfield to more of a RomCom outfield than an Action/Adventure type outfield. Their general manager, Jerry DiPoto made two moves this season designed to give a facelift to the outfield, trading away some offense in the process.
Why did DiPoto decide he needed to change the makeup of his outfield for 2017? Well, for one reason, run prevention, particularly in the outfield, is still cheaper than run production with Jason Heyward being the notable exception. Ok, so let’s say you assemble a great defensive outfield, then what else should you consider to maximize their impact? It seems to me that picking up flyball pitchers would be a good move, especially after you trade your 23 year old potentially slick-fielding shortstop for a shortstop who had an excellent offensive year, but at best is a neutral defensive year and at worst a below average defensive year. What were the last couple moves the Mariners made? They traded a good hitting outfielder who is at best a marginal outfielder – last season he was a poor outfielder – for Yovani Gallardo, a flyball pitcher, to add to their rotation depth. Then they made a multi-team deal to get Drew Smiley – another flyball pitcher, from the Rays. So if you want to change more than one aspect of your club you can improve your pitching without moving a single pitcher by improving your outfield defense. But this article is about the Mariners’ outfield, not their pitching staff, so back to the fly-catchers!
The lone outfield starter who is coming back for 2017 is Leonys Martin. From 2013 through 2015, he averaged 15 DRS and never fell below 14 while putting up a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating – similar to DRS with runs saved above average by defensive play) between 8.5 and 11.3 in the same time frame, all while playing mostly centerfield. Last season the numbers disagreed with a -2 DRS and a UZR of 3.6 although both numbers show that Martin didn’t have as amazing a year with the glove as he was used to having. Obviously one year does not a trend make, and Martin is widely considered an excellent defender. Last season he showed a bit more pop, blasting 15 home runs – the most of his short major league career – but still ended up with a wRC+ of 88 where 100 runs created is average. He doesn’t get on base enough for the homers to matter that much. Martin has yet to have a wRC+ of 100 or more in the majors and he really isn’t trending that way. He strikes out about a quarter of the time and only walks about 7% of the time so unless he hits 30 home runs, he won’t help the offense. However, if his defensive numbers come back to where they have been the three previous seasons then he will be a positive asset for the Mariners.
Most likely to Martin’s left, will be newly acquired Jarrod Dyson late of the Kansas City Royals. Dyson mainly played centerfield for the Royals and the Mariners might decide to play him there and push Martin to left because Dyson has put up double figure DRS numbers each of the last three seasons and averaged just over 14 UZR in the same time span. Last season was his best according to DRS (19) and second best according to UZR (16.7) but both numbers have consistently agreed that he can flat out pick it no matter where you put him in the outfield. Dyson is all about speed on defense and on offense stealing 30 bases in 37 attempts last season, so he covers a lot of ground and makes things interesting for opposing pitchers and catchers when he gets on base. About that getting on base thing – like Martin, so far Dyson has been a slight offensive liability at bat with wRC+ numbers consistently in the 80s and 90s. Dyson doesn’t strike out like Martin but fails to draw walks just like Martin. Unlike Martin, Dyson has no power with seven home runs in 1539 career major league at-bats. Both men are there for their elite level gloves, but Dyson needs to get on base and play elite defense if the Mariners are going to benefit from his presence. But there is one other guy who is different from his two outfield brethren.
The Mariners acquired Mitch Haniger in the Segura trade, and analysts are pretty excited at what he might become given regular playing time. Haniger is a late bloomer who pretty much destroyed double-A and triple-A pitching in 2015 and 2016. He hit for average, drew walks, didn’t strike out excessively, and hit for power – 36 doubles, 30 home runs, 81 walks, and 126 strikeouts in 671 plate appearances through three levels last season. He struggled with the bat, but still managed a .713 OPS in his final stop with the big club. He suffered from a poor BABIP (average on balls in play) which often indicates poor luck. He hit the ball hard 37.3% of the time and managed medium contact 45.8% when he hit the ball which means he made weak contact only 16.9% of the time. Also of note was that Haniger maintained good plate discipline in the majors with a swing rate slightly below league average, a contact rate that was almost exactly league average, and a contact rate on balls in the strike zone that was above league average. In summary, Haniger should hit enough in the majors to be a starter in a corner outfield spot. In fact he could hit enough to bat in the middle of the order as soon as next year, which would mean the Mariners offense just got a serious upgrade by adding Haniger and Segura (over Marte) in one move.
But wait, there’s more! Haniger torched the highest two levels of the minors while playing good centerfield defense, and then continued to play well in center once he reached the majors. Next season he will be tasked with playing a corner outfield spot, where his defensive abilities should actually play up. Last season, in his brief time in Arizona, the former first round pick accumulated 1 DRS and 5.5 UZR while playing all three outfield spots (but mostly centerfield). It would be folly to try to extrapolate those numbers to a full season, but don’t be surprised if Haniger posts 10 DRS and UZR next season when he has less ground to cover. If he can do that while posting wRC+ above 100, which he has done every season of his professional career, then he will be the best of the three flycatchers on the Mariners and a regular, if not a potential star. Get your “Haniger’s Heros” t-shirts soon before they sell out!
Whether or not you are drinking the Mitch Haniger Kool-Aid, the Mariners outfield will be really fun to watch. Seattle will miss the bats of Nori Aoki and Seth Smith, but most definitely not their gloves. The M’s rotation is now made up predominantly of fly-ball pitchers who should all benefit greatly from the outfield makeover. Don’t be surprised if the Mariners pitching coach gets a lot of love this season as his staff puts up improved numbers from 2016. It will be interesting if the Mariners manager Scott Servais stays the course as his offense slows a bit, but his defense shines. If Haniger gets off to a slow start, that would truly test the manager’s patience and the power of GM Jerry DiPoto to direct his manager’s lineup decisions. The Seattle club believe they can get to the playoffs this season and they are putting their chips on defense. As one of those guys who loves to see the D, I hope it works.