The M’s Are Overrated Defensively
Posted by Jason A. Churchill on February 24, 2007
Yes, I said it. The Seattle Mariners are vastly overrated defensively. Not by those who truly understand what makes a good defensive player and which positions are the most critical, but by most beat writer types, general fans and, of course, anyone who thinks Derek Jeter deserves to win Gold Gloves.
I’m not going to sit here and cite sabermetric defensive statistics, although they would provide some strong evidence that the Mariners lack in the field, nor am I going to complain about the team’s abilities with the glove. They aren’t bad defensively, at least not overall. But they certainly aren’t all that good, either.
The most important defensive positions are the four up the middle; catcher, shortstop, second base and center field. They are charged with covering the most ground and will be the recipients of more of the balls put in play. Except for the catcher, who has a completely different set of responsibilities.
A catcher has to be able to do several things well in order to be an asset defensively – some of them will be physical, some will be mental. The catcher is responsible for his own area, too. He must limit wild pitches and passed balls, keep bouncing 57-foot breaking balls in front of him and control the opponents’ running game.
When a catcher makes a mistake, it’s almost always at least a minor disaster. On top of all the work with the glove and his throwing arm, those who don the tools of ignorance must work well with the pitching staff and understand what it takes for each pitcher to get outs on a regular basis.
Kenji Johjima had a lot of trouble doing any of this in his first year in the states, and that’s an awful beginning to a defensive team that is supposedly great in preventing runs.
Yuniesky Betancourt is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. He just is, and at 25 years of age, he’s still going to get better. And it’s a good thing he’s such a lock to improve, because he really didn’t have a good year with the leather last season.
He didn’t make a lot physical mistakes and maybe ZERO mental errors, but he was caught out of position more than he should be and on occasion didn’t make a play that he will 99 times out of 100. Betancourt is not a problem, and most fully expect him to deserve a Gold Glove in 2007. Just a little clean-up due, that’s all.
His double-play partner, however, lacks range and is still fine-tuning his footwork. Just because Lopez is a former shortstop doesn’t mean he’s a sure thing to be good at second. He’s got work to do to become average, even, and though there is no reason to believe he can’t get there quickly, he’s yet to get that covered.
Lopez is no Gold Glover, and positioning is crucial for the 23-year-old, because he lacks lateral quickness and his foot-speed is merely average. His arm is a plus, however.
Last year the M’s began the season with Jeremy Reed in center field. Adequate enough, and always capable of making the plays he’s supposed to, Reed is not a great center fielder. In 2007, Ichiro will roam the spacious green pastures of Safeco Field, and all signs point to the all-star giving the club another Gold Glove defender at the position.
Ichiro has every tool, and the polish, to be great in center and is easily the club’s best with the glove. Oh, and he has a tremendous throwing arm, too.
While Adrian Beltre makes all the plays at third is easily one of the better defensive third baseman in baseball, the value of such a premium defender is minuscule to that of those up the middle, and in one other spot on the field – at least when the M’s are at home.
USSMariner’s Dave Cameron was the first I noticed to point out how important left-field defense is at Safeco. It’s not rocket science and most of us should have recognized this from day one, but Cameron speaks of the basics, mentioning the biggest issue – all the ground that needs covering from center field on over to the left-field line.
The fences at the Safe are deepest in left-center and center – among the deepest in the game – creating a cavernous area for just two players to cover.
When the M’s sent out an outfield defense of Ichiro in right, Mike Cameron in center and Randy Winn in left, the trio covered as much ground as any trio in recent memory. All three have plus speed, two have above-average to plus-plus arms, and all of them read the ball well off the bat.
Even Winn, the weakest of the three, was better than average at chasing down fly balls and cutting off line drives. A lot of bases were saved with that alignment, and that is an enormous reason why the pitching staff appeared to be so strong during those years.
In 2000 and 2001, Cameron and Ichiro were flanked by the likes of Rickey Henderson and Al Martin, two above-average runners, but terrible defensive players with awful throwing arms. But in tight ballgames, Lou Piniella went to Stan Javier or Mark McLemore in order to cut down on the possibility that the opposing team’s might get any “cheap” hits.
Raul Ibanez can hit. He had a career year in 2006, and is a solid, solid bat to have in the lineup. But he’s a bad defensive player.
No, he doesn’t boot balls regularly, and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes in the field. But he lacks range and that factor will never get better, not with a 33-year-old with a history of hamstring and hip injuries, who already possesses below average speed.
Let’s recap. The four spots up the middle, then left field, are the critical spots defensively for the Seattle Mariners, and in three of those five the Mariners are anywhere from a tick below average (Lopez), to well below average (Ibanez), to downright awful (Johjima).
If you don’t buy how bad Johjima was a year ago, let me share a few thoughts with you, marked with a few stats and then a few unanimous, paraphrased quotes.
Johjima threw out 33.7 percent of would-be basestealers, a stat that should be shared equally with the pitcher of record, ranking 16th out of 24 catchers with 100 starts or more. He allowed 57 steals in 131 starts – not good.
He also allowed 10 passed balls, made seven errors and was the starting catcher on a Mariners team that recorded the most wild pitches in seven years, the second most home runs allowed since 1999, and the team ERA when he started was 4.81, the third worst among regular catchers in all of baseball.
Sounds pretty bad so far, but that’s not even half the problem.
Several pitchers, including a few now former Mariners, strongly claim that Johjima is THE absolute worst catcher they have ever pitched to. The worst.
Pitchers typically throw to five or six catchers a year, at least, including spring training, and some of these guys claimed that “our rookie ball kid received the ball better and moved better back there.”
A veteran arm said something to the effect of… “He just isn’t a catcher here. He hits, but I don’t see how he can ever be any good (defensively).”
While the old saying claims that “all is well that ends well”, it’s hard to dispute the numbers and the testimony of those who rely on Johjima the most. He’s well below average, and probably won’t ever become anything but mediocre.
Let’s just say it’s a good thing he can hit.
In 2007, Mike Hargrove will send out a backwards outfield, where a healthy Jose Guillen should be playing left and Ibanez should slide over to right where there is far less area to cover.
He’ll send Lopez out to second base where he’s got a chance to be decent, while Beltre and Betancourt are among the best left sides in baseball. And Richie Sexson loses range, agility and effectiveness every year.
The Seattle Mariners are barely an above-average defensive club, and the only reason they aren’t terrible is No. 51, and the fact that he’s playing center field where his skills can be best utilized.
This team will never win with pitching and defense, until they actually acquire good pitchers and good defensive players. if you can’t have a plus bat in a certain spot, at least get a plus defender with an average stick. That’s what title contenders do every year. Case-in-point, 2004, Boston Red Sox. Orlando Cabrera.
It’s not stepping out on a limb to say that the Mariners will not win anything with Johjima as the starting catcher, because the club has far more disturbing problems that are likely to prevent a postseason appearance. But when was the last time a poorly caught team won anything without having pluses in their starting pitching and offensive lineup.
The 2004 Red Sox had starting pitching and a slew of run-producers, highlighted by Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. The 2005 White Sox had a deep starting staff, a hot closer and an everyday lineup without an easy out.
But even Jason Varitek and AJ Pierzynski are average or better overall behind the dish, especially when you include how each worked with their pitching staff.
St. Louis has Yadier Molina, a very strong defender, and the 2002 Anaheim Angels were anchored by Benji Molina, another solid defensive backstop.
While defense is far from the most important part of a championship team, having strengths up the middle is imperative, particularly when the roster is being built around preventing the other team from scoring.
It’s more than okay to sacrifice defense here and there when you are gaining a plus bat, and Johjima is at least very close to that. But he might be such a detriment, that the gained production is not worth the sacrifice.
While I can’t convince the local writers to stop saying things like this — “The Mariners think they have both in Johjima, who is not only a strong defensive catcher but one with veritable offensive skills,” I can remind all of you reading this, that diving catches, heady plays and “active” catchers do not make for a great defensive ballclub.
Here’s to a season full of doubles, walks, better starting pitching and smart all-around baseball. Because the defense is not going to carry the 2007 Seattle Mariners.
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