2017 Fantasy Baseball: The Fielding Chronicles– Seattle Mariners
Fielding Is an aggregate game. Hitting and offensive performance is a lot easier to track and often more fun. We all know Yoenis Cespedes can get on a tear and watching him do it is a blast. Watching a superlative fielder is a lot more subtle. Every hitter gets to hit, but sometimes the other team doesn’t hit the ball your way or the opportunities are way too easy to show your skill. Fielding can only be consistently appreciated in the aggregate.
When a team is built around fielding it can be incredibly difficult to see the results in the early going. Mariner fans are understandably nervous, but Jerry DiPoto chose to build around pitching, defense, and speed. Those are subtle targets that will be met or not met in time. In the meantime, watching a sputtering offense can be frustrating.
We are evaluating fielding by looking at defensive runs saved from the Fielding Bible. Billjamesonline.com has all of the data from individual fielders to team data. In particular, we will break down the team data to look at the infield, outfield, and shift information. We will finish by looking at the defense efficiency ratings according to baseball-reference.com.
Jerry DiPoto’s influence can already be seen in the changes in shifting last season. His predecessor was seemingly allergic to advanced metrics despite all his protesting to the contrary. All that being said, the DER is the real deal as it measures the percentage of balls in play that get converted into outs. They improved in that area as well. Dipoto doesn’t simply want to improve. He wants to be the best team in the American League.
So, the 2017 underwent a number of changes to move from good to great in the fielding department. All of the changes arguably could weaken the offense and those issues have reared their ugly head so far. Over the long haul it remains to be seen whether they will save more runs with their gloves than their anemic bats will cost them on the offensive end.
The biggest changes come in the outfield where Seth Smith and a host of others depart in favor of Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson. Dyson is a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s where every team seemingly had the guy that couldn’t hit much, but would steal a ton of bases when he did get on and would save tons of runs with the glove. He has saved 43 runs in the last three seasons despite not playing every day. Those runs have come across all three outfield positions, but he will primarily be in left field for the Mariners. If they can handle the lack of production he could save 20 runs with the glove.
Fielding data is often a window to the soul. There are times when it seems a perfectly good hitter doesn’t play every day or gets shuffled around from team to team. That has been true for Danny Valencia. He is now on his fourth team because no one can find a home for him. The Mariners will try Valencia at first base, but don’t be surprised if he’s relegated to the bench before it is all said and done. The offensive numbers (over time) would suggest he should play somewhere, but he has been 26 runs below average defensively over the past three seasons.
No team had a bigger makeover in terms of fielding than the Mariners and they weren’t that bad to begin with. Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson replace Seth Smith and a host of others in the outfield. Haniger has little data behind his name, but he has been projected as a center fielder in the past, so putting him in right field is likely a bonus. The same will be true for Dyson in left field.
In the infield the Mariners are replacing Ketel Marte with Jean Segura at shortstop. Segura is neutral defensively, but likely an offensive upgrade when he returns to the lineup. Valencia is penciled in at first for the moment, but he could be replaced by a few different young players at first. Mike Zunino brings his strong defensive profile behind the dish along with veteran Carlos Ruiz.
Looking at the pitchers for the Mariners will be tough because of all the changes to their defensive alignment. Based on past results, ground ball pitchers fared better than their fly ball counterparts, but the reverse could be true this season. Felix Hernandez has been the bell cow of the Mariners rotation for the better part of a decade. That will likely continue for at least this season even though he has stronger ground ball credentials than the rest of the group (56 percent since 2014).
The biggest name you haven’t heard of could be James Paxton. He has similar ground ball rates and finally appears ready to spend a full season at the big league level. He could end up being the best pitcher on the staff by the end of the season. His 52 percent ground ball rate is not as strong as Hernandez’s but that might actually work in his favor with this defensive outfield alignment.