The hidden game: Good defense can turn chumps into champs
A near iron law of baseball holds that if you can't quite tell why a team is good, it's probably good at defense. On Tuesday, I had a chance to test this theory against 17 innings of observation when the first-place Seattle Mariners played a straight doubleheader over a cold afternoon and evening in Chicago. It was an education.
In the first game, the Mariners fielded
Watching them was a pleasure. Most outfielders, even good ones, usually chart routes along right angles, moving in and out and side to side on the ball. The Mariners, especially Chavez, excel at diagonal routes. This, as well as their speed, allows them to reach more balls, and does a lot to explain why the Mariners are winning while playing three outfielders who in their careers have combined for a total of 27 home runs per 162 games.
It isn't just skill at work here. Like other teams, the Mariners put real thought into positioning. "There's obviously three ways of looking at defending a batter," explains manager
"Some clubs tend to look more so at a hitter's spray chart and just generalize. We do try to take it a little step further."
The Mariners' staff breaks down hitter performance against various pitch types and locations, matches that against pitcher tendencies, and then positions the fielders accordingly. This isn't anything that teams haven't been doing since
That a high-revenue team would place such weight on its outfield defense is, arguably, part of a broader movement in the game. Last year, going by
Making this sort of improvement can be relatively cheap. Chavez, for instance, is such a good defender that he's nearly as valuable as the man he's replacing in left field,
"The bottom line is efficiency," he says, "This game is about pitch economy. The team that throws less pitches generally wins."
It's an obvious point, but one apparently overlooked by teams such as New York's two clubs, who have struggled in part because of lousy pitching that hasn't been helped by lousy defense. When fielders turn a lot of balls into outs, it keeps starting pitchers in the game and fringe relievers out. It can also help a journeyman like Jakubauskus have a career game, or an aging junkballer like Mariners lefty
Either way, the wins count the same. The Mariners are on pace to improve on last year's UZR total by about 80 runs, which is a bit like having swapped out shortstop