PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was Tuesday, Feb. 23, and that meant that it was the day on which the Seattle Mariners conducted their first full-squad workout of the spring, and that meant that it was finally time for Franklin Gutierrez to once again do what he does best -- better than any other current major leaguer, and quite possibly better than anyone at any time: play the outfield.
His outfield-mates approached the morning's first drill with varying degrees of vigor, some easing back into the game's rhythms after a long winter, but from the first crack of the first ball off first base coach Lee Tinsley's fungo bat, Gutierrez was focused, and intense. He charged dying liners at full speed. He tracked routine flies with his knees slightly bent, his body perfectly positioned to gun down a runner who might dare try to tag up from third, a runner who existed only in his mind. "As far back as I remember, even a long time ago, when I was a boy in Venezuela, I've always done it," he says. "Every time I'm on the field, I like to run down every ball. Even if I can't get to it, I try to run it down. Other guys take it easy, but I think [not doing that] is the key for me."
The 27-year-old Gutierrez's never-waning alertness, defensive intelligence and lithe and speedy 6'2", 190-pound body helped him reset the bar last season for the degree to which an individual player can help his team win games by his fielding alone, something which still-new defensive metrics have only just begun to enable us to understand, and to quantify. Gutierrez's 2009 Ultimate Zone Rating -- a statistic that measures how many runs a fielder saves his club in comparison to an average player -- was 29.1. Not only was Gutierrez's UZR more than 18 runs better than that of the league's second-best center fielder, B.J. Upton of the Rays, but it was 10.6 runs -- a remarkable 57.3% -- better than the majors' second-best defender at any position, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria.
That Gutierrez did not win an AL Gold Glove award (the winners were Ichiro, Torii Hunter and Adam Jones) was regarded by many statistically-minded observers as a travesty, the final proof that that particular award constitutes an outdated relic. Gutierrez, soft-spoken and seemingly imperturbable, received the news as gracefully as he does a sharply struck line drive to the gap. "I wasn't surprised," he says, "because it was my first year as a full-time center fielder. It's a matter of time until people know about you, and all that stuff. The only thing I care about is to play hard for my team, and do my job."
Peer reviews of Gutierrez's job performance are impressive. "A lot of times, he saved me last year," says Felix Hernandez, the Mariners' 23-year-old ace who credits the Mariners' Gutierrez-led defense, unquestionably baseball's finest, with helping him to put together the best of his four big league seasons (he went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA), and to finish second in the AL Cy Young Award voting. "As a pitcher, you just have to keep the ball in the ballpark, that's it. It's unbelievable. Anyone who hasn't seen him play, you have to. Batters hit balls and you're like, oh, that's going to be off the wall. Then he's right there. It's great to have that kind of center fielder."
Erik Bedard, Hernandez's fellow starter, says that Gutierrez's presence was one reason why he spurned other suitors -- including his former club, the Orioles -- to re-sign with the Mariners as a free agent this winter. "You just feel more confident that you can give up contact and he's going to go get it, and that even if it's a ball in the gap, he can cut it off, so that a guy on first stays at first," Bedard says.
Gutierrez's fielding prowess was well known to the Indians, who acquired him as a minor leaguer from the Dodgers in 2004, but his progress in Cleveland was always blocked by three-time All-Star center fielder Grady Sizemore. He played mostly right field, where he excelled -- his UZR was in 2008 the third-best among outfielders -- but where he couldn't deploy all of his talents. That led the Indians to trade him to Seattle, as a centerpiece of a three-team, 11-player deal in December 2008, one for which Gutierrez remains grateful. "I'm really glad I got traded to this team, and they gave me an opportunity to play a position I really like," he says.
"With Grady over there in Cleveland, he was kind of in a tough spot as far as playing center field," says Mariners starter Cliff Lee, a teammate of Gutierrez's then and now. "Last year he had a chance to play a full season and showed what he can do out there. He's got speed, he's got an arm. It's going to be fun watching him chasing balls down out there."
Gutierrez, in fact, represented one of the first major acquisitions made by Jack Zduriencik after he was named the Mariners' GM in October 2008. "When we made the acquisition, he was the key to the trade," Zduriencik says. "We felt that this guy needed a chance to play every day in center field. We gave him that opportunity and, man, he took it to heart, and what a year he had. Oh boy. You can score runs, that's great, but you gotta prevent them, too."
Producing runs is something that Gutierrez did better than ever before in '09. He hit .283 with 18 homers, drove in 70 runs and stole 16 bases -- all, by far, career highs -- and those offensive numbers, combined with his second-to-none-fielding, led many statheads to suggest that he ought to garner at least a few MVP votes (he was shut out -- again, to the statheads' chagrin). The Mariners expect Gutierrez to continue to develop as a hitter, but even for a potential 25-home-run, 25-stolen-base offensive player, the fact that his defense is what is discussed first, second and third about him is perhaps the greatest sign yet of the increased importance of fielding. Nowhere is that focus as sharp as it is for Zduriencik's Mariners, who in addition to Gutierrez now feature baseball's top shortstop (as measured by UZR) in Jack Wilson, as well as a top-five-fielding first baseman (Casey Kotchman), third baseman (Chone Figgins) and right-fielder (Ichiro), and who won 85 games last season despite finishing last in the American League in runs scored.
Everything, however, runs through Gutierrez in center. "We're just happy about our center fielder," says Zduriencik. "He is..." -- and here the GM has to think for a few moments for an appropriate adjective to describe Gutierrez -- "superb." Even then Zduriencik doesn't seem entirely satisfied that he has chosen a strong enough adjective. Neither words nor numbers, it seems, can do justice to Gutierrez's defensive brilliance.