It was just another ball game in early April, played in front of a sparse and sleepy Thursday afternoon crowd in Minneapolis. But for those watching and paying attention, it was a glimpse into the future. In the bottom of the first inning of a game between the Twins and the Mariners, Minnesota second baseman Alexi Casilla jumped on a pitch from Seattle's Jarrod Washburn and bludgeoned a shot to the gap in left centerfield. "I thought to myself, double," says Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu. "There was a zero percent chance of a play being made."
This is an article from the March 1, 2010 issue
Franklin Gutierrez, a 26-year-old centerfielder acquired by Seattle in a trade with Cleveland four months earlier, was shaded toward rightfield and made an immediate break for the ball. He sprinted across the Metrodome outfield, dived headfirst and, fully outstretched, made a backhanded catch with the side of his glove grazing the turf.
"There was a gasp in the ballpark," says Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was sitting in a stadium box next to his top assistant, Tony Blengino. "I looked over at Tony, and we just stared at each other." Twins manager Ron Gardenhire raced out to second base to argue the call with umpire Chuck Meriwether. "I'll bet 99.9 percent that he didn't catch that ball," the skipper huffed. (After watching a postgame replay, all Gardenhire could say was, "That young man plays a heck of a centerfield.") Longtime Seattle radio announcer Dave Niehaus, who nearly went hoarse recounting the catch to listeners, bequeathed a nickname: Franklin Gutierrez, Death to Flying Things. Wrote a columnist in The News Tribune of Tacoma the next day, "I figured Gutierrez had a chance to be Seattle's best defensive center fielder since Mike Cameron. What I didn't know is that Gutierrez has a chance to be baseball's best defensive center fielder since Willie Mays."
For the Mariners the moment, according to Blengino, "was a confirmation of everything our scouts and everything our numbers were telling us: Franklin Gutierrez is an outstanding centerfielder. It was all true, and then some." For Seattle fans, their team's 2--0 win over the Twins on the fourth day of the regular season—a standout performance from an unspectacular pitcher, made possible by spectacular defense—was a preview of the remarkable, improbable and strange Mariners season that was to come.
Seattle scored an American League--low 640 runs in 2009. The team was last in on-base percentage, second-to-last in slugging and tied for 11th in home runs. Yet the Mariners won 85 games, a 24-win jump from '08, the largest improvement in baseball. No team in the history of the AL had scored so few runs and won so many games. Of all the teams since 1893 with a winning record, only two (the 1913 White Sox and the 2003 Dodgers) had scored fewer runs relative to the league average, according to sabermetrician Tom Tango, author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball and a consultant to the Mariners. "They won games because they were first in the league in run prevention, but other than Felix Hernandez, you really didn't know who else was on the pitching staff," says former Padres director of baseball operations Jeff Kingston, now an assistant G.M. in Seattle. "Most people probably couldn't name who was second in innings pitched for the Mariners. You wondered: How were they so good with a bunch of people you've never heard of?"
The reason: The Mariners were Death to Things Hit in Play. According to John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible, a publication devoted to defensive statistical analysis, the Mariners defense last year saved a staggering 110 runs, 45 more than any other team and the most by any club since Dewan began tracking defensive data in 2003. Seattle's season was the answer to a riddle: In an era when power and on-base percentage have been paramount, just how bad can you can be at scoring runs and still be a successful team? The answer: When you have wizards like Franklin Gutierrez in the outfield, you can be the worst offensive team in the league.
Because of their surprising 2009 season, because of a slew of universally praised moves this winter by the front office—including the acquisitions of 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and All-Star Chone Figgins, a talented leadoff hitter who also happens to be one of the game's top-rated third baseman according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), an advanced defensive metric that quantifies how many runs above average a player's defense creates for his team—the Mariners are baseball's preseason darlings, favored by many to end the reign of the Angels atop the American League West. It's easy to forget that they jettisoned the only player on last year's roster who hit more than 25 home runs and had a slugging percentage higher than .500 (first baseman Russell Branyan), which means they could have an even harder time scoring runs in 2010.
Seattle is a team straight out of a different era, with defense as its backbone. "In the 1970s you had athleticism on display—you had speed, power, pitching, fielding, defense; teams winning every way imaginable," says Blengino. "People talk about the power and the majesty of the 1975 Big Red Machine, the greatest team they ever saw. The Seattle Mariners last year hit 36 more home runs than the Cincinnati Reds did in 1975—that's the point to which things have swung in this game over the last generation, where power is a more pervasive element in the game than it used to be. But I really think that teams can win with more than the basic blueprint teams have used in the last 10, 15 years."
Even now, Moneyball is misunderstood. Michael Lewis's 2003 best seller isn't about a love affair between a general manager and fat, unathletic baseball players who drew walks to get on base. The book is about how Athletics G.M. Billy Beane and the Oakland A's exploited market inefficiencies by incorporating a statistics-based approach to running a baseball team. The undervalued asset in the late '90s and early 2000s was on-base percentage; the small-market A's, kings of OBP, won at least 91 games in five straight seasons. In Moneyball's aftermath OBP became valued—perhaps even overvalued—by teams, but by then the A's and a handful of other front offices in baseball had turned to the next inefficiency: defense.
The story of teams falling back in love with defense doesn't begin in 2009, when the four most improved teams in the AL—the Mariners, Yankees, Rangers and Tigers—were also the most improved teams in defensive efficiency, as measured by Baseball Prospectus. Nor does it begin in 2008, when the Rays went from worst to first in the American League East primarily because they improved at almost every position defensively. The story begins in 2004 at baseball's trade deadline, when the Red Sox, in the midst of a three-month .500 funk, unloaded Boston icon Nomar Garciaparra in a trade that netted them a Gold Glove shortstop (Orlando Cabrera), a Gold Glove first baseman (Doug Mientkiewicz) and an above-average outfielder (Dave Roberts). Three months later the Red Sox were dancing in St. Louis, celebrating a World Series championship.
This winter, Boston, which finished second in the division last year and was swept by the Angels in the AL Division Series, decided it had to get defensive again. By the front office's estimation, defense was the team's fatal flaw; the Red Sox ranked 16th in the majors in '09 in team UZR. In December they lost free-agent leftfielder Jason Bay and his 36 home runs (he signed with the Mets), but Dewan projects that the addition of three highly regarded fielders—third baseman Adrian Beltre, centerfielder Mike Cameron and shortstop Marco Scutaro—will net Boston 84 runs on the defensive side; that alone is enough to nearly offset Bay's production. A rule of thumb among statheads is that 10 runs is equivalent to a win, and thus the addition of those three players could boost the Red Sox's victory total by six to eight wins.
The new Moneyball player looks a lot like Boston's new centerfielder: fast, athletic, a slick fielder who even at age 37 and for $8 million a year is a bargain. "Mike Cameron played on two of the 10 best defensive teams of all time [the 2001 Mariners and the 1999 Reds]," says Blengino. "Every team he's played for has gotten better. Every team he's left collapsed when he left. No, Mike Cameron's not a Hall of Famer. But he's clearly a winning baseball player."
Despite a growing appreciation for defense in front offices, despite the rapid proliferation of defensive metrics, there were still bargains for teams shopping for defense during the winter. Among them were two of the top shortstops in UZR: Adam Everett (who signed a one-year, $1.55 million deal to stay with the Tigers) and Alex Gonzalez (one year, $2.75 million with the Blue Jays). The Mariners locked up the game's top UZR shortstop, Jack Wilson, for two years at $5 million a season. "The reason there are still more inefficiencies on the defensive side is that defense remains hard to quantify," says Kingston. "The metrics have come a long way in the last few years, and clubs go to great lengths to quantify defense, but they simply don't have the same confidence level as they do in quantifying offense."
Moneyball critics have cited the recent slide of the A's as confirmation that their way of winning games is dead. "Maybe the best thing for [Beane] to do is retire and write a book about how, in the end, it all really didn't work," wrote author Buzz Bissinger in The New Republic in October after the A's finished with a losing record for the third straight year. If anything, however, it should be even clearer now that teams able to quantify skills and exploit inefficiencies in the market can find an edge. And no team has done this as aggressively, and as successfully, as the Mariners, who are Exhibit A that Moneyball is in fact alive and well.
Jack Zduriencik, who in October 2008 inherited a franchise coming off a disastrous season (the Mariners that year were the first team in history to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll), has been hailed as the second coming of Billy Beane. (Among the headlines in the baseball blogosphere this winter: MONEYBALL II: ATTACK OF THE ZDURIENCIK!) The comparison mystifies the former scout. "It's certainly something I thought I'd never hear," he laughed as he sat in his office on a February morning, having just returned from Kansas City, where he accepted the 2009 award for American League Executive of the Year.
A movie version of Moneyball that's in the works has Brad Pitt cast to play Beane. Zduriencik, round and bald as a bowling ball, better resembles Dr. Evil, both for his looks and his shrewd deal-making. In a baseball world that has seen twentysomethings with Ivy League degrees and no baseball experience infiltrate front offices, he is a dinosaur. At 59 he is the oldest G.M. in the game, a baseball lifer who spent two decades living the itinerant life of the baseball scout. He's also something of a legend in scouting circles; as the Brewers' scouting director from 1999 to 2008, he was largely responsible for building a system that produced several homegrown stars—sluggers Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and pitcher Yovani Gallardo among them—and helped return a moribund franchise to respectability.
The irony isn't lost on Zduriencik—a career scout being compared with a G.M. who was made famous by a book many took to be a rebuke of baseball traditions such as scouting. "I have great respect for people who have paid their dues," says Zduriencik. "I know how guys out there are putting 40,000 miles on a car a year. I know how many houses they've been in, how many days they've been away from their family. But Moneyball, when it came out, had a huge effect on the game. It opened a lot of people's eyes—it opened my eyes—and whether you agreed with it or not, you had to start to look at things a little differently. A big mistake some clubs made was that they went totally into it and discounted scouts' eyes. What I've tried to do is blend the two sides."
The Seattle front office's decision to focus on defense last winter was a pragmatic reaction to the market. "We had to figure out what we could do to get good quickly," says Blengino, 46, a former CPA who began as assistant director of amateur scouting under Zduriencik in Milwaukee. "You can't just putter around and be mediocre at everything. You have to find your soul as a club. And here, with Felix Hernandez at the top of the rotation and playing our games in Safeco Field, one of the biggest ballparks in the majors, we felt that given the relative availability of defensive players as opposed to offensive players, focusing on defense was a way that could pay dividends."
It is one thing to recognize that defense wins games. It is another to be able to identify exceptional fielders. When the Mariners were looking at Gutierrez, who was playing rightfield for Cleveland with Grady Sizemore entrenched in center, Blengino, a numbers wonk who starts every morning perusing websites like FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, presented Zduriencik with a report of defensive metrics that illustrated how good the native Venezuelan was. "I knew who the kid was," says Zduriencik, "but the numbers Tony showed us really opened our eyes."
With Gutierrez in center and Ichiro Suzuki in right, Seattle had the best defensive outfield in baseball, one that saved the team an astounding 62 runs on its own. Gutierrez hit .283 with a .339 on-base percentage and 18 home runs for the season, but because of his defensive contribution—according to every defensive stat, he had the most impact of any fielder in the game—the young centerfielder was one of the game's 15 most valuable players as measured by Wins Above Replacement, a metric that encompasses a player's total offensive and defensive contribution. In January the Mariners signed Gutierrez to a four-year, $20.3 million deal.
The biggest beneficiary of the dominant D, of course, was the Mariners' pitching staff, which last year led the league in ERA (3.87) despite featuring few recognizable names beyond its 23-year-old ace, Hernandez. Almost since the day Zduriencik arrived in Seattle, he had been aggressively pursuing six-time All-Star righthander Roy Halladay to complement Hernandez in the rotation. That changed during the winter meetings in December, when Phillies G.M. Ruben Amaro, who had a deal in the works for Halladay but needed a third party to make the deal happen, called Zduriencik with a question: Would you be interested in Cliff Lee?
In the three-team, eight-player blockbuster that sent Halladay to the Phillies and Lee to the Mariners, Seattle gave up three prospects to get as little as one season out of the 31-year-old lefthander, who will make $9 million in 2010 and is headed for free agency at year's end. "A lefthanded pitcher with a bit of a fly ball tendency like him is a good fit here," says Blengino. "Just look at Jamie Moyer, who had the best success of his life here. Fewer mistakes are going to get out in this ballpark than most comparable parks." And, of course, Lee will have baseball's best defense behind him. "A typical great-fielding team can shave half a run a game off a typical pitcher's ERA," says Tango. "If you went with an all--Gold Glove team, then that shaves a run off a pitcher's ERA."
The Mariners may come close to running out an all Gold Glove--caliber team in 2010. In addition to signing Wilson, whom they acquired in a midseason trade with Pittsburgh last year, they added a splendid fielding pair at the corners: Figgins, an elite base runner who brings versatility at the top of the lineup, at third; and first baseman Casey Kotchman, whose fielding percentage ranks No. 1 alltime among first basemen who have handled at least 3,500 chances. To a leftfield platoon they added Eric Byrnes, who saved a staggering 11.5 runs with his glove in just 49 games last year in Arizona. The result is a team that could be called the UZR All-Stars: Gutierrez, Ichiro, Wilson and Figgins are among the top-rated players at their positions.
A shift in the market is inevitable, of course, but how long until the rest of baseball catches on to the power of defense? A test case will be the upcoming bidding war over Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford, a free-agent-to-be and a defender on par at his position with Gutierrez. Whether Crawford commands superstar dollars will reveal just how much teams value defense. Meanwhile there will be huge technological strides this season in the quest for a defensive metric that is as accurate as any offensive statistic. MLB Advanced Media's Pitch f/x (which measures the speed and break of every pitch) already provides oceans of data, and this year all 30 ballparks will have equipment in place for Hit f/x, which will record the trajectory of every ball put in play as well as how the defender reacts to it.
"Defense might be the new OBP," says Blengino, "but at some point it's going to be something else that will be underappreciated. It may be something that has nothing to do with the statistical perspective. A team that figures out how to get 250 innings out of a starter, for example, is going to have a huge advantage. Who knows what the next inefficiency in the marketplace is going to be."
But the shift hasn't happened yet. The defensive revolution is still young. And the Mariners will ride the wave as long as they can. "We're not smarter than anyone else, I can promise you that," says Zduriencik. "But I can promise that we'll always be trying to find that edge. We'll always try to be a step ahead."
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