It has been an up and down season for new Mariners’ first baseman Ryon Healy. A rough start was halted by a DL stint but in the fanfare of what became a triumphant return, it was easy to set aside his flaws and celebrate the fact that, following years of a revolving door of mediocrity, a potential long-term solution at first base was actually hitting really well.
Now more than a couple months further into the season, we have a better sense of what Healy probably can and can’t do for the Mariners down the line.
Healy hit the DL after starting the year a dreadful 2-22, and recently he’s just 4 for his last 24. Between those stretches though, he hit a strong .267/.298/.500, good for a 120 wRC+. To some, the lack of walks might always be a cause for concern. I’d argue that for Ryon Healy, a .800 OPS should be a win no matter how it comes together.
But for the season, he sits at a .743 OPS. And it’s not because of underwhelming production day in and day out but because of distinct hot and cold streaks.
He trudged through that year-opening cold streak I mentioned, but fresh of the DL, he hit .349/.379/.746 (210 wRC+) over 66 PA from late April to mid-May. That was followed by a longer 100 PA drought over which he hit .198/.230/.281 (41 wRC+). Then, he had his best week of the season, hitting .400/.423/.920 (271 wRC+) over 26 PA and smashing 4 homers. Since then, he’s come back to earth, slashing .211/.237/.421 (78 wRC+) over his last 80 PA.
Phew. Healy’s streakiness has been as exhausting as reading off all those triple slashes! Unfortunately, that’s probably just the kind of hitter he is.
Throughout his career, week by week, we can see that Healy is often absolutely mashing at the plate or struggling to put anything together at all.
As the usual 6th hitter in the lineup, he has more leeway in what is and isn’t palatable in terms of consistency. But this type of boom-or-bust success is sometimes hard to stomach and makes it that much harder to pin down what his true talent level is.
Since his return from the DL, he has hit .258/.287/.496 (115 wRC+), which is solidly above average for a first baseman this year, and his wRC+ in that time would be at worst exactly average in any year this century. His 108 wRC+ for his career is less impressive though, and in total this season, he owns a fairly pedestrian 104 wRC+.
But there is some upside to dream on.
If we fudge the timeframe between Healy’s first and most recent cold streaks, over 217 PA from April 26 through June 24th, he hit .275/.309/.512 (127 wRC+). That slash line includes the entirety of his worst month this season and is built on a 4.1% BB% and a .295 BABIP. Clearly, it wasn’t necessarily boosted by production from abnormal sources, and with a long cold streak baked in, it might give us a realistic cap on what Healy can do for the Mariners over a good year.
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Now, let’s talk about abnormality for a minute.
To date, Healy owns a .259 BABIP this year, which is a huge step down from his cumulative .329 BABIP coming into 2018.
Surely, someone out there is waiting to yell about the shift but pump your brakes, stranger.
Evidently, Healy can beat the shift without even lifting the ball (small sample size is noted). He held a .322 BABIP and 80 wRC+ on grounders against any shift prior to this year, and currently, he has a .304 BABIP and 70 wRC+.
Not too shabby.
In 2018, it makes sense that without the shift on, Healy, unfortunately, can’t buy a seeing-eye single. That he is pulling groundballs about 5 percentage points more often might be hurting him, but to begin with, he has always been a dead-pull hitter when he doesn’t lift the ball.
Statcast metrics provide some evidence that Healy has deserved a little more production than he’s gotten on grounders against traditional infield alignments this season.
There is a slight downward trend in expected production that may possibly be explained by that increase in pulled ground balls. However, the drop off is not eye-popping. And in terms of quality of contact, Healy’s groundballs are just fine this year. Yet for one reason or another, he isn’t finding the same holes that he did in previous years and his bottom line is suffering for it.
If we simply boosted his BABIP on groundballs without a shift on from .194 to .240 (roughly his career xBA in these situations), he would have 3 more hits this year, increasing his BABIP to .274. Assuming they all go for singles, Healy’s triple slash would be boosted to .255/.285/.480 (+.022 OPS from .743).
If we instead set it to .275 (roughly his previous career BA in these situations), he would have 6 more hits, pushing his overall BABIP to .289. Again assuming all these hits go for singles, Healy’s triple slash would improve to .266/.295/.490 (+.042 OPS). That is a bit better than his 2017 effort but still leaves us dreaming about 2016.
In yet another alternate scenario, if we boost his overall BABIP to last year’s mark of .319, Healy is suddenly hitting .287/.315/.511 (+.083 OPS). And that’s with just a bunch of extra singles — still just 9 doubles and 18 homers.
It’s a monumental increase, sure. And that kind of change probably doesn’t come around easily, but it’s not a far-fetched pipe dream. He’s already done it before and held that BABIP for nearly 600 PA.
Moving away from groundballs a bit, Healy’s overall expected production by xwOBA is just .001 points below his 2016 output when he posted a 132 wRC+. Additionally, his xwOBA on fly balls and line drives has actually increased this year.
|Year||wOBA||xwOBA||wOBA (FB + LD)||xwOBA (FB + LD)|
Perhaps, Healy has been even more of a power threat than we’ve seen thus far. His struggles on grounders aside, an 87 point difference (.087) in his xwOBA and wOBA on fly balls and line drives is a little upside in itself. As we just saw, adding only a handful of hits — even singles — can make a marked difference.
So it seems as though Ryon Healy is a good hitter. Curiously, he is not hitting lefties well this year. But given his prior domination of them, that trend is more something to watch than to worry about at this point. His lack of walks do mean his cold streaks will be painfully bad and that essentially caps his upside. However, at the end of the day, or rather at the end of the season, he appears more likely to be good than bad.
Whether he is good enough to man first base full-time is a totally different question.
In many senses, Healy passes the eye test in the field. He shows decent actions around the bag, gets enough out of his 6’5″ frame, and consistently picks up his infielders with good scoops. He’s not very agile though, which seems to limit his range a bit.
Both UZR and DRS have not been very kind to him, pegging him at -3 runs and -8 runs, respectively, this season. Consequently, both fWAR and rWAR suggest Healy has been essentially a replacement level player in 2018.
We shouldn’t doubt these metrics beyond their actual imperfections. But when making judgments about talent level, we should use as much information as possible.
In this sense, FanGraphs suggests a one-to-three year sample size to call either metric “particularly useful,” and given that Healy has only spent 961.0 innings at first base, he still has not reached that lower end of that threshold yet, as a first baseman typically logs 1100+ innings in the field over a full season.
Nonetheless, we work with what we currently have and what we currently have — a -5.5 UZR/150 and -7 DRS in total — suggests that over his career, Healy has been somewhere between ‘Below Average’ and ‘Poor’ at first base.
With Nelson Cruz entrenched at DH, Healy is on pace to log around 1250 defensive innings in his slightly abbreviated season, so we’ll assume he would log 1300 innings annually in a typical season at first base with no appearances at DH since he hasn’t DH’d yet this year.
According to FanGraphs’ 2017 weights (because I have not pulled the continually updating 2018 numbers), 1300 innings at first base with a -5.5 UZR would be worth approximately -1.7 fWAR. Considering the less favorable DRS, if we give him a -10 UZR instead (or -10 DRS, doesn’t matter).
Healy’s glove would be worth approximately -2.1 fWAR. Transition him to 144 games (roughly 1300/9) at DH instead, and due to the DH positional adjustment, he would be worth about -1.6 fWAR on “defense.”
Therefore, it would be practical to eventually move him to DH if we want to keep him on the roster. That is unless you believe that Healy has greater defensive upside at first base, which is entirely possible. After all, he still has spent more time as a professional at third base and that we’re still in a fuzzy sample size range in terms of what his current performance means in relation to his true talent.
If Healy can’t restore himself to something closer his 2016 iteration, his defense will likely determine his future with the club.
Nelson Cruz is putting together a strong case to be re-signed, and even though he is set to seek a multi-year deal, it is possible his career with the Mariners will continue. In the near future, that would basically keep Healy at first base regardless of his glove and put more pressure on his bat.
As a below average defender and a streaky hitter, Ryon Healy is likely fated to be around a replacement level player. He could improve greatly by better translating his defensive skills into on-field performance or by (re)discovering what allowed him a more fortunate BABIP before.
In either case, he won’t have to outhit his glove so drastically to justify his roster spot in the coming years.
All stats referenced prior to games on 07/09/18
Another interesting tidbit: Ryon Healy has hit his home runs an average of 407 ft this season