Mariners Center Fielders Might Have a Positioning Problem

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SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 16: Rightfielder Mitch Haniger
SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 16: Rightfielder Mitch Haniger /
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When Jerry Dipoto took over as General Manager for the Seattle Mariners, one of his main goals was to install a more athletic, more capable defensive outfield, and evidently, that has revolved around center field.

Since 2016, the Mariners have primarily employed Leonys Martin, Jarrod Dyson, and Guillermo Heredia up the middle with Dee Gordon and now Cameron Maybin in the mix, but despite each players’ respective abilities, center field has been a lackluster source of defensive value.

Among all Mariners center fielders since 2016, only Leonys Martin and Jarrod Dyson have provided significant positive value in center field by either UZR or DRS. That is all well and good, but their defensive rebounds following their departures from the Mariners possibly hint at a bigger issue.

Part of the new front office’s emphasis on the outfield meant that defensive strategy would likely become a greater focus, and sure enough, on any given play these days, you can watch Mariners’ outfielders shade toward one direction or another.

That is common in today’s game, but it throws a bit of a wrench into some defensive metrics. Neither UZR nor DRS can account for fielders’ exact starting positions.

That being the case, plays utilizing full-on shifts are not included in UZR/DRS calculations because fielders start way out of line.

(For this article, I will use only UZR since it has a component – Range Runs – that attempts to isolate range-based value).

However, shading toward an area is not a shift.

When a center fielder slides over several extra paces, he does not escape the scope of these defensive metrics. What would be a semi-routine fly ball could be more of a gap shot to him, but UZR won’t know this and his flanking corner outfielders won’t always be positioned to make up the ground he exposes.

The “engine” of this metric will recognize an outfield fly ball struck with medium contact to a certain area of the outfield and it will use a proxy for outfield depth (batter’s power) among other adjustments, but it won’t account for any additional yardage that a fielder might have to cover based on positioning.

If a ball is judged to be fairly routine based on how often similarly struck balls are fielded under similar conditions and an outfielder lets it drop because he started further away, he still receives significant negative credit as though the play were not any more difficult for him.

In theory, when fielders shade toward where they and/or their team believes a batter is more likely to hit the ball, they should find more outs, but consequently, batters should find more hits from previously unproductive batted balls too.

Thus, the effects of such an imperfection may be assumed to mostly even out in the long run (or possibly benefit the optimally positioned), but this doesn’t happen if you’re not well positioned to begin with and therein might lie a problem for the Mariners.

Other than Dee Gordon, every Mariners outfielder who has logged at least 50 innings in center field in a season since 2016 has rated poorly by UZR’s Range Runs (RngR) and/or experienced a dip in this metric after coming to the Mariners.

From here, I will scale every player’s RngR to 1200 innings (about 133 games) and reference the modified statistic simply as “RngR.”

(Note: scaling by innings is not as appropriate as scaling by defensive chances, but I do not have those numbers in front of me.)

In the cases of 2016 Nori Aoki and 2018 Mitch Haniger, we may chalk their poor performances up to being out of position and likely lack the skills necessary to succeed in center field, but Leonys Martin, Jarrod Dyson, and maybe Cameron Maybin — players with significant center field experience outside Seattle — warrant further consideration.

Here are each of these player’s RngR (scaled to 1200 innings) in and around their time with the Mariners:

Time PeriodLeonys MartinJarrod DysonCameron Maybin
Career Average before SEA1.0810.344.47
Average in 3 years before SEA1.7412.93-0.10
1 year before SEA-1.7810.395.59
Career w/ SEA-1.530.15-7.2
Career Average after SEA9.8314.73 —
Total Career Average1.488.744.51

These stats were derived from small sample sizes in some cases and simply extrapolating RngR isn’t quite hard-hitting analysis, especially since none of these guys play 133 games a year, so as raw values, take these numbers with a huge grain of salt.

However, it is a curious phenomenon that both Martin and Dyson did not come close to replicating their previous success in Seattle but were able to rebound quite nicely as soon as they left. And similarly, Cameron Maybin could be succumbing to the same fate.

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Granted, Maybin has logged a measly 100 innings in center field for the Mariners — about half as many innings as Miami gave him — but in that sample, he’s already been credited with twice as many runs below average as he earned with the Marlins.

And moving on to Guillermo Heredia, we find another outfielder with the skills and reputation for being a defensive standout who has failed to stand up to the evaluation of UZR’s RngR with the Mariners.

No matter how much praise broadcasters, fans, or executives heap upon Heredia, RngR has rated him atrociously as a center fielder at -10.31 runs per 1200 innings for his career.

Although Heredia has accrued only about one full season’s worth of innings in center field to this point in his career, more than UZR wonkiness, personal arrogance, and a prevailing loyalty to one’s eye suggest that he as well as Martin, Dyson, and Maybin may not themselves be the root of their poor RngR ratings with the Mariners.

In 2016, Statcast unveiled Outs Above Average (OAA), a defensive metric that measures how many outs an outfielder saved over his average counterparts.

This statistic is based on Catch Probability — a concept most easily explained by a block quote straight from its glossary page:

"Catch Probability represents the likelihood that a batted ball to the outfield will be caught, based on four important pieces of information tracked by Statcast. 1. How far did the fielder have to go? 2. How much time did he have to get there. 3. What direction did he need to go in? 4. Was proximity to the wall a factor?"

As the above implies, OAA does incorporate fielders’ starting positions and thus is unaffected by one of the inherent imperfections of UZR and similar metrics.

Showing bad hands can skew one’s OAA based on a difference between Expected and Actual Catch Probability (see: Gordon, Dee), but generally, OAA is a solid, range-based measure of skill, and it has been kind to the aforementioned four outfielders since its inception.

Here are those players’ performances on a rate basis (Catch Percentage Added) with their respective ranks (min. 25 opportunities) in parentheses:

Year (# of players)Leonys MartinJarrod DysonCameron MaybinGuillermo Heredia
2016 (208)+3% (46)+4% (31)0 (93)+2% (56)
2017 (206)+6% (7)+3% (30)+2% (48)+2% (51)
2018 (186)+1% (79)0 (104)+3% (35)+3% (37)

bold = entire year with Mariners
italic = partial year with Mariners

And here they are on a cumulative basis (OAA):

Year (# of players)Leonys MartinJarrod DysonCameron MaybinGuillermo Heredia
2016 (208)+13 (8)+8 (18)-1 (131)+2 (53)
2017 (206)+5 (29)+8 (17)+4 (32)+9 (15)
2018 (186)+3 (34)+1 (62)+6 (20)+7 (16)

Source

We should note that OAA does not separate players’ performances by position, but there is no difference between catch probability in left field and catch probability in centerfield based on the average capabilities of the players who play those positions — 80% is 80%

While we’re at it, we should also note that outs above average are not runs above average. Every out is not created equal, and thus, one outfielder’s +9 OAA is not necessarily equivalent in value to another outfielder’s +9 OAA. In that vein, RngR and OAA are not measuring the same exact thing, but I digress.

SEATTLE, WA – AUGUST 01: Cameron Maybin #10 of the Seattle Mariners runs off the field after the top of the first inning against the Houston Astros at Safeco Field on August 1, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA – AUGUST 01: Cameron Maybin #10 of the Seattle Mariners runs off the field after the top of the first inning against the Houston Astros at Safeco Field on August 1, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images) /

All four outfielders have apparently provided above average value to the Mariners by some combination of making more improbable catches than an average outfielder would have made and by missing fewer probable catches.

Even in seasons where Martin and Dyson dealt with lower body injuries (did I not mention that earlier?), they demonstrated that they were among the rangier outfielders in the game and hadn’t lost a step.

In fact, in their time with the Mariners, accounting for their number of opportunities, Martin, Dyson, and Heredia were/have been arguably among the top 20 most productive defensive outfielders in baseball.

The key word there is “arguably,” but this bullish-ness still clearly stands in stark contrast to the poor evaluations doled out by RngR.

That Martin and Dyson, in particular, graded well by OAA in their Seattle tenures but still turned in the worst RngR marks of their careers only to restore their RngR value as soon as they left without an increase in Catch Probability Added should lead us to ponder whether the Mariners are getting the most — or even enough — out of their evidently rangy outfielders.

It is possible that, contrary to its intended purpose, outfield positioning is actually hurting the Mariners’ defense, and although I focused on centerfield, this potential problem likely wouldn’t stop there.

I admittedly do not know from whom the Mariners’ defensive coordination originates or who really has the final say in its use. I do not know for sure whether there is a problem at all, and if there is, I do not know whether the problem lies in design or implementation.

Next. Erasmo Taking Steps in the Left Direction?. dark

But with a seemingly player-focused manager in Scott Servais at the helm, the Mariners might be exposing a need to default strategically to a more analytically-minded coach like Manny Acta or think up something else entirely. Whatever the case may be, the pieces still aren’t quite fitting together in Seattle.

All stats referenced prior to games on 08/20/18

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