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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."
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.