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Feel the Glove
March 01, 2010
OBP? Sooo 2003. This winter baseball's smart guys—most notably the ones running the Mariners—turned run prevention into the Next Big Thing
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March 01, 2010

Feel The Glove

OBP? Sooo 2003. This winter baseball's smart guys—most notably the ones running the Mariners—turned run prevention into the Next Big Thing

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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.

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