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Feel the Glove
ALBERT CHEN
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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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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