The Seattle Mariners survived a scare Saturday.
I don’t mean how they were forced to make a 1-0 lead stand over the final eight innings at Yankee Stadium. The way Felix Hernandez was dealing, the Yankees’ off-balance hitters scared nobody.
The scare I mean came in the top of the seventh inning, when Hiroki Kuroda’s inside fastball plunked Brendan Ryan on the left elbow. Ryan had to leave the game, and for an hour so – until X-rays showed no fracture – it seemed possible the shortstop would be out of action for several weeks.
Figures, huh? Just when the Mariners are finding their mojo, just when they’re on the verge of improving their post-All Star break record to 15-7, an irreplaceable piece of their infield defense is put on the disabled list.
While waiting for the update on Ryan’s condition, it occurred to me that the No. 9 hitter in a famously unprepossessing batting order is the position player the Mariners can least afford to lose.
Which is another way of saying: Brendan Ryan, despite his .205 batting average, is the Mariners’ most valuable position player.
That’s merely an opinion, of course, but it’s an opinion supported by some of the advanced metrics prevalent in modern statistical analysis. “Wins Above Replacement” isn’t a flawless evaluation of a player’s overall ability, but at least it manages to account for the importance of defense at important defensive positions.
Ryan’s WAR rating is 3.4, best on the Mariners and tied for eighth-best in the American League. (As a point of reference, Angels rookie center fielder Mike Trout leads the league in WAR, followed by the Yankees’ Robinson Cano and the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera. Each is an MVP candidate.)
Ryan’s defensive WAR rating of 3.2 is No. 1 in the AL, and it’s No. 1 by a mile. The only other players with a defensive WAR over 2 are Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar (2.2) and his teammate, third baseman Brett Lawrie (2.1).
When Ryan was a Cardinals prospect, he developed a reputation as a talented athlete plagued by occasional spells of inattentiveness. To call him a head case would be an overstatement, but it’s no secret former manager Tony La Russa was frustrated. Before the 2011 season, the Cardinals traded Ryan to the Mariners for right-handed pitcher Maikel Cleto.
The deal was a steal, probably the best single move of Jack Zduriencik’s four-year career as general manager in Seattle. While Ryan continues to assert himself as the top defensive shortstop, Cleto is a set-up reliever for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds.
Ryan’s scintillating fielding was a revelation to Mariners fans last year, when he led all shortstops with 18 runs saved. (Another advanced metric, “runs saved” quantifies plays made on plays normal fielders aren’t expected to make.) Ryan also committed 15 errors in 123 games, not unusual for a shortstop with uncommon range.
So much for last season. Ryan’s defense in 2012 has been off-the-charts spectacular: With 53 games still on the schedule, Ryan already has 25 runs saved. And about those inevitable errors? He’s committed three – three – in 404 chances.
A shortstop can be expected to botch three plays in 404 chances while taking a week’s worth of grounders during batting practice. Ryan has botched three plays in 404 chances during actual games, when batters are sprinting to first and baserunners are barreling into second.
For fans of my generation, the Orioles’ Mark Belanger personified the shortstop whose stellar defense more than compensated for his weak hitting. Belanger’s lifetime batting average was .228, but he won eight Gold Gloves as a mainstay on some of the best teams of the 1960s and ’70s.
During his Gold Glove seasons, Belanger averaged 17 errors. Again, that’s to be expected of a shortstop with range: the more chances you make on grounders deep in the hole, the more chances you take on committing an error.
Ryan, put simply, is defying the odds. He’s converting hits into outs, and he’s converting them with a consistency that’s remarkable.
So now the question turns toward Ryan’s future in Seattle.
The two-year deal he signed upon reporting to the Mariners expires in October. He’s 30, eligible for arbitration in 2013, and could become a free agent in 2014.
A contract-extension offer to Ryan for two or three years won’t shake up the payroll – he’s making $1.75 million this season – and would prevent the Rainiers’ Nick Franklin, Seattle’s presumptive shortstop of the future, from being rushed to The Show.
In December 2010, Jack Zduriencik essentially robbed the Cardinals of a peerless defensive shortstop, and Ryan has only gotten better. He’s an acrobat with a strong arm and a conviction – even stronger than his arm – that no ground ball hit to the left side of the infield will elude him.
If I’m Zduriencik, I’m re-signing the best defensive shortstop in the world to a contract extension. And then I’m telling fans fixated on his crummy batting average that they’re missing the game within the game.
A Brendan Ryan backhanded stab of a grounder deep in the hole, accompanied by the pivot that precedes a cannon throw delivered as sure as a dart, is as good as it firstname.lastname@example.org