Brendan Ryan believes there’s more to him as a shortstop than just defense. Of course, Ryan’s defense is far from ordinary. It’s extraordinarily good, like best in the league-level good. And yet, as good as Ryan is with the glove, it’s difficult for management and fans to overlook or digest an every day player, who is hitting under .200.
Of course, Ryan doesn’t think a .194 batting average is acceptable either. He knows that being a productive major league player means to have some semblance of consistency and contribution level at the plate.
Going into 2013 season, he will try to bring some production at the plate while still maintaining his Gold Glove-level defense at shortstop.
“If you throw in some offense with it, I’d like to think you have a pretty good player,” he said.
There really is no way to make Ryan’s offensive numbers in 2012 sound even decent. Of players with at least 450 plate appearances, Ryan registered the lowest batting average in all of baseball at .194 (79-for-407). His .278 slugging percentage was also the lowest in that group of players, while his .277 on-base percentage was third worst.
Going 1-for-32 over an 11 game stretch in April and May certainly doesn’t help the batting average. By the end of it, Ryan’s batting averaged had dipped all the way to .125 on May 2 – 26 games into the season.
“Any time you talk about someone I struggled the way I did, you are talking about confidence," Ryan said. “It's tough to go up there and fake it. You know the swing isn't where you want it and it's major league pitching so it's difficult to begin with."
And despite all of his issues at the plate, Ryan was still in the lineup every day. Part of that was due to the lack of a credible shortstop in the organization to replace him. Munenori Kawasaki was the team’s utility infielder and just as suspect at the plate.
But it was also a testament to the skills Ryan brought to the field defensively.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge has called Ryan the best defensive shortstops he’s seen since managing Omar Vizquel in Cleveland.
And the numbers bear it out.
Ryan led all shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) at 14.7. This sabermetric stat is often used to determine a player’s value defensively. The 14.7 represents the amount of runs Ryan limited by playing quality defense. If you take those measurables and project it to 150 games (Ryan played in only 134), it would give you a UZR/150 score of 17.1 – also best among big league shortstops. Ryan led all shortstops in the Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) statistic with 27. Also according to the sabermetric stat – Defensive Wins Above Replacement player – Ryan’s defense was worth 3.6 wins to the Mariners, which was the best among all players of any position.
By more traditional measures, Ryan committed just nine errors – third fewest among major league shortstops. He also turned 102 doubles plays as a shortstop, second most among all shortstops.
For his efforts, he received a The Fielding Bible award at shortstop. The award is voted on by a panel of baseball experts that solely at defensive prowess. Ryan was also named as one of three Gold Glove award finalists at shortstop, but did not win the award.
“It’s definitely ironic that you win that and not the other,” he said.
Mariners’ fans and baseball fans who watch postgame highlight shows have seen it on a nightly basis. Ryan does not only make the routine plays, but he has a knack and flair for the difficult and sometimes impossible.
“It seems like the right people have noticed and have seen what I can do out there,” he said.
Ryan heads into spring training as the team’s every day starting shortstop. There is a belief that Ryan will have a bounce back year at the plate. Both the Mariners and Ryan certainly don’t think there will be a repeat of last season.
“That was bottom,” he said. “It can only go up from there.”
The day after the 2012 season ended, Ryan had surgery on his throwing elbow to remove a bone spur. The discomfort in the elbow hampered him in offseason workouts and spring training drills last year.
This offseason there has been no such issues.
"I'm going into spring training in a much better place than I was in the last few years," Ryan said.
Of course, the big thing is hitting. Can he become a legitimate hitter once again? The Mariners aren't asking him to hit .280. They'd take .240 in a heartbeat.
How does he do that?
Ryan talked about hitting with more a small ball approach, admitting he got caught up trying to drive the ball for extra base hits.
"I need to be more scrappy and more willing to hit the ball on the ground and live with what happens after that," he said. "If I'm hitting hard ground balls and line drives, the rest will take care of itself. I've gotten away from who I am. I need to get on base more. I’d like to steal more bases too. But it’s hard to do that when you can’t steal first base.”
The Mariners traded for infielder Robert Andino in the offseason to fill the utility role for the team. Andino was drafted as a shortstop by the Orioles and has played in 122 games in his career. He told Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik that he believed he could be an every day shortstop in the big leagues. Wedge will give him the chance to compete.
While not as good defensively as Ryan, Andino does have more power than Ryan. Andino did hit seven homers last season. But he also struck out 100 times in 438 plate appearances.
It was supposed to a bright future for the Mariners at shortstop. And it still might be that way. There was some optimistic thought from fans that talented youngster Nick Franklin might be the opening day shortstop by the 2013 season.
That doesn’t seem to be likely.
But Franklin is still an important player in the Mariners minor league system.
He demolished Double A pitching in the first half of last season. In 57 games with the Jackson Generals, Franklin hit .322 with 17 doubles, four homers, four triples and 26 RBI along with a.394 on-base percentage and a .502 slugging percentage. He was promoted to Triple A Tacoma where success didn’t come quite as easily. Franklin hit just .240 with seven homers and 39 RBI. His on-base percentage (.306) and slugging percentage (.412) both dipped. There also began to be murmurs from scouts that Franklin might not project to be an every day shortstop in the big leagues, but seemed more likely to fit as a second baseman because of his issues with arm strength and range.
The Mariners have other beliefs.
“We still view him as a shortstop,” Zduriencik said at the winter meetings.
Franklin will continue to split time at shortstop with Carlos Triunfel, who was also once declared the Mariners shortstop of the future, at Triple A Tacoma.
Triunfel is an interesting case. It’s instructive to remember that he won’t turn 23 for a few more weeks. It just seems like he’s older because he’s been in the Mariners system since age 16.
Triunfel still has all the talent and athleticism to be an every day shortstop defensively. His arm and range is better than most big leaguers. But the every day consistency is missing. He committed 30 errors last season with the Rainiers. He also is still a lot like Yuniesky Betancourt at the plate, swinging at far too many pitches out of the strike zone and striking out too much, while not walking enough. He struck out 89 times in 496 plate appearances and walked just 22 times. He did hit .260 with 31 doubles, 10 homers and 62 RBI.
Another name to watch for is Brad Miller. The former second-round draft pick out of Clemson put up astounding numbers in hitter friendly HighDesert last season, posting a .339 batting average with 33 doubles, 11 homers and 52 RBI in 97 games. He had an on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .936. That production didn’t fall off too much when he was promoted to Double A Jackson. In 40 games, Miller hit .320 with seven doubles, four homers and 12 RBI with a .882 OPS. His biggest problem is in the field, where he committed 31 errors with HighDesert and five with Jackson.