The Mariners offense is a land of contrasts. You have Robinson Cano, who’s rebounded from his bizarrely pedestrian 2015; Kyle Seager, who stands apart even in a crowded field of American League third basemen; and Nelson Cruz, who continues to take advantage of the graying self-portrait locked away in his attic. Those three players have combined to earn 15.2 fWAR, and all of them rank in the AL’s top 25.
On the other side of the coin, well, where do we begin? Adam Lind and Ketel Marte have each played below replacement level, consuming 882 plate appearances while doing so. Dae-Ho Lee has chipped in a meager 0.3 fWAR as a 34-year-old rookie, Shawn O’Malley has fared just as poorly in his age-28 debut...I could go on. If Seattle had more position players of the Cano-Seager-Cruz caliber, it would have competed with Texas for the AL West title; instead, a bunch of stinkers have weighed the club down, and the M's are desperately fighting for a Wild Card spot they are not likely to obtain.
And then, in the middle of the pack, you have (among other players) Franklin Gutierrez. Remember Guti? Back in 2009, he won a Gold Glove and earned one of the coolest nicknames in major-league history. Then came the injuries. After a 6.0 fWAR explosion in 2009, he limped his way to 3.3 fWAR over the course of the next five years (most of which came via a 2.1 fWAR in 2010). When the Mariners inked Gutierrez to a minor-league deal before 2015, they probably saw him as a gamble with little chance of paying off.
But pay off, he did. Gutierrez had the best offensive campaign of his career, slugging his way to a career-best 167 wRC+; that translated to 2.3 fWAR over a mere 189 plate appearances. In the offseason, shortly before the M’s re-upped Gutierrez, my colleague Spencer Bingol deemed him the position-player equivalent of Rich Hill — although each player looked to be over the hill (no pun intended), they revamped their style and came back stronger than ever.
This season, Gutierrez has fallen back to earth. He’s accumulated only 0.9 fWAR despite getting 89 more plate appearances than he did last year. In fairness, a lot of his regression is due to a flukishly bad appraisal from the defensive metrics — I can’t see why an outfielder who hasn’t blown a routine or likely play (and whose nickname is "Death to Flying Things") should have -4.2 UZR. But Gutierrez has gotten worse on offense, too: His wRC+ has tumbled from that 167 to a far less spectacular 118.
The problem hasn’t been weak contact. Of the 302 players who have stepped to the dish 250 times this season, no one has a better hard-hit rate than Gutierrez’s 47.2 percent. For the sake of comparison: Cano, Seager, and Cruz are at 35.7, 38.0, and 36.2 percent, respectively. What do those three have in common that Gutierrez lacks? A lack of ground balls.
Gutierrez has put the ball on the ground 50.3 percent of the time in 2016, which slots him 58th in that sample. That combination, of hard contact and worm burners, is quite uncommon:
None of the other 301 hitters comes close to Guti. That’s because usually, when a guy makes solid contact, he’ll do so in the air, since grounders tend to be weaker than flies and liners. Some players, though — the Gutierrezes and Anthony Rendons of the world — will just crush everything irrespective of launch angle.
Indeed, Gutierrez also has the highest hard-hit rate on ground balls in the majors, and by an even wider margin:
Poor luck has certainly put a damper on Gutierrez’s 2016 output. Despite all of that hard contact, his 36 grounder wRC+ ranks him 108th in the majors. Opponents don’t shift him too often, and although the aforementioned injuries have sapped him of some of his speed, he can still get down the line. If he continues to slam the ball into the ground, eventually he’ll produce on those balls.
With that said, the high grounder rate does bear some blame for his struggles. Spencer noted in his article that Gutierrez had the lowest ground ball rate of his career, at 40.7 percent, during his 2015 breakout. He’ll regain that formidable offense only if he starts to elevate the ball again. And that means he needs to get under low pitches, which he’s failed to do this year:
In 2015, Gutierrez put 46 balls in play in the lower part of the strike zone, according to Baseball Savant*. 25 of those, or 54.4 percent, went on the ground, which ranked him in the 42nd percentile. In 2016, his ground ball rate on low pitches has leapt to 74.2 percent, moving him up to the 98th percentile. When given a higher offering, Gutierrez will still put it in the air, but that can’t compensate for the spike in grounders down below.
*Here, I define "lower part" as sections 7, 8, 9, 13, and 14 of Savant’s strike zone.
If Gutierrez remains at this level of offense, he’ll be a solid player. Most teams will find a spot for a capable (in theory) defender who can hold his own at the plate. He won’t go back to being elite, however, unless he cuts down on the ground balls. Making hard contact is half the battle; the other part is making sure that contact goes where you want it to go.
The Mariners, somehow, find themselves in contention for the postseason. They’ve had one of the wilder years of any team in the American League, and thanks to an eight-game win streak a couple of weeks back, they’re only two games behind the Orioles and Blue Jays in the wildcard race. With the last three games of their season against the miserable Athletics, they could certainly heat up down the stretch.
This gives Gutierrez three more opportunities to smack some more fly balls, recover his power, and make a push to rejoin the Cano-Seager-Cruz class of players. He certainly has experience with coming back from impossible odds — who’s to say he’ll fall short here?