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The Mariners historically bad defense

Seattle is on pace to threaten UZR and DRS records, and not in a good way.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when it looked like the Mariners were the surprise team of 2019? About three weeks ago they were the best team in baseball, having won 13 of their first 15 games. Now they’ve lost six of seven and plummeted to a pedestrian 19-17 record.

In spite of their recent skid, the Mariners have still overperformed their true talent. They have the most enviable offense in baseball so far, leading MLB in runs, walks, and total bases. They trail only the Astros with a 117 wRC+. The team also leads MLB in FanGraphs’ baserunning runs with 4.3. The pitching staff has been only a little below average, with a 102 xFIP- and 112 DRA-. Fantastic hitting and mediocre pitching should yield a positive run differential, but the Mariners had scored just as many as they had surrendered before yesterday’s 10-0 drubbing of Cleveland.

The discrepancy is all about defense. Seattle’s fielding is not only the worst in baseball this season, but they are on pace to be one of the worst defensive teams in recent history. 28 teams are between 7.4 and -7.4 UZR this season. The White Sox are in 29th place with -13.0 UZR, but if Chicago is in Hades, Seattle resides in Tartarus with -28.0. They’re just as putrid by DRS, recording a league low -29.

The Culprits

At this point in the season, it’s difficult to make much of UZR for individual players. Most of them are clustered somewhere around zero, and the difference between Ichiro’s 0.2 and Jay Bruce’s 0.1 isn’t conclusive. However, along with Dylan Moore’s 0.1, these are the only three Mariners with positive UZR. There’s a big flashing small sample size disclaimer, but it’s technically true to say their best defensive player retired in March!

Other than defensively neutral Mitch Haniger, the rest of the outfield has been just horrific. They feature the two lowest individual UZR in MLB this season, regardless of position. In spite of his world class speed (29.1 ft/s sprint speed, 94th percentile), Mallex Smith has been worth -7.0 UZR. Domingo Santana is baseball’s worst defensive player to date, lugging around a -8.7 UZR. He’s also last in baseball in Statcast’s outs above average with -6. Here are his catch probability ratings:

Domingo Santana Catch Probability

Catch Probability Catches Opportunities Catch %
Catch Probability Catches Opportunities Catch %
91-95% 2 2 100.0%
76-90% 3 7 42.9%
51-75% 2 6 33.3%
26-50% 0 0 --
0-25% 0 7 0.0%

Santana has reeled in only five out of 13 fly balls that are supposed to be caught 51-90 percent of the time. That’s probably five or six extra doubles allowed that the pitching staff didn’t deserve.

Let’s turn to the infield.

The Mariners also employ MLB’s worst defensive infielder: Tim Beckham (-5.2 UZR). Ryon Healy (-3.5), Dee Gordon (-1.4), and Edwin Encarnacion (-0.6) have hurt their cause as well. The only positive infielder has been backup Dylan Moore with 0.9 UZR, even though he and Beckham each had three errors in one inning in early April.

Catchers aren’t included in UZR. It doesn’t make sense to measure catcher defense the same way as other positions. However, Omar Narvaez hasn’t been very good either. His -1.2 framing runs is 19th out of 21 qualified catchers.

History Awaits

It bears repeating that the Mariners UZR is -28.0 through 35 games, which is roughly four times worse than the third-worst team in baseball. They have the 82nd-worst team UZR since the stat was first tracked in 2002, and we’re not even a quarter of the way through the season!

Assuming they don’t improve, Seattle is on pace for -129.6 UZR this year. That would be the second-worst team UZR in history, trailing only the 2005 Yankees with -141.7. It’s significantly worse than the second-lowest mark of -80.1, held by the 2006 Yankees, which featured late-stage Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield, and Hideki Matsui in the outfield.

By DRS, the 2005 Yankees are only the second worst team ever (DRS tracking dates back to 2003) with -120. This year’s Mariners are on pace to blow past them with -134. However, they’ll need to crank up the ineptitude to break the record of -146 held by the 2018 Phillies.

Room for Improvement

There’s reason to expect improvement, though. Santana and Gordon aren’t usually quite so awful, while Smith has been demoted to triple-A. J.P. Crawford will probably resurface in the majors at some point, pushing Beckham off shortstop. Kyle Seager, an adept third baseman, will return from the injured list in a few weeks.

In the meantime, Mariners fans have to suffer through some historically abysmal defending. It could be worse though. Imagine pitching for the Mariners, watching a fly ball head toward Santana!

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983