Since 2008, there’s been one thing Rays fans have been more or less able to take for granted—high quality defense. The 2008 world series run was fueled by a truly incredible defensive performance of over 70 runs above average.
Those Rays were able to exploit a market inefficiency at a time when few teams valued (or accurately measured) defense, so it makes sense for their advantage to have come down over the past eight years. The 2016 team, however, gave the worst defensive performance since the Devil was exorcised, posting a negative UZR. And that’s with Kevin Kiermaier, probably the best defender in baseball, manning center field for much of the season.
What went so wrong?
For this article I'm using UZR/150 to put some different and too-small sample sizes on the same scale, so there are caveats. UZR takes about three years to stabilize—similar to batting average—so don't get too invested in the actual number as a representation of true talent. Rather take it as a general indication of both production and ability to be considered with other factors in a full evaluation
Nick Franklin: Not-So-Super-Utility
Remember when Ben Zobrist used to play all over the diamond and be way above average everywhere he went? It seems that’s hard to do. Perhaps it’s wrong to pick on the guy who only played in 60 games. The sample size is small. But the results are kind of amazing.
I have real trouble believing that Franklin is this bad. He came up as a shortstop, and while it’s entirely possible that he’s not a major league shortstop (few are), he’s still athletic, and this level of ineptitude can’t be a true representation.
However, if his bat continues to play, as it did in 2016, the Rays may want to think about treating him as a guy who needs positional consistency, rather than as a guy they can move wherever they need him.
Desmond Jennings: No Longer a Center Fielder
There was a time—2014, actually—when Desmond Jennings was an above-average center fielder and an excellent defensive left fielder. But when Kiermaier broke his wrist and Jennings shifted over to center field, it was clear to the eye and the calculator that he had lost a few steps.
The Desmond Jennings story has been all about injuries, and they clearly played a part here. Jennings was released, and he has not been picked up by another team, so clearly the market believes these numbers reflect his current fielding ability.
Brandon Guyer: Oddly Below Average
Unlike Jennings, Brandon Guyer is still playing baseball—he was traded for by the ALCS leading Cleveland Indians. Which makes it seem like perhaps the out-of-character numbers he put up in the outfield this season actually are an aberration.
Guyer has been an above average outfielder his entire career, but in 2016 he was below average wherever he played, despite not looking any different (to my eyes, at least). Weird. And for the Rays, unfortunate.
Brad Miller: Not a Shortstop?
Brad Miller played 854 innings at shortstop this season, and his UZR/150 was -25.1. That’s a very bad mark. He was an average defensive shortstop during his time with the Mariners, so there’s reason to wonder about how representative that number is.
But I don’t think that the Rays want to spend the time to find out. They traded for Matt Duffy, who is likely a better shortstop than Miller, and that will move Miller (who’s bat needs to be in the lineup) down the defensive spectrum to easier positions where, with a bit of practice, he should be able to excel.
Once he’s comfortable there, a bad shortstop should be a good first baseman.
Logan Morrison: A First Baseman (and not a good one)
Logan Morrison actually wasn’t terrible. He just played first base like a first baseman: slowly, and without much range. He was average (or very slightly below), and based on his history, that’s exactly what we should all expect from him.
The problem is that he’s also an average hitter, and a player who hits for league average and fields at first base at the positional average is a below-average player.
Probably Brad Miller (or Logan Forsythe) can do better on both counts.
Full-Timers Who Didn’t Make Up The Difference
There were three guys—Evan Longoria, Logan Forsythe, and Steven Souza Jr.—who all have the capability to put together good defensive seasons, but who were all right around the average at their position in 2016. That means that they didn’t make up for their lesser-fielding teammates.
Longoria in particular has a track record of above-average play, so it’s fair to expect more from him. Souza was actually good, statistically, in right field, but struggled immensely in limited time elsewhere around the outfield. Forsythe is probably always going to hover around average at second base, because he’s fundamentally sound but not spectacularly athletic, but this season happened to be on the underside of average.
Part-Timers Who Probably Have More To Give
It wasn’t all bad for the Rays fielders in 2016. There were a couple guys who flashed the leather in limited time who could potentially help more next season.
First, check out Mikie Mahtook’s work.
Mahtook has been labeled a tweener ever since he was drafted, meaning a player who doesn’t field well enough to play center field but doesn’t hit well enough for a corner. But he’s played plenty of center field in the minors, and the preliminary defensive numbers for him are good.
If an outfielder puts up an above average UZR in each outfield spot, maybe we can stop worrying about where to play him and just put him wherever he’s needed.
There were a few things keeping Mahtook out of the lineup: Desmond Jennings, Brandon Guyer, and awful offensive production. A 34.7% strikeout rate without any power is worrying, but there are people who think Mahtook can do better than that. If so, he’ll help in the field.
And then there’s Tim Beckham, who moved all over the infield and was above average defensively everywhere he went. And his bat was league average. And still he managed to get himself demoted and shunned for not hustling on the basepaths.
Beckham, for the amount of disdain he gets around here, is a potentially valuable bench player. If the Rays can’t manage his attitude, that’s a failing on their part. Good organizations figure out how to make guys fit in.
The Rays as a team were not good defensively last season, and there was plenty of blame to go around. But it’s likely to get better in 2017. Here’s how.
Addition by subtraction (these players will not be there in 2017):
- Desmond Jennings
- Brandon Guyer
- Logan Morrison
Addition by relocation:
- Brad Miller will play easier positions than shortstop (likely either second base or first base).
- Conceivably, if Miller spends time at second base, Logan Forsythe would move to first, where he would likely be above average.
Addition by regression:
- Evan Longoria can probably put up better numbers. Yes he's aging, but he's pretty much always been above average in the past.
- Can Nick Franklin really be that bad everywhere?
Addition by addition:
- Matt Duffy will take over shortstop full time.
- Either Mahtook or Beckham could mature into a more full-time role.
- There's this thing called a "free agent."
- Once Kiermaier went out, everyone except for Mahtook struggled mightily in center field. Perhaps Kevin Kiermaier won’t break any bones.