Position Roundtables: Left Field
Starting Left Fielder: Raul Ibanez
Before 2005, Raul Ibanez had never walked 50 times in a season. His career high, 49, was set in 2003 and came in 608 plate appearances. Last year, he walked 71 times in 614 plate appearances. That’s a 22 walk jump over his prior best. Or, for those who prefer percentages, he walked in 11.5 percent of his at-bats. In his 2003 season, he walked in just 8 percent of his at-bats. At age 33, Ibanez significantly increased the amount of free passes he took. We’re big fans of the walk as an offensive weapon, and we wish all of the Mariner hitters would stroll down to first base more often than once a week.
However, in this instance, I’m worried. It’s not just the increase in walks, which in isolation would be a good thing. Ibanez also set a career high in strikeouts with 99. Additionally, he saw a drop in power and a change in extra base hit distribution, with more of his extra base hits tending toward the home run side and less towards the doubles side. As players age, they lose speed in both their bat and feet, and they often compensate by adjusting their approach to only swing when they think they can drive the ball over the wall. This shows up in the statistics as an increase in home run rate, walk rate, strikeout rate, and a decline in batting average and doubles. Ibanez fits the mold to a tee.
Ibanez has reached the decline phase of his career. How long he can hold off the inevitable end is really up to him, how hard he works, and whether he’s willing to accept his new skillset rather than trying to force himself to still be the player he was several years ago. We saw first hand-hello Bret Boone!-what happens to a player who refuses to accept the changes in his physical skills near the end of his career. The end can come very, very quickly.
So, in order to help Ibanez fight the effects of aging, the M’s have… made him go from DH’ing to chasing balls around the most spacious left field area in the league? Bill James showed years ago that moves left along the defensive spectrum-in other words, going from an easier position to field to a harder one, such as from 3rd base to 2nd base or left field to center field-often end in disaster, and not just defensively. Now, its true that Ibanez did play left field occassionally the past few years, so he’s not changing positions per se, but I can’t believe that going from a regular DH to a regular fielder is going to help his body fight off the effects of getting older.
You can pencil Raul in for a .270/.350/.420 line and 550 at-bats, which is about what I’m expecting from him this year, but you have to keep the idea in your mind that there’s a chance that he’s just going to fall apart, that the effects of age are going to overtake him and he won’t resemble the same player we’ve seen the past few years. There’s a legitimate chance that, at some point this year or next year, Raul Ibanez is just going to be done.
And the M’s backup plans, in case that happens? A 35-year-old who can barely run and a 34-year-old who lost all his power and has admitted to using steroids. Fantastic.
In the USSM Department of Crow-Eating, we’ve got a prominent 8×10 glossy of Raul Ibanez. At least I do. The lefty stroke the Mariners said would be perfect for Safeco Field has been, and the deal that I thought would chain the team to a declining hitter has instead proven valuable.
Bravo, Raul, kudos, Mariners, and as for mea, how about a culpa?
That was then, though. Each decision is a new world, and it ultimately doesn’t matter if genius or folly brought you to a certain point — like Buckarooo Banzai says, wherever you go, there you are. Finding your way from there is the concern.
And I share Dave’s concerns, all of them: the worrisome statistical trends, Ibanez’ age, and his return to patrolling the outfield full-time. As for the current left-field backup plans, the best we can say about them is that they evidently do not include Richie Sexson.
Consider, also, that the M’s have added another flyball pitcher to the staff. Defensively, selecting from Ibanez, Carl Everett, Matt Lawton or Mike Morse is like asking Jarrod Washburn which flavor of hemlock he likes best.
Forgive me for infringing on Derek’s fanboy territorial borders, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if this was the year a certain Australian’s body held together? The artist known around these parts as Doyle features a potent bat plus a favorable PECOTA projection, and he’d be a defensive boon compared to any other currently-available option. The Mariners are hoping he’ll be ready by the All-Star Break.
Speaking of the future and of contingency plans, neither Everett nor Lawton is likely to help the team beyond 2006. Morse is not the answer. Being able to pencil in — quick, everyone knock wood — Chris Snelling as heir apparent outfielder would be the ideal solution.
That’s not me giving up on getting productivity from the left field slot in this or ensuing seasons. Truly, no one wants to go back to the days of Mariner Left Fielder rivalling Spinal Tap Drummer in terms of jobs with the least security.
Ideally, Ibanez continues to perform beyond what some of us have expected. In a sub-ideal world, he slides a bit, gets nicked up and misses a few games. At worst, Ibanez’ productivity collapses or his body fails him, leaving the Mariners with a ragtag revolving door out there.
As a wise man said in the last line of our previous roundtable, “If everything clicks, look out world. But rarely does everything click.”
Glad you brought up defense, Jeff. I didn’t want to drone on and on, so I left my initial comments to his offensive ability, but his performance with the leather is likely to have a much bigger impact on the team’s success in 2006.
For all the complaints about the arm that Randy Winn bought off of an 84-year-old lady and used to hurl balls back into the infield with, he was a darn good defensive left fielder. He covered a lot more ground than the average LF and helped keep the team among the leaders in fewest extra base hits allowed. Ibanez has a solid arm, but is about as swift as a suit of armor, and the lack of range is going to be noticable.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here; the outfield at Safeco is backwards in terms of defensive setup. While center field is still the most important position defensively, left field is not that far behind, with right field being the least important. The alignment of the walls is the big factor here. Simply put, the best chance for a double or a triple in Safeco is to hit one into the left center field alley. In most stadiums, right center or the right field line is the place for gap hits to turn into extra base knocks. However, because of Safeco’s short porch down the right field line and relativel shallow RF-CF gap, combined with the wall aiming caroms toward the center fielder, that isn’t the case in Seattle.
So, while it’s true that most teams can simply hide their worst defensive player in left field, the Mariners are not in that position. Left field is an important area for defensive value. Safeco is traditionally a flyball park, making outfield defense more important than in a neutral park, and it’s also a park that is at the extreme of run values on balls hit into the LF-CF gap. Balls hit there that are turned into outs are more beneficial than average, while balls hit there that get down for hits are more harmful than average.
In fact, if I was going to design a defensive spectrum for Safeco specifically, it would go SS-CF-LF-2B-3B-RF-1B. I’d argue that left field is the third most important defensive position (excluding catcher, a whole other animal) for the Mariners, and the fact that they’ve assembled a staff of flyball pitchers only emphasizes that.
Ibanez isn’t a catastrophe in left field. At the worst, he’ll probably cost the teams 20-30 runs over the course of the season from what they’ve been getting from Randy Winn. There’s a solid chance he’ll be better than that, and the real downgrade will only be in the 10-15 run range. But make no mistake; the M’s have sacrificed defense at a position they shouldn’t sacrifice defense. And they did it to get Carl Everett’s bat in the line-up.
I didn’t like the Ibanez signing at the time, and I’m still not crazy about it — I guess I’m not all that impressed by a corner OF/DH who hits .280/.350/.450. Dave’s projected .280/.350/.420 line borders on pathetic for the position, especially when you factor in the potential collapse and the hit the M’s are taking defensively. C’mon. Seriously? A sub-.800 OPS with poor defense? These are the kinds of guys who supposedly grow on trees in the minor leagues. Billy Beane probably has one such player at his house for dinner even as you’re reading this.
Granted, Ibanez won’t be the thing dragging the M’s down this year, as Bret Boone and the catchers were last year, but he’s certainly not a guy pushing them towards a winning season, either.