Last week, I started writing up a post on why the Mariners should acquire Brendan Ryan from St. Louis. Because of the craziness of the winter meetings and being totally whipped on Friday, I didn’t finish it. Today, the Mariners acquired Brendan Ryan. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it that I would have endorsed this deal even before it went through.
So, let’s talk about Ryan. The first thing people are going to notice is just how bad he hit last year, and I’m sure we’ll hear moaning from the “we need offense!” crowd, as Ryan is nothing like a big bat kind of player. Like Jack Wilson, most of his value comes from his abilities in the field, and you live with the bat in order to get the glove in the line-up. Unlike Jack Wilson, Ryan can actually stay on the field for more than a few days in a row. And, despite his miserable offensive season last year, there actually is some reason for optimism about his abilities at the plate.
In February of last year, Ryan had surgery on his right wrist, and while he was able to make it back on the field for opening day, wrist problems are among the worst any hitter can have. They are notorious power-sappers, and they can linger for months even after a player is back on the field. It is quite common for a player to hit far below his normal levels when returning from a wrist problem. And that’s exactly what we saw with Ryan, whose offense took a big step back from 2009. He should be totally healthy this year, and it will be interesting to see what a full-strength Ryan looks like again. In addition, there are some statistical suggestions that Ryan’s offense is better than his 2010 numbers.
One of the first things I started doing after we rolled out splits leaderboards over on FanGraphs was to look at how different players performed over the last few years on different batted ball types. We’ve all seen guys hit line drives right at people and say “man, that’s unlucky”, and I was curious if there was any actual year to year correlation in a stat like batting average on line drives. So, I pulled all the numbers from 2007 to 2010 and ran some correlations, finding that – as you might expect – there seems to be almost no year to year predictive ability from a guy’s BA on line drives. The actual correlation was .15, so it’s not completely random, but it’s close. With very few exceptions, almost everyone gravitates back towards an average of about .725 on line drives. Guys who get “lucky” hit as high as .850 in any given season, and guys who got “unlucky” hit closer to .600, but they almost always regress right back to normal the next year.
Brendan Ryan was one of the “unlucky” guys last year, hitting just .627 on line drives, third worst in baseball among full time players. Only Carlos Lee and Alcides Escobar were worse, and before you scream that this is just evidence that these guys suck, other underachievers on line drives include Buster Posey, Ryan Ludwick, and Andre Ethier. Oh, and there’s the fact that Ryan hit .778 on line drives in 2009, so it’s not like this is a yearly problem for him. I’d argue that it was almost certainly a fluke, and we should expect his line drives to find more gaps next year, leading to expectations for a bounce back season.
He probably won’t hit .292/.340/.400 like he did in 2009 again. That was out of the norm that he’s established over the rest of his career, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised by a .270/.320/.380 line from him. That isn’t world-beating offense, but given that he’s an elite defensive middle infielder, it would make him a pretty useful piece. Keep in mind that Ryan’s UZR at shortstop in nearly 2,400 major league innings is +23.1. Even regressing that number to account for the sample size and imperfections in UZR, he’s still likely +5 to +10 runs better than an average defensive major league shortstop, and if you put him at second base, he’d probably be among the best defenders in the game at the position.
If his bat rebounds at all, he’s something like a league average player. Even if it doesn’t, he’s a pretty solid utility infielder and part-time player off the bench. He also gives the Mariners the flexibility to use him as the starting second baseman to open the year, then shift him into a different role once Dustin Ackley proves he’s ready for the big leagues. If Jack Wilson gets hurt and/or traded, Ryan is an easy fit for the starting shortstop gig, basically giving you the same skillset with better health for a fraction of the salary. If Wilson is playing well and is actually able to take the field when Ackley forces a promotion, Ryan can become the primary reserve infielder, giving Ackley days off against tough LHPs and Wilson days off when his (whatever) hurts.
There’s also the added bonus that Ryan is cheap. He’s arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, and the M’s will control his rights through 2013. Given his miserable offensive season last year, he’s not going to get more than $2 million in arbitration, and he might not even get that. He’s a low cost guy who won’t eat up the rest of the team’s payroll, but fills their most glaring need on the roster.
Avoid the temptation to look at Ryan as another no-hit infielder. He’s a quality player, and the Mariners are instantly better for having made this move. He probably won’t have the same breakout that Franklin Gutierrez had after coming over, but he’s got the chance to have a similar impact on the pitching staff if he plays regularly. This is a good move for the team.