We are now at the end of the arbitration articles, saving Brendan Ryan for last. According to MLB Trade Rumors Arbitration Tracker, Brendan Ryan is projected to get 2.3 million dollars for the 2013 season. It will be his final year of arbitration.
Anyone who followed the Mariners in 2012 knows that Brendan Ryan did not hit at all this season. In fact, the already light-hitting shortstop had his worst career year with the bat, comparable in wRC + to Robert Andino and Clint Barmes. Drew Stubbs was the only hitter that got a “qualifying” amount of at-bats with comparable numbers to Ryan. A quick look at the Mariner blogosphere (and Larry LaRue’s twitter feed) showed really two different positions on Ryan. The first is the one that has been advocated here (at least by me) and several other sites as well. This stance goes something like this: “Of course Brendan Ryan can’t hit, but his other skills, especially his defense, makes him valuable enough to be a starter”. David Ortiz can’t field or run, but he is an elite hitter. That is why he is paid handsomely. Similarly, Brendan Ryan is a terrible hitter, but he can run reasonably well and is an elite defensive shortstop (many think he is the best). The other argument I saw during the season from some other sites was that Ryan was so bad at hitting that he didn’t deserve to play, and that Munenori Kawasaki and Carlos Triunfel deserved shots at shortstop. I will address this problem a little more toward the bottom of the article. For now, I want to look at why Ryan was especially bad this year at hitting.
Obviously the .244 BABIP stands out. While his strikeout percentage was much higher than it has been in his career, he also walked more. So the problem for Ryan seems to lie on balls in play, so below is a screenshot of his batted ball rates from FanGraphs:
Obviously the infield fly-balls are a big problem and he severly lacks power with just a 2.6 HR/FB % (2.4 % since he joined the Mariners). He hit less grounders, but they just turned into infield pop ups, which are essentially automatic outs. A guy with no power and decent running abilities like him should be putting the ball on the ground. He doesn’t have the power to hit out much, and will hit a bunch of weak fly-balls for easy outs. No one else was even close to having the infield fly-ball percentage Ryan did. Jimmy Rollins lead qualified batters with a 19 IFFB% and Clint Barmes had the most out of players with at least 400 plate appearances not named Brendan Ryan with a 21.6 IFFB %. So I really expected to see a drop in his average distance per batted ball, but:
Career: Batted Ball Distance with an average distance of 248.397
2012: Batted Ball Distance with an average distance of 248.768
His Isolated Slugging (SLG-BA) was at .084, which is terrible (about the same as Jemile Weeks), but right at his career average. Interestingly, his platoon splits widened this year, and were much more dramatic. He really hit lefties about the same, but his ability to hit right-handers suffered dramatically. If this is indicative of what the future holds for Ryan, he could see a lot less right-handed pitching.
Could the bone spurs have been effecting him? Then why was he walking more? The addition of the strikeouts make sense if the injury was hampering him, but as we saw, his power and quality of contact (at least the distance) was roughly the same. It also didn’t seem to affect his defense at all. I am sure they weren’t fun to play with (and may be the reason he got so many days off, although it seemed from what Eric Wedge was saying during the season, that was more about production), but it is hard in my mind to say that is the reason he struggled at the plate more than usual.
I made the case that Ryan deserves to start here, but he is probably the ideal utility player. He could play at 2nd/SS/3rd (I am assuming his skills translate to 3rd) when needed and come in as a defensive replacement with the lead. Baseball Reference is much more aggressive in rating Brendan Ryan’s defense than Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus, saying he has been worth 12.3 wins defensively over the last 4 years.
Weirdly, WAR (Wins above Replacement) measures offensive value against “replacement level players” (basically the level you would expect players coming up from AAA as minor league free agents, like, to give a Mariner example, Luis Rodriguez), while they weight baserunning and defense against league average players. The defense is adjusted for position (so C, CF, and SS are more valuable than 1B, LF, RF), but still rated against average. So when Baseball Reference says Ryan is worth 3.6 wins defensively (or Fangraphs’ UZR at 1.47 wins), they mean he is worth that much over an average shortstop in 2012. If Ryan’s offensive output was put on this scale, he would have been worth 1.8-1.9 wins below average in 2012. However, offense is judged against replacement, so he is actually worth half a win offensively according to Baseball Reference.
To me, this hasn’t made much sense. Why scale the 3 facets differently, comparing one to replacements and two to average. Do the same with all 3. Rather than coming up for “replacement” scales for baserunning and defense, compare everything, including offense, to league average (this is what I did in my previous article on Ryan linked to above, except on more of a scouting scale). Luckily, Baseball Reference has something like this, what they call WAA (Wins Above Average), but it is not used as much. For Ryan, it was 1.8 in 2012, meaning that he was worth almost 2 wins above an average position player. This means not only should he continue to be a starter, but he is also worth quite a bit of money. Recently, there has been a lot of doubt cast upon Baseball Reference’s defensive metrics (and defensive metrics in general). So if you trust Fangraphs’ UZR, which is more conservative when it comes to Ryan, you would adjust his 2012 WAA to a -.3, meaning he is worth 3 runs below an average player (which makes a lot of sense if you trust Fangraphs’ WAR, which has him at 1.7 versus the 2.0 we would expect from a league average starter). This would place as Ryan a below average starter or really good utility player.
Either way, Ryan is easily worth the 2.3 million dollars he is projected to get. But the real question is: should the Mariners extend him? I think so. He will be a free agent after the 2013 season and I think he is generally an underrated player. While Ryan was doing basically the same things in St. Louis on a smaller salary, the Cardinals traded him for a reliever (one that throws hard, but still hasn’t made an impact in the Majors). Clint Barmes comparisons are usually drawn when talking about Ryan (and we have already talked about Barmes quite a bit it seems in this article) and a potential contract, and Barmes got a 2 year, 10.5 million dollar deal from the Pirates after the 2011 off-season. The comparison between the two players is a good one, as they are both fantastic defensive shortstops with almost identical OPS + for their careers. Barmes was coming off a decent year (93 OPS +) in 2011 when he got a contract, which is the opposite of Ryan, who is probably at his low point. Personally, I would like a longer contract, possibly a 3 year deal (buying out his last arbitration year and his first two free agent deals). This gives you time to not rush Nick Franklin and Brad Miller and see whether or not they are big league players. 5 million dollars a year may be a little steep (but maybe not), as you don’t want to commit playing Ryan every day for the next three years in case either Franklin or Miller works out at shortstop in the majors over the next couple of years. A case against extending Ryan would involve (at least in my opinion) Carlos Triunfel. Triunfel is not the player Ryan is. It is hard to see him hitting more than Ryan, and he certainly isn’t as good defensively as Ryan. However, he could have the tools necessary to hold down the utility spot for the Mariners over the next few years. This plan would have Ryan as the starting shortstop again in 2013, with Triunfel as the utility player with Franklin and Miller making their MLB debuts toward the end of the year (after splitting time between 2nd and short in Tacoma). The Mariners could let Ryan walk in free agency after the season and have the three (that is Triunfel, Franklin, and Miller) fight for the job in 2014. This all assumes that Dustin Ackley performs at a starter level at 2nd base (which I think he will do, even though it is arguable whether he did or not this year). If you extend Ryan, then the best move would be to trade either Miller or Franklin before the 2013 season starts. It won’t be worth keeping both around (although it would be wise to keep one around in case of injury or Triunfel struggles) so the Mariners could move one to help build another position. I think I would take the latter path if I were the Mariners (I will also have an article on possible free agent utility infield candidates soon).