It’s a telling and somewhat unfortunate aspect of the modern Major League Baseball broadcast — the manager reaction shot.
It rarely happens after something positive occurs because the broadcast director prefers cameras that focus on celebrating players’ elaborate handshakes or mugging for the camera.
But when a reliever gives up a home run or a fielder commits a costly error, at least one camera focuses directly on the manager to see his reaction. They want to see anger, disgust, a despondent head shake or perhaps a few curse words. To their credit, most managers have realized the focus turns to them, so they rarely have huge outbursts.
Lately, the camera has been on manager Scott Servais more than he would like thanks to a defense that has made routine plays seem like a 50-50 proposition and played worse than the already very low expectations coming into the season.
Servais, who handles much of his displeasure in the privacy of the clubhouse, has always been stoic and collected in the dugout. But the errors are starting to wear on him. He was clearly frustrated having to explain a second straight game where miscues hampered his team.
“You’ve got to make plays,” Servais said after Sunday’s debacle. “You’ve got to catch the ball in this league. Once the ball gets rolling negatively, you’ve got to stop it and turn it around, and we just haven’t been able to do that the last couple days. We’ve got a day off (Monday), and we’ll come back at it against the Cubs and go from there.”
So how bad has the Mariners defense been?
“Honestly, it’s about what I expected,” said one American League opposing scout. “I thought it might be one of the worst defensive teams I’ve ever seen in the big leagues.”
In Sunday’s embarrassing 14-1 loss to the Rangers, the Mariners committed four more errors on the season. Coming into Monday’s off day, they led all of MLB with a whopping 37 errors in 31 games played. That’s 15 more than the Red Sox, who have committed the second most with 22. And realistically, Seattle has had some favorable scoring decisions on some plays that could have been ruled errors that could have pushed that total four or five more. The Mariners are on pace for 193 errors this season. A year ago, St. Louis led MLB with 133 errors.
Those 37 errors have led to 31 unearned runs. But it’s more than just runs, it’s extra pitches for pitchers, more pitchers being used and games going from possibly winnable to possibly having a position player pitch.
The other metrics also aren’t kind. They have a minus-36 in defensive runs saved per Baseball Information Systems, which measures the number of runs saved over average that a team is worth. Per FanGraphs’ defensive runs above average, the Mariners are the worst in baseball at minus-21.5 and the worst team Ultimate Zone Rating at minus-19.1.
The Mariners aren’t sitting back and just hoping things will get better. At Dee Gordon’s urging, they’ve been doing extra infield and outfield work with infield coach Perry Hill, outfield coach Chris Prieto and bench coach Manny Acta before their normally scheduled pregame workout every day in an effort get more consistent.
The inability to consistently make the routine plays is a killer for a pitching staff that relies on pitching to contact more than strikeouts. And the looming uncertainty of whether each play will be made can wear on teams. The Mariners saw it in past years with Brad Miller, Nick Franklin and Ketel Marte at shortstop; Adam Lind, Dae-Ho Lee and others at first base; and players such as Michael Morse, Mark Trumbo and James Jones in the outfield.
“There are plays in the big leagues that need to be made, and our guys know that,” Servais said. “It isn’t for lack of work and trying to get through it. We’ve had stretches where we’ve played very poor defense, and we’ve had stretches where we play six, seven games and are making all the plays and we roll. It’s just so vital for your pitching staff.”
But this is almost as much about roster construction. Most of these players were not known to be good defensive players coming into this season.
The Rays were so frustrated with Tim Beckham’s progress at shortstop that they traded for and tried both Miller and Franklin at shortstop while he was in the organization. Beckham leads MLB with 11 errors, including seven throwing errors. A National League scout who watched Seattle play in San Diego and against Texas wondered if Beckham was dealing with arm issues because of how poorly he was throwing and with such little pace on the ball.
“Bad footwork and hands,” said an AL scout familiar with Beckham. “He could make the athletic plays and throws really well, but bad hands, poor fundamentals made him mess up routine plays left and right. He’d botch the most routine balls with the best of them.”
To be fair, Beckham hasn’t been a full-time shortstop the past few seasons, also seeing significant time at third base. The Mariners’ plan was to use him at shortstop until prospect J.P. Crawford was ready to be called up on a full-time basis. Crawford is playing well at Class AAA Tacoma. He’s reached base safely in all 22 games this season, including 18 games with a hit. He’s batting .291 with a .378 on-base percentage, a .419 slugging percentage, five doubles, two homers, five RBI, 11 walks and 15 runs scored.
In 22 games, he’s committed just three errors at shortstop. But the Mariners are going to make sure that when Crawford is called up that he stays up with the team. League sources have also said the Mariners won’t bring Crawford up until after a service-time threshold passes where his free agency is put off for an extra year, which in a “step-back” season makes sense from a business standpoint.
Once Crawford does get called up, it’s expected that Beckham could be in more of a utility role. But it’s important to note that Beckham has been one of the team’s better hitters for a potent offense, posting a .286/.359/.533 slash line with eight doubles, six homers, 18 runs scored and 19 RBI.
Mallex Smith’s problems in center of late are coupled with a serious batting slump. Smith dropped routine fly balls in back-to-back games against the Rangers. He has the worst defensive runs above average for FanGraphs at minus-5.2 and a minus-5.6 UZR.
“He’s probably better in a corner outfield spot,” said the AL scout. “He doesn’t glide to balls. He bounces. His head is all over the place, and he doesn’t track the ball.”
He’s hitting .065 (3 for 46) in his past 15 games (11 starts) with a double, five walks and 18 strikeouts. He has timing issues that need to be fixed. Would the Mariners option Smith to Class AAA Tacoma to clear his head and reset his process? Braden Bishop has been playing well for the Rainiers and is a strong center fielder.
In his first year of playing left field, Domingo Santana has struggled to adapt. He’s committed five errors and has a minus-10 on defensive runs saved, a minus-8 on UZR and a minus-9.4 on defensive runs above average — all the worst among left fielders.
Ryon Healy has improved at third base after being forced into the position with the injury to Kyle Seager. Though he played third base in college and with the A’s, he’d been predominantly a first baseman with Seattle since being acquired. After some early struggles, he’s improved with the extra work. He’s committed just one of his five errors on the season in the past 20 games.
The first-base trio of Daniel Vogelbach, Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion with Healy playing a few innings there has produced a minus-3.2 defensive runs above average and a minus-6 defensive runs saved, which is the worst in MLB. Other than Healy, none of the other three considers first base his primary position. But they can’t all be at designated hitter.
The defense will improve when Seager returns from injury. Gordon has been solid at second base, and Mitch Haniger has been capable in right field. Down the road, players such as Crawford and first baseman Evan White will bring better defense. But the current Mariners team as constructed will have its moments when plays aren’t made. They just need to find ways to limit them as much as possible.
“It’s got that snowball effect right now,” Servais said. “It’s something we’ve got to get right; otherwise we’ll be in other games like that. In this league, it’s 27 outs, no more. There’s a reason Perry Hill talks about it all the time. You give teams extra outs, and it really comes back to haunt you.”