The Seattle Mariners’ shortstop Brendan Ryan has the worst batting average (.159) among qualified hitters in the American League. Ryan has been almost incredibly awful at the plate, in 2012. His average sits over 40 points below the Mendoza line; which would lead to any of three conclusions. He should be sent down, benched or waived. Any of those three conclusions would be terribly wrong.
Only four qualifying hitters are hitting below the Mendoza line, this season. This small number makes sense, because hitters who hit for that low of an average tend to not get many plate appearances at the major league level. Rickie Weeks, Carlos Pena and Ike Davis are the other three hitters below .200. Weeks is a star that Milwaukee is going to play until he turns it around. Pena has always been a low-average hitter, but is valuable because of a high OBP and homerun totals. Davis has put the Mets in a very complex situation because he has shown that he has the ability to hit very well at the big league level, but that hitter has yet to show up.
Those three hitters’ teams have reasons to give them at-bats, but why has Ryan been allowed to hit so awfully for this long?
The answer: Ryan is not employed for his stick; the 30 year-old’s value lies entirely in his slick-fielding glove.
It seems shocking to claim that a .159 hitter has any value as a player at all, especially given that he’s only hit one home run with an OBP of .266. But it doesn’t matter what calculation of WAR (wins above replacement) you prefer, Ryan has brought value to Seattle, this season. He’s been worth 2.0 rWAR (baseball-reference), 1.0 fWAR (fangraphs), and 0.6 WARP (baseball prospectus).
WAR takes into account not only runs that hitters contribute with their bat and on the base path, but also runs saved by their defense. It’s true that defensive metrics aren’t perfect, especially over small samples (yes, a little over two months of baseball is still a small sample). But baseball’s top advanced fielding metrics all agree that Ryan’s glove has been superb this season.
Baseball-Reference’s TZR (8), Fangraphs’ UZR (10.4), and Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA (5.8), all rate Ryan’s glove well above-average (if not the best) at baseball’s premium defensive position. In recent year’s shortstop has been moving away from its big power-hitting reputation of the late 90’s-early 2000’s, and back to a place where great fielders find their home. Ryan is a good example of this transition.
In my opinion, Ryan’s season, thus far, is a lesson. A baseball player should not be written off because their bat is well below average, as hitting is just one aspect of this very complex game. Derek Jeter has been a bad fielder for almost his entire career, but that fact is constantly ignored, because he brings so much value with his bat. It seems to me that Ryan should be treated in the same manner, because last time I checked a run saved is just as valuable as a run scored.