Left field platoon appears set

The comeback story of Franklin Gutierrez successfully returning to the major leagues gets another chapter with the Seattle Mariners: the outfielder agreed to terms on a one-year deal for 2016.

Gutierrez was signed to a minor league deal prior to the 2015 season as a depth pick-up with the potential for more, but expectation for less. Heading into the 2016 season,the 32-year-old comes with an increased level of expectations. But any should be tempered to those attributed to a part-time player. The good news? The Mariners only need Gutierrez to be exactly that.

The right-hander appeared in 107 games between Tacoma and Seattle. A similar number of games can likely be expected of Gutierrez at the major league level in 2016. That works out to approximately 400 plate appearances.

In just 189 plate appearances Gutierrez was able to produce a 2.3 fWAR, fuelled in large part to a slugging percentage more than 200 points above his career average. That side of Gutierrez probably is unsustainable. A 33.3 percent home run per fly ball rate is borderline ridiculous. But then again, he may have become a different hitter.

The following spray chart shows Gutierrez’s batted ball data from 2012 and 2013.


Source: FanGraphs

The next chart shows Gutierrez’s batted ball data from 2015.


Source: FanGraphs

As a right-hander Gutierrez has a natural pull tendency to the third base side. That is evident in his charts. But take a look at how the home runs hit in 2015 were dispersed across all fields. There is a possibility that Gutierrez has figured out how to hit to all fields and with power. It could be a small sample size thing, but this definitely is something to pay attention to moving forward. The power was there for the right-hander from June through September.

Although advanced fielding metrics were fans of Gutierrez’s work in left field, it’s much too small a sample size to say anything constructive about. For the most part he passed the eye test and has a history of being a plus defender so moving forward he should be able to perform at an average level or better. After an offseason that resembles normalcy, Gutierrez may be physically able to play back-to-back games in the field regularly again.

The club erred on the side of caution in the summer and would be wise to do so again in April. But if the athletic outfielder shows he’s healthy and capable of a heavier workload, there are no non-medical reasons to hold him back. Except, for when there’s a right-hander on the mound.

Enter: Seth Smith. The left-hander was used almost exclusively against right-handed pitching and produced a 122 wRC+ against them. Although Gutierrez exhibited practically no platoon split in 2015, his career split is much more defined. This creates a perfect opportunity in left field.

The two outfielders’ career numbers against opposite-handed pitching are as follows:

Gutierrez vs. LHP: .291/.346/.491, 126 wRC+, .360 wOBA
Smith vs. RHP: .274/.356/.478, 122 wRC+, .359 wOBA

Only 15 outfielders had a wRC+ greater than 122 in 2015. And while I’m not going to suggest that combined the two outfielders are the hitting equivalent of Justin Upton or Jason Heyward, the platooning of hitters is a simple science of matching strengths with strengths and avoiding weaknesses.

Of course this doesn’t always work out, and both outfielders will be 33 when the season begins, but the potential is there for success. There are two hitters with track records and one of them isn’t attempting to learn an entirely new position and a new league.

There is potential for this to not be a possibility at all. There’s some train of thought that the M’s could look to move Smith and his $7 million in guaranteed salary between 2015 and 2016 for bullpen help or simply to free up cash. If that’s the case, Seattle would need to find a new partner for Gutierrez in right. It’d be unwise to think that Gutierrez is capable of being a full-time player again quite yet. But again, there’s no reason for that to be the expectation.

Currently the Mariners now have two outfielders on the roster, and together, fill out the left field position nicely. The offseason is just barely underway and further change is expected.

As I wrote back in August, Gutierrez fits the 2016 Mariners. He’s not the defensive whiz he used to be, but a reliable left fielder with some pop in his bat is an asset, and a step towards building a better outfield.

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Tyler Carmont

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