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June 25, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Defensive Brilliance of Brendan Ryan

by Ryan Divish

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Ryan Divish is in his seventh season of covering baseball and the Seattle Mariners for the Tacoma News Tribune. He played baseball collegiately at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota, where he was recruited as a second baseman and ate himself into the starting catching position. Even now, he’s still better defensively and much faster than Jesus Montero. He is a drinker of Crown Royal and Maker’s Mark and a reader of Steinbeck. You can read his writing at The News Tribune and the News Tribune’s Mariners Insider blog and follow his snarky blatherings on Twitter @RyanDivish.

It’s difficult to comprehend the number of brilliant defensive plays that Brendan Ryan has made in his tenure as the Seattle Mariners’ starting shortstop.

There are too many to count. It would be like counting the number of guys wearing skinny jeans and beanies in Seattle … in July. It’s just endless.

It’s even more difficult to try to think of the best play out of all them. It’s like trying to pick the best Pearl Jam song, which is either “Black” or “Better Man” or “Yellow Ledbetter.” I can’t decide.

A week ago, I watched Ryan, who was playing in on the grass with the bases loaded and one out in a 9-9 game in the bottom of the eighth inning, make a brilliant diving stop on a Howie Kendrick smash to his right. From his knees, Ryan made an off-balance throw to get Mike Trout—yes, the Mike Trout—at home on a force play.

Of course, the Mariners walked in the go-ahead run on the next batter and later lost the game, because that’s what they do.

Earlier this year in San Diego, Ryan could have made the greatest and most ridiculous play I’ve ever seen him make. In the 10th inning of a 2-2 game, Chris Denorfia hit a hard ground ball up the middle that seemed like a sure single. Ryan came out of nowhere, fielding the ball between his legs on the run while spinning and firing to first. The throw was wide, and replays showed that a good throw might not have gotten Denorfia anyway.

But to have the audacity to try something like that in that situation? It’s crazy. If Tony La Russa had been watching on television, his hair would have instantly grayed through the nine pounds of Grecian formula he uses.

After the game, Ryan blamed himself for the loss. Denorfia was the winning run, and Ryan felt he should have made a play that maybe one or two other shortstops in all of baseball might be good enough even to attempt. And no, one of them isn’t Derek Jeter.

“Oh man, I don’t how I’m going to sleep after that,” Ryan said. “It’s a makeable play. I got to it, caught it clean, good transfer. I’ve made that throw a million times. (Yoervis) Medina, I feel bad for him, he’s going to have an ‘L’ next to his name. I want to take full responsibility for it. They get the lead-off guy on and he should have been out.”

A day later with Felix Hernandez in a minor jam, Ryan made a diving stop on a hard-hit ground ball from Jedd Gyorko. From his belly, Ryan flipped the ball out of his glove to second baseman to Nick Franklin, who turned the inning-ending double play.

“You know Brendan always helps,” Hernandez said. “He’s one of the best out there. He’s unbelievable.”

And yet if I had to choose, none of those three plays would be the best defensive play I’ve seen Ryan make.

In fact, the greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen Ryan make didn’t come in a game. It came at the start of batting practice in a random game in July of last season. The media was congregated like a Hawaiian-shirt-clad herd of cattle in the dugout of Safeco Field waiting to talk with Eric Wedge pregame.

Ryan was in the dugout as well. He had his glove on his left hand, and in the other hand he was holding his belt and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—he loves sandwiches.

He was chatting with us a little about movies, or something. Conversations with him can and will go anywhere.

But the conversation was interrupted when bench coach and Ryan’s personal overseer Robbie Thompson screamed at him to get out to shortstop. Ryan was late for infield work, which was typical since he’s late for everything.

So Ryan ran out to shortstop—glove still on his hand, half a sandwich in his mouth, and belt in his free hand. As he ran out there, the miffed Thompson ripped a high bouncing ground ball at his seemingly unsuspecting shortstop. But Ryan knew what was coming. Just as the ball was about to hit him in the back of the legs, he leaped in the air with his back still facing the infield, the belt in his throwing hand and the half sandwich in his mouth. In mid-air, he caught the ball between his legs. Then as he landed, he flung it out of his glove to Dustin Ackley, who was standing at second base.

Ackley stood there shaking his head as he caught it.

The few of us in the media who saw it were stunned. Thompson could only smile at the absurdity of what he'd just witnessed. And Brendan? Well, he finished his sandwich and then put on his belt and took his requisite ground balls.

I’ve been covering the Mariners in some capacity since 2007. I’ve encountered a number of different personalities—both good and bad—along the way. There was the insane intensity of non-cup wearing Adrian Beltre, who ruptured a testicle in a game and kept playing. There was the uninspired indifference of Erik Bedard, who made Droopy Dog look enthusiastic. There was the unearned conceit of Jeremy Reed and Jake Woods. There was the little man’s syndrome of Chone Figgins. There was the bitter contempt of Richie Sexson. There was the engaging intelligence of R.A. Dickey. There was the mixture of playfulness and prickliness of Ken Griffey Jr. There was Ichiro Suzuki, who had no definable personality that I could figure out.

Yet no player I’ve covered is more interesting to me than Brendan Ryan.

It’s not just because he loves sandwiches so much and I love sandwiches so much too, though we’ve spent plenty of time discussing sandwich greatness—MSM Deli in Tacoma, Other Coast Café in Ballard.

He loves to talk. He will get completely engrossed in conversations, baseball or otherwise. The other day, he talked for five minutes about his disdain for Dwight Howard and what he stood for as a professional athlete. He’s a baseball rat, and will talk about other players and what they do and how they are to play against.

In the midst of the Mariners’ 17-game losing streak two years ago, we went to him after nearly every game because he gave frank and honest answers about the games, the losses, and the team.

And there are quotes like this after hitting a homer in San Diego.

“I don’t even know how to describe that one,” he said. “On that pitch, it was a changeup in and I got the barrel to it. I hit it and I was starting to prepare for the next pitch. I was 102 percent for sure it was a foul. I don’t know what happened, if the wind brought it back, or if the spin did it, I don’t know what happened. But that was the least expected, most awesome result, I could ever not imagine.”

That’s gold, Jerry.

But it would be a copout to say that I find Ryan so intriguing just because he's a great interview and conversationalist with the media.

I think it’s because I’ve never seen a player take defeat so hard. Baseball players are taught to compartmentalize failure and defeat and move on from it. It’s a quality that they learn early, and it grows with each passing year. At times, it comes off as indifference, which irritates fans.

Ryan has never learned that.

After that game in San Diego, he sat at his locker staring into it with a bitter look of dejection. He doesn’t just move on from losses. They eat at him, close losses especially. They leave him feeling like he's baseball’s version of Job and he’s being punished.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “It just bothers me so much. They hurt. They all hurt.”

Unfortunately it carries over into his at-bats and in games. He has a hard time letting go of his failures.

And lets be honest, he’s had a few in his time with the Mariners.

Offensively, he’s well, um, not good. If he could just hit .250, it would be enough. But last year he hit .194 with a .555 OPS. Recently he’s fallen under .200 again, batting .199 with a .514 OPS.

That kind of offensive production makes it more difficult each day for the Mariners to run him out there with Brad Miller and Carlos Triunfel waiting to take his place. It also makes it difficult to trade him to a team in need of a back-up, defense-first shortstop.

And for all of my drooling over those three aforementioned highlight reel plays this season, Ryan has actually had a down year defensively. He’s committed nine errors already this season, equaling the total he made all of last season. His advanced fielding numbers are down.

He’s still the greatest defensive shortstop I’ve covered. Then again, the others Mariners’ shortstops I’ve covered were Yuniesky Betancourt, Jack Wilson, Ronny Cedeno and Josh Wilson, but still.

He’s not as physically gifted as Elvis Andrus or Yunel Escobar. He doesn’t have blazing speed or a Rafael Furcal arm. But he makes plays.

Admittedly, he has ADD. It’s an issue that plagues him every day. It’s a reason why he’s always late and never knows what time it is or where he’s supposed to be. It drove the anally retentive La Russa crazy in St. Louis. But there is something about the rhythm of a game and the responsibilities of shortstop that keep it in control. He knows the signs for every pitcher. He knows what their pitches do and what hitters do against those pitches. He adjusts coverages based on each scenario. A hundred things go into his mind before every pitch, and they all have to do with the game itself. And then he does it again.

Even as he talks about it all, you can sense a calmness come over him. He’s not a savant. He just understands what it takes for him to be successful defensively.

There’s a good chance I won’t be covering Ryan past this season. His contract is up. He’ll be a free agent, and the Mariners will likely move on after the season, if not sooner.

And my job will be a lot less interesting.

Related Content:  Defense,  Brendan Ryan

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