Q&A: Brendan Ryan, Shortstop Supreme

Brendan Ryan is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, despite what Gold Glove voters want you to believe. The slick-fielding Mariner is annually snubbed, but he boasts the highest UZR at his position during the past three-plus seasons. The Fielding Bible panelists have noticed. They awarded him their own Gold Gloves in 2010 and 2011. Most Seattle fans have, as well, although they probably wouldn’t mind a little more offense. Doing his best Ray Oyler impersonation, Ryan is currently hitting just .165/.288/.248.

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David Laurila: Why are you a good defensive shortstop?

Brendan Ryan: I take a lot of pride on the defensive side. Even going back to high school, it is something that has come a little bit easier to me. I also came up in the Cardinals system and worked with Jose Oquendo. He really helped me simplify my footwork, and everything else. We spent hours and hours and hours working together. Beyond that, you have to throw in instincts, you have to throw in positioning — all of that stuff. It’s kind of a hard question to answer.

DL: The Fielding Bible rates you as the top defensive shortstop in baseball. Does that make up for not winning a Gold Glove?

BR: It’s definitely been a little bit frustrating. I don’t know that I even finished in the top five the last three years or so. Truthfully, I’ve felt that I should have at least been in the discussion. Last year, I got hurt a little bit at the end and that probably didn’t help. I’m not sure.

You can say things about being in a big market, and it seems like offense is definitely taken into consideration. The top three guys were [Erick] Aybar — who won it — Asdrubal [Cabrera] and [J.J.] Hardy. They’re all good defensively, but they had pretty good offensive years as well. At minimum, I’d like to be among those getting consideration.

DL: How familiar are you with stats like UZR?

BR: I hear a little bit about it, especially at times like this when the offense is nonexistent. My brother will try to be positive and drop some stuff on me like that. He’ll share stats like UZR and WAR. I think they’re fun to hear about.

DL: Metrics show that you have great range to your right. Why?

BR: A lot of it is positioning and a lot of it is trust. One thing I do out there is trust my instincts — I trust where I feel that the ball is going to be hit. For instance, when [Jason] Vargas is on the mound, I know the way he typically commands the ball, so I have a really good feel for where the ball is going to be hit. I have a decent feel for a lot of players who have been in the league for more than a couple of years. I know their tendencies. If you know where the pitch is going to be, and what it‘s going to do, you kind of know what the hitter’s bat path is going to be. You’re really just playing percentages and tendencies.

Most of the time, I’m moving one way or the other on the pitch. Say that Vargas is pitching and it’s a cutter in to a righty. I can kind of shuffle to the right and get a head start. It’s almost like cheating. You can’t move so early that you’re giving something away, but even so, there are times where I’m almost running, because I know where that ball is going to be hit.

Say it’s Brandon League. He’s got that super-turbo, two-seam sinker. If it’s a righty hitting, maybe once a season somebody stays inside it and goes up the middle. If that happens, you get burned on it, but 99% of the time you’re moving the right way. The idea is to make everything look simple. The idea is to not have to make a back-hand, or dive for a ball.

DL: Do you have better range to your right than you do up the middle?

BR: I think I probably do. The play on the backhand — the one where [Derek] Jeter likes to go with the jump throw. That’s what he does best, so it’s good for him, and I’ll do it from time to time. But for me, it’s more the backhand and throwing on the run. I’m able to get a lot on that throw, so it’s easier for me to do it in that fashion.

DL: Do you see yourself as having a specific defensive style?

BR: I know that I want to be fearless. I want to get anything I can touch. Anyone who is having fun out there would probably say the same thing. It would even be fun to play without a third baseman at times. No disrespect to Kyle [Seager] or [Alex] Liddi, or anybody, but I want to get to everything. When I’m out there, I want every ball hit to me. That’s even more true when my offense is where it is. I’ll take all 27, no question. The 27 all being different plays would be even more fun.

DL: What is the proper way to catch a ball hit in the air, behind you?

BR: For me, the biggest thing about going back on fly balls is communication. It’s knowing that I’m not going to be the one who ends up in the hospital. Not that anyone should be, obviously, but I’m over the top with communication out there. That makes it so much easier on the guy who’s going to get the ball, whether it’s an in-betweener or a pop up in no-man’s land.

I want the outfielder telling me. If he’s saying, “You, you, you,” he’s taking himself out of the play. I know he’s under control and isn’t going to run into me, so I can completely sell out and make the most athletic play I’m capable of making.

DL: What is your glove of choice?

BR: I use an 11-and-a-half [inch] Rawlings. It’s a model I’ve used since college. Your glove becomes almost like a part of your hand. You’d give up your car before you’d give up your glove. That’s the scariest thing — that something is going to happen to it.

When you’re fielding a ball, your glove is basically an extension of your hand. The louder it hits, the less soft it is. You almost want a dead fish hand, like you’re catching an egg. You don’t want it completely flexed, it’s almost like you want it to be dead.

One thing a lot of kids are taught is to field the ball with their top hand above their glove hand, like it’s an alligator mouth. That’s taught everywhere, but when you do that you can feel the tension in your forearms. That’s not the right position. At least it’s not what I was taught when I was drafted by the Cardinals and worked with the great George Kissell. He showed me how to catch a ball with my hands side by side, and how they’re a lot softer that way.

A lot of people don’t know about George Kissell, but he’s a Cardinals legend. He came up with a lot of the philosophies they use over there. He taught Oquendo. To me, Oquendo is the greatest infield instructor there is. You asked why I’m a good infielder. He’s one of the reasons why.



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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Slats
Guest
Slats
4 years 4 months ago

Love Ryan’s work on defense!

It’s a pleasure to watch him play for Seattle.

Bad Bill
Guest
Bad Bill
4 years 4 months ago

Also nice to see a guy who’s not above shoutouts to the people who helped him get here. May he succeed.

Cardinal Rules
Guest
Cardinal Rules
4 years 4 months ago

Brendan Ryan was my favorite Cardinal in 2009 and 2010. I was heartbroken when they moved him in the off-season and acquired Ryan Theriot. I loved TLR as a manager, but the way he handled young talent was often flawed. I obviously appreciated the production and professionalism of a player like Pujols, but Brendan had such a great personality. I loved his FS Midwest dispatches with Joe Mather. And don’t get me started on the mustache and high socks. Really great interview with a chronically underrated player. Thanks Fangraphs!

Anon
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Anon
4 years 4 months ago

It’s nice to see the appreciation for Kissell and Oquendo, but Oquendo is the secret weapon; that kinda means you don’t talk about him.

On a serious note, Ryan had nice wording for his explanations. Some other players might just say gut or feeling rather than articulate anticipation based on experience.

Chomp
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Chomp
4 years 4 months ago

Love the respect he gives to his elders. Awesome interview.

oldschoolways
Member
oldschoolways
4 years 4 months ago

This is awesome, reminds me a lot of The Art of Fielding.

Metsox
Guest
Metsox
4 years 4 months ago

Great interview….

Kazinski
Guest
Kazinski
4 years 4 months ago

I realize this article is about his defense, but it would have been nice to see a few questions about his walks, he’s walking at a 13.9% rate, which is way up from any numbers he’s put up before in his career, previous best was 7.5%. He’s got as many walks as hits this season with 19 of both. His BABIP is .214 so if his batting average was up to what you’d expect it to be (~.240) he be sporting close to a .350 OBP. Which would be fantastic coupled with his defense.

Harry
Guest
Harry
4 years 4 months ago

Yeah, it also would have been nice to see a question about his mustache! Stupid article!

guest
Guest
guest
4 years 4 months ago

I saw that spike in walk rate also. His BABIP is only like .220 but I saw a large increase in his infield pop up rate. Even so, his results should be better than what they are since his peripherals seem to have improved.

mattybobo
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mattybobo
4 years 4 months ago

I just noticed that about his walk rate. I hope it’s not just a blip. Could his hitting/BIP struggles be forcing him to be more patient in order to get on base? Or could it be random? It will be cool to watch over the course of the season. I’m a Cardinals fan and like many I loved Ryan when he was on our team.

Johnhavok
Guest
Johnhavok
4 years 4 months ago

Well there’s the problem with him not winning a gold glove, he doesn’t do enough jump throws. Everyone knows is better to have bad range and barely get to routine grounders and jump throw than it is to get there ahead of time and make it look routine. This is the Jeter recipe to Gold Glove success.

shawnuel
Guest
shawnuel
4 years 4 months ago

I was sad not to hear any thoughts about his DeNiero impression.

Kyle
Member
4 years 4 months ago

Awesome stuff, as always. Great questions and answers. Ryan has been a total pleasure to watch in the field in his time with the Mariners.

RMR
Guest
RMR
4 years 4 months ago

Stats tell us objectively he gets to more balls; he tells us how. That’s how it should work. Great Q&A!

Bryz
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

Super-Turbo Two Seam Sinker sounds like it should be a Nickname Seeks Player.

Bryz
Guest
4 years 4 months ago

I mean, look at all that alliteration!

chuckb
Member
chuckb
4 years 4 months ago

Super interview, as always, David.

walkie
Member
4 years 4 months ago

Agree with all those comments above–great interview. Brendan Ryan is the slickest shortstop the M’s have had since Omar and a heck of a character. I love watching him play.

mescoosey
Guest
mescoosey
4 years 2 months ago

Reuben tejada of the nets is currently with out a doubt the best defensively shortstop in mlb

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