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What’s Eating Franklin Gutierrez?

Franklin Gutierrez earned something of a reputation as a saber darling during the 2009 season. As new general manager (and saber darling himself) Jack Zduriencik made Gutierrez the centerpiece of his first trade and the Mariners’ defense-first strategy — yes, the one that inspired “6org” — people stood up and noticed Gutierrez’s tremendous prowess in center field. He earned the nickname “Death to Flying Things” and posted a whopping 6.3 fWAR in 2009, largely behind a massive +30.9 UZR.

Regardless of your thoughts on UZR, though, it was clear that Gutierrez was at the least a pretty good player in 2009. His defense was elite by the eye test, and his bat wasn’t empty either. Gutierrez posted a .283/.339/.425 line in his first year as a Mariner, a good line made even better by how difficult it can be to hit as a right-handed batter in Safeco Field. It has been all downhill from there, however, as Gutierrez only managed an 87 wRC+ in 2010. 2011 was derailed early by a gastrointestinal bug and Gutierrez hasn’t been able to get back on track since his mid-May return: his wRC+ through his first 143 plate appearances is a miniscule 20.

As tends to be the case with catastrophic lines like Gutierrez’s, BABIP is to blame here. So far, Gutierrez’s sits at .203, well below any reasonable total, particularly for a player with his speed. ZiPS certainly isn’t buying it — the system projects Gutierrez for a positively robust .290 BABIP, and his .297 projected wOBA, although still unimpressive, would be an improvement of just under 100 points.

It just doesn’t seem that simple right now. Gutierrez’s power has been completely sapped, as he has only managed three doubles and one home run in his month-and-a-half worth of play. He’s hitting more ground balls than ever, at 54% against a 44% average. The line drives are missing, at only 12% of balls in play. Right now, the problem doesn’t look like bad luck. Instead, it looks like Gutierrez has just lost the ability to drive the baseball.

My first theory would be that Gutierrez’s gastrointestinal issue may have resulted in the loss of some muscle mass, but it’s very hard to tell conclusively from an outsider’s perspective. It doesn’t appear to have impacted his defense or his throwing arm, as his +9.4 UZR is excellent, as is his +5.3 ARM rating. Regardless of why, though, the Mariners have to figure out what’s gone wrong with Gutierrez’s bat. Even with his fantastic defense, Gutierrez is playing dangerously close to replacement level baseball. Until his bat recovers its pop, one of the team’s most important players will hold little use. Perhaps the Mariners can just ride it out, but right now, this looks like a problem in need of fixing, and waiting for the tide of luck to turn may not be enough.