Ibanez is confounding his critics

Jeff Passan

ST. LOUIS – Raul Ibanez(notes) is slow. He is slow and he cannot catch up to balls. He is slow and he cannot catch up to balls and he is a defensive black hole. Write this on the chalkboard, now, and learn it by rote.

"Because perception is reality, right?" Ibanez said.

He chuckled. If anyone knows the power of perception, it is Ibanez, the Philadelphia Phillies' new left fielder. He signed with the reigning champions this offseason for $31.5 million over three years. The contract turned sore thumb for the Phillies when Bobby Abreu(notes) got $5 million for one year and Pat Burrell(notes) $16 million for two. Ibanez turned up on almost every worst-contract compendium this offseason. Executives questioned the wisdom of giving a 36-year-old guaranteed money until the cusp of his 40th birthday.

Ibanez shrugged. He received his first full-time at-bats at 30. Doubt is de rigueur.

"Sometimes people develop a perception about you," he said. "They push that perception, they believe that perception and they spread that perception. I can't control what people believe about me. I can only control my preparation, my attitude and my approach. If it's true for offense, it's true for defense."

And it's his defense this season that's taking a wrecking ball to perceptions much as his offense has in the past. While Ibanez's .351 batting average and .702 slugging percentage lead a juggernaut Phillies offense that includes MVPs Ryan Howard(notes) and Jimmy Rollins(notes), his fielding prowess has shocked scouts and sabermetricians alike. Baseball men have noticed Ibanez making plays on balls that dropped in front of him in the past, and the most advanced defensive metrics available rate Ibanez among the best outfielders in the game.

All of which leads to the question: Has Ibanez, whose fielding caused plenty an eye roll in Seattle the last five seasons, really gotten that much better over the course of one offseason?

"What do you think?" he said. "I don't want to get into this because I've been advised not to. But those ratings are flawed. There are factors that aren't considered. Velocity of ball. Trajectory of ball. The people around you and their range and if they have priority over you. There's a place for a lot of numbers. But just like scouting's not the end-all, be-all, neither are numbers."

Either way, executives from some teams consider defensive analytics an integral part of building a team. The Mariners, coming off a 100-loss season, brought in new general manager Jack Zduriencik, a tremendous scout who appreciates the value of numbers. One of his right-hand men is Tony Blengino, a statistical analyst, and they attribute much of Seattle's quick turnaround to its emphasis on fielding, particularly in the outfield, where offseason acquisitions Endy Chavez(notes) and Franklin Gutierrez(notes) complement Ichiro(notes) Suzuki to form perhaps the game's most complete defensive trio.

Ibanez's effect, according to one measure, has been greater than any of the Mariners'. Ultimate Zone Rating, the metric created by sabermetricians Mitchel Lichtman, says Ibanez has saved nearly six runs for the Phillies this season, the most in the major leagues aside from Milwaukee center fielder Mike Cameron(notes). In the past two seasons combined, UZR had Ibanez's defense accounting for 32 runs lost.

Revised Zone Rating, another advanced metric from "The Fielding Bible" author John Dewan, has Ibanez making 40 of the 43 plays in his "zone" – the nebulous area Dewan's system believes a left fielder should cover. That figure ranks seventh among corner outfielders, though Ibanez's nine plays out of his zone places him further down the list.

When the Phillies signed Ibanez, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said they considered Ibanez an average defender, perhaps a tick below average. Never did they bother with statistics that claimed Ibanez among the game's worst fielders.

"I do not buy numbers defensively. At all," Amaro said. "I look at fielding percentage. But that other business? I don't buy it a lick. I think defense is subjective. You know, if you watch a guy, whether he has range or not. You can't study a guy's routes to the ball by the numbers. It doesn't happen.

"We subscribe to what our guys see with their eyes, especially when it comes to defense."

Their corneas gave thumbs up to Ibanez in the offseason. Retired GM Pat Gillick and assistant GM Benny Looper, both familiar with Ibanez from their time in Seattle, urged Amaro to pursue him. Even though the corner-outfield market hadn't fleshed itself out – and wouldn't, really, for another six weeks – Amaro pursued Ibanez doggedly.

"We didn't want to lose him," Amaro said, "and if that meant giving him a third year, we were ready to do that. We realized there were plenty of corner outfielders available. He was the one we wanted, and when we want somebody, we go after them."

That Ibanez was such a commodity would have been laughable a decade ago. He joined Seattle as a 24-year-old and spent the next two seasons shuttling between Triple-A and the major leagues. For the next three years, he spent the majority of his time on the Mariners' bench. Among those who received at-bats before Ibanez: Shane Monahan, Rich Amaral, Rob Ducey, Brian Hunter, Butch Huskey and Al Martin.

Murderer's row it wasn't. Though the lack of at-bats almost did slay Ibanez's self-confidence. He believed he was a good player. He craved at-bats. Lou Piniella, the Mariners' manager, simply wouldn't oblige.

"Who I was in my mind and who I was in the real world were so far apart, it was hard to deal with," Ibanez said. "I wasn't going to bridge that immediately. It was just making sure I didn't let any doubt eat me up. It's a monster."

In the 2000 offseason, Jamie Moyer(notes) put Ibanez in touch with Harvey Dorfman, the respected sports psychologist. What Ibanez learned over a three-day session helped him cope with the Mariners non-tendering him the next season.

Which, actually, jump-started Ibanez's career. He was set to sign with Colorado until Kansas City GM Allard Baird called. Baird said he believed Ibanez was a .300 hitter. That sold him. Ibanez joined the Royals and was almost a regular. In 2002, everyday duty was his, and he hit .294 with 24 home runs and 103 RBIs.

Ibanez's first multiyear contract came when he went back to Seattle in 2004, and he'll make more in these three years with Philadelphia than he did in his first 13 big-league seasons.

"When you see the kind of condition he's in, I've got no problem giving him three years," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "You figure he's got to be a hard worker. And he is. He works on his game as much as anybody here. I can't say I'm surprised, but I sure am happy with him."

Almost certainly Ibanez can't keep his pace offensively. He is prone to torrid stretches (each of the last two Augusts, for example) and horrid slumps (like July '07). His defense is another question.

Whether this is a small-sample-size aberration, as his critics like to posit, a legitimate late-career maturation or an indictment on the accuracy of fielding statistics remains unknown.

"I spend more time trying to prove myself right than prove other people wrong," Ibanez said. "Because no matter what, there's going to be somebody who doesn't believe in what you're doing anyway. I can't try to convert anybody."

Instead, he'll pick up an eraser and walk over to that chalkboard. And, line by line, he'll try to wipe out the perceptions as he has already so many others.