Franklin Gutierrez a gem defensively

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Prior to the start of an opposing at-bat, Franklin Gutierrez -- standing in center field -- will turn to his left, then turn to his right and then turn behind him to gauge the distance from the wall, and then, finally, he'll look up as if asking for help from above, though admittedly he often doesn't need divine intervention.

While a pitch is in flight, Gutierrez shuffles his legs from one side to the other, always keeping in constant motion, much like an NBA point guard trying to guard a star counterpart. As soon as a batter swings, Gutierrez heads in the direction where he thinks the ball will go regardless of whether the hitter makes contact or not.

Playing center fielder is not easy, though Gutierrez, 27, often makes it seem that way.

The statistics are remarkable. Last year, Gutierrez -- according to the plus/minus defensive metric developed by John Dewan -- saved 31 runs more than the average center fielder, which was more than double the runs saved by the second-best center fielder (Curtis Granderson, 15). Also, Gutierrez's UZR/150 (ultimate zone rate per 150 games) rating (27.1) was almost three times as high as the second-best player (B.J. Upton, 11.8).

"Every time a ball gets hit in the air, immediately I feel I can get to it," Gutierrez said. "It's important to have that confidence. You can't be afraid to miss. You can't think of failing and believe that you can't reach a fly ball."

Just how Gutierrez came to become the best center fielder in baseball -- and came to help the Seattle Mariners become one of the best defensive teams in baseball -- was not easy, either.

There are many ways in which a scout can fall in love with a player, and when one does, it's often difficult for the scout to forget that admiration.

The exact time and place when Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik became infatuated with Franklin Gutierrez escapes him, but it was not long after the outfielder had signed with the Dodgers in 2000 and began playing in the minors.

In Gutierrez, Zduriencik saw a unique minor league player, one who did not just focus on his offense, but one who seemed to take an uncanny pride in his defense. It wasn't so much that Gutierrez was a remarkable athlete -- in reality, Gutierrez was not incredibly fleet-footed or particularly strong -- but he seemed to instinctively know where a ball was headed almost immediately after it had been struck.

"Even back then I always thought he'd be a star," Zduriencik says now.

In his reports to his then-bosses with the Milwaukee Brewers, Zduriencik pointedly noted all of Gutierrez's skills and suggested that it was perhaps in the best interest of the franchise to acquire such a player.

Zduriencik's bosses listened. In trade discussions with the Dodgers in 2003 regarding first baseman Richie Sexson, the Brewers asked for Gutierrez, but those talks never materialized and Sexson was eventually traded to the Diamondbacks. Zduriencik's adulation went unrequited.

But when Zduriencik was named Seattle's GM in 2008, he immediately targeted Gutierrez.

"Any time you take over a club that lost 100 games, you need to get better up the middle," Zduriencik said.

Zduriencik was smart enough to know he was not smart enough to know all the intricacies of the game, so he sought the advice of the statistical experts. In beautiful symmetry, both sides came to the same conclusion that had struck Zduriencik on the fateful day he first had seen Gutierrez. In 2007 and '08, Gutierrez -- who had been traded to the Indians in 2004 -- had posted UZR/150 ratings of 21 and 31.5, respectively, which ranked him among the best in right field, where he played only because the Indians already had an All-Star center fielder in Grady Sizemore.

After much haggling, Zduriencik finally got his man in a three-team, 11-player deal between the Mets, Indians and Mariners.

"He was the key to the whole trade," Zduriencik said. "If we didn't get Franklin, we don't make the deal."

As soon as the trade was completed, Shapiro told Zduriencik, "Jack, he's a great center fielder. You're going to love him."

Little did Shapiro know Zduriencik already loved him.

Now seen as the symbolic face of the new general manager, Zduriencik made the move that had originally been most appealing to his scouting eyes and senses. It's quite possible that Zduriencik is not the paradox he's been presented to be: the perfect amalgamation of old scout scouting techniques and newfangled data analysis. Zduriencik was simply a man smart enough to know his limitations.

There are many ways in which a boy will fall in love with a sport, and when he does, it's often difficult for him to forget that admiration.

Franklin Gutierrez Sr. was a baseball-loving man from the neighborhood of Caricuao in Caracas, Venezuela, but he never amounted to much in the game. He played in amateur leagues, but was never good enough to attract any scout's attention. His best contribution to the game came when he instilled a love of the game in his son Franklin Jr.

By his teenage years, Franklin Gutierrez Jr. was a standout baseball player. What struck many about Gutierrez was that, unlike other boys, he enjoyed playing defense more than anything. Gutierrez often watched major league games on television, and it was often the defensive stars whom he admired the most. At 16, Gutierrez was signed by the Dodgers.

For the most part, Gutierrez breezed through the Dodgers' minor league system, and along the way he was traded to the Indians in exchange for Milton Bradley. In 2005, Gutierrez had his first call-up with Cleveland, and the following year he got extended playing time. In '07 and '08 he played more than 100 games each year.

What Gutierrez quickly realized was that without preparation he was likely to be overmatched. Gutierrez acknowledges he does not have blazing speed. His highest career stolen base total was 17, in 2003 with the Vero Beach Dodgers. Even in his breakout year last season, Gutierrez stole only 16 bases. According to the Bill James Handbook, Gutierrez was only a plus-8 baserunner last year, having gone from first to third on a single in only 10 of his 42 opportunities. By comparison, Mariners teammate Chone Figgins went first to third on a single on 23 of 43 chances, making him a plus-35 baserunner.

Even defensively Gutierrez can't rely solely on pure ability. So out of need, he developed a routine, one that's made him a success.

First, Gutierrez takes a hot dip in the team's whirlpool, stretches his legs with the trainers and then drinks plenty of fluids to make sure he doesn't get dehydrated and cramped.

Gutierrez also takes shagging fly balls during batting practice more seriously than most players.

"During batting practice, that's when I focus on grabbing all those fly balls, and that helps keep my legs in shape too," Gutierrez said. "I try to imagine sometimes where the ball is hit. I try to practice sometimes where a ball might land. I try to run at every fly ball to know how it plays [at a certain park] so it helps me during games."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Gutierrez analyzes scouting reports to make sure where to position himself. He also makes sure to note the particular style of a hitter at the plate.

Franklin Gutierrez Every time a ball gets hit in the air, immediately I feel I can get to it. It's important to have that confidence. You can't be afraid to miss. You can't think of failing and believe that you can't reach a fly ball.

-- Franklin Gutierrez

If a line drive hitter is at the plate, then Gutierrez knows it's more likely that a ball may zoom over his head. If a fly ball hitter is at the plate, Gutierrez knows he might have a half-second more to make a catch. Gutierrez also positions himself based on a particular count and which pitcher is on the mound. Being in the perfect spot makes Gutierrez's job easier.

"He's saving his legs by cutting down on all those steps," said Mariners outfielder Corey Patterson, who posted a UZR/150 rating of 33.8 with the Cubs in 2004. "He could play another 7-8 years on what he's doing now.

Gutierrez was smart enough to know he was not skilled enough to know all the intricacies of the position, so he sought the advice of several players and coaches, who taught him about technique and preparation. So in a sense, Gutierrez is not the defensive savant he's been presented to be. Gutierrez was simply a man smart enough to know his limitations.

This love affair is set to last awhile. During the offseason, Gutierrez signed a four-year, $20.25 million extension that will keep him in Seattle, barring a trade, through the 2013 season. Zduriencik said extending Gutierrez's contract was a team priority.

"It's a confidence-builder to know the organization thinks so highly of him," Zduriencik said.

For his part, Gutierrez hopes to be known for more than just his defense. Last year, Gutierrez noticed that he often put too much weight on his back foot, so he made an adjustment to even out his weight. That switch resulted in his most consistent offensive season to date (.283 BA/.339 OBP/.425 SLG). And there's room for more improvement.

Regardless, it will be Gutierrez's defense that will continue to make him valuable -- the diving catches, the sprints in the gaps, the crashes against the wall, the plays that make for love at first sight.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.