Dipoto: What Mariners 2B José Caballero has that’s ‘off the charts’ good

Jun 15, 2023, 2:14 PM | Updated: 2:44 pm

Seattle Mariners José Caballero...

Seattle Mariners 2B José Caballero hits a triple on June 13, 2023. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

In the Seattle Mariners’ game on Wednesday night, they got from the top of the ninth inning to the bottom of the frame a little faster than expected.

The reason: José Caballero?

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With one out and a runner on first, Miami’s Garrett Cooper hit a sinking liner to second base, making for an easy catch for Caballero. He didn’t catch it, however. Instead, he held off and let the ball hit the dirt just before taking it in his glove on a short hop, which allowed him to step on second and throw to first to turn an easy double play.

That smart move was just the latest example of why the rookie has played himself into a key role since he was called up from Triple-A Tacoma in mid-April.

“His biggest tool is his on-field awareness,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said of Caballero on Thursday during his weekly Seattle Sports show. “His on-field awareness is just off the charts good.”

It’s showing up more than just on defense, too. Caballero owns a .397 on-base percentage in 41 games, which would be in the top 10 in MLB if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, and his 1.4 fWAR is sixth on the team, higher than even Julio Rodríguez, Cal Raleigh and Teoscar Hernández.

For a Mariners team that has struggled to find an answer at second base ever since moving on from Robinson Canó after the 2018 season, the surprising arrival of Caballero is a welcome sight.

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“It’s amazing what he’s been able to do, and in a lot of ways with the way the season started for us – and frankly the way the last couple of years have gone for us in trying to solve second base – he has been a real breath of fresh air,” Dipoto said. “To do what he does night after night, I know (Mariners manager Scott Servais) feels so confident playing him no matter who is pitching on the other side. He is going to find a way to make an impact on a game, whether big or small.

“To have that type of player, that type of coach’s awareness on the field, is just extraordinary. He has been awesome for us, and over the last month maybe the most valuable second baseman in baseball, which is pretty stunning.”

Why is José Caballero so valuable?

What makes Caballero special is hard to quantify, and it’s a big reason he was a prospect who seemingly came out of nowhere yet has hit the ground running with Seattle.

“It is shaping up to be (that) he is an impact player on this roster without really having that big, gaudy tool,” Dipoto said. “… He’s always been very highly thought of in our system as a result of his baseball IQ. It just jumps off the page. It’s not gaudy power. He is a plus runner, plays good defense, he scraps his way on base, he’s like a human magnet for getting hit by baseball.”

That last part certainly adds up. Caballero has been hit by a pitch eight times, the second-most of any Mariners player this year and only three behind Ty France (himself a well-established human magnet for baseballs), who has played 25 more games than Caballero.

Part of the reason for that may be Caballero’s innate ability to frustrate opposing players, pitchers in particular.

“Cabby gets under your skin,” Dipoto said. “… There is a savvy to his game. There is an edge. … He’s got a way about him that just drives under the skin of an opponent and really creates, I guess, an anxiety in the game.”

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Caballero isn’t getting on base just by getting hit, though. He also has earned 18 bases on balls for a walk rate of 14.3%, which is best on the team among players who have seen at least as much playing time as him. Dipoto compared it to a quality that shortstop and leadoff hitter J.P. Crawford (13.4% walk rate) has.

“Typically high walk rates are associated with hitters with high-end power. Hitters with power tend to walk more. Some of that is because they’re looking for an isolated pitch in the strike zone to drive, some of it is because pitchers are less likely to throw ‘meat’ pitches to to that hitter. Cabby winds up in a lot of situations, and J.P. Crawford very similarly, where they’re in very favorable accounts simply because they drive the other pitcher crazy with their lack of willingness to play (the pitcher’s) game.

“I think Cabby does it with a combination of good strike-zone judgment and almost like a physical annoyance – the way he moves, the way he manages that pitch clock, the looks on his face, the wry look at the umpire. You don’t usually see that from a 26 year old with a couple of months of (MLB) experience. It’s a veteran savvy. I love it. It’s awesome.”

More on the Seattle Mariners

Video: Two differing national opinions on the M’s
How will Mariners fit into Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes?
Rost: How a coach helps Mariners navigate baseball’s mental side
ESPN’s Passan: What Mariners’ ‘lack of focus’ means 65 games in
How many Seattle Mariners will be All-Stars?

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Dipoto: What Mariners 2B José Caballero has that’s ‘off the charts’ good