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March 16, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Don't Count Out The Diamondbacks

by Tommy Bennett

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Slash and Byrnes

The Diamondbacks are a funny team. In 2007, their 90-72 record outpaced their Pythagorean record by 11 wins as they won the National League West. In 2008, their 82-80 record matched up exactly with their Pythagorean record, as they finished just two games behind the Dodgers. With high hopes heading into 2009, Pythagoras returned for his pound of flesh. The Diamondbacks sputtered to a 70-92 finish despite a 75-97 expectation. It did no good to lose ace Brandon Webb to shoulder bursitis in April, and later to surgery. Several key offensive performers, notably Stephen Drew (.261/.320/.428) and Chris Young (.212/.311/.400), took big steps backward even as Mark Reynolds (.260/.349/.543) and Justin Upton (.300/.366/.532) reached new heights.

The 2009 club’s pitching, however, rested on a shaky foundation. After losing Webb, Dan Haren took over as the club ace and performed admirably (229 K and 38 BB in 229 1/3 IP). Mid-rotation guys Doug Davis and Jon Garland were just that, guys who posted ERAs in the low- to mid-4.00s. Max Scherzer showed promise, but he was traded to Detroit at the Winter Meetings in the three-team blockbuster that put Curtis Granderson on the Yankees. With Webb likely starting the year on the DL and Scherzer gone, the Snakes’ rotation is all but deserted.

At the time of three-team deal, many people didn’t just wonder what Arizona got out of the deal, they openly questioned the Diamondbacks’ sanity. General manager Josh Byrnes is no dummy, though, as he played college ball at Haverford. That trade gave Arizona 40 percent of its likely 2010 rotation in Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy. Those two starters, plus last year’s swing man, Billy Buckner (not to be confused with this guy or this guy), are good bets to fill the three, four, and five spots in the rotation. Let’s examine two of those starters to see if we can glean some insight on the Diamondbacks’ chances in 2010.

The Jackson Five Good Months

Jackson was the big-name return the Diamondbacks got for giving up Scherzer and reliever Daniel Schlereth. After spending the first several months of 2009 making the Rays regret trading him for Matt Joyce, Jackson’s peripherals slowly began to catch up with him. Make no doubt about it, though, Jackson can bring it. He throws mid-90s gas and a high-80s slider that have tantalized scouts since his days with the Dodgers. But pitching prospects with great stuff and great poise rarely spend time with four organizations before their 27th birthday, and Jackson’s bugaboo has always been his inability to translate his electric stuff into respectable strikeout and walk numbers. Here’s a calming trend, though. His K/BB rate in each of the last four seasons (major league):

Year K/BB
2006 1.1
2007 1.5
2008 1.4
2009 2.3

That’s certainly the right direction, and both his K rate and his BB rate were career bests last year. Nevertheless, ask any head-to-head fantasy player, and she’ll tell you all about Jackson’s great first half before he turned into a pumpkin after the break. And while that is true of the score sheets (2.52 ERA pre-ASB, 5.07 after in '09), it’s not exactly true of his process. Using pitchF/X, we can compare one of his best starts, May 31 on the road against the Orioles, with one of his worst, October 2 at home against the White Sox. In the good start, he went 8-2-0-1-7. In the bad, he went 5-7-8-3-5 with two homers. His fastball, which ranged between 94-98 mph in May, ranged between…95-97 mph in October. His slider, which ranged between 85-88 mph in May, was between 85-87 mph in October. Both pitches had similar break in each outing.

Sure, you’re saying, "But throwing hard has never been Jackson’s problem. It’s finding the strike zone that eludes him." The thing is, though, he threw 72 percent of his fastballs (36 of 50) for strikes in October, against just 64 percent (38 of 59) in May. The big difference, it would seem, is the number of swinging strikes he recorded with his slider. He got six whiffs with the slide piece in May (and three on other pitches), but got only one with the slider (and two overall) in October. It seems to me the difference in his performance is not at all about process (keeping it in the strike zone, or pitch selection) as it is about the difference between process and results. Jackson had essentially the same process all year last year. If he can do it again this year, he has a good chance to improve on his 4.22 SIERA from ‘09.

Kennedy Wasn’t Just an MTV VJ

My suspicion is that the big trade was as much about Kennedy as it was Jackson, considering that Kennedy is under team control longer than Jackson. The trouble is, Kennedy is exactly the kind of minor-league pitcher that your mother warned you about. After experiencing considerable success as a starter at Southern California, Kennedy ripped up the minor leagues with pinpoint command and control (witness 83/18 K/BB across three levels in 2008) but without dominating stuff. This kind of pitcher runs out of options fast and gets used to the bus between Scranton and the Bronx. Why think Kennedy isn’t yet another Quad-A type who just can’t throw hard enough to get major-league hitters out? Truth be told, his cup of coffee in 2008 (27/26 K/BB in 39 2/3 IP) only confirms this suspicion.

I think the answer is, like with Jackson, about process. In the minors, Kennedy had confidence and control. He was able to locate his fastball in a way that led scouts inadvisably to throw around Maddux comps (never throw around Maddux comps). But in the majors, those skills utterly abandoned him. Was it because he was afraid to leave his 91-mph straight fastball anywhere near the plate? That strikes me as unlikely. Dropped back into the Arizona Fall League last year, his command-and-control ways were downright Soviet. He recorded a 28/5 K/BB in seven starts and 29 IP, and allowed just one home run. Certainly, pitching in Arizona might inflate his home run numbers, but he’ll be facing easier competition than he did in the AL East, and he should get several starts in pitcher-friendly stadiums in San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It's worth noting (with a big grain of salt) that Kennedy has added a sinking fastball to his repertoire, which he started using in the AFL. While I think the stories reporting that a pitcher has added a new pitch are only slightly more valuable than the stories reporting that a hitter is in the best shape of his life, it is certainly the case that a cut fastball would be particularly useful to a pitcher with Kennedy's skill set.

If teams always agreed on the value of players, there would be a lot fewer trades. Giving up Scherzer must have required Byrnes and his staff to think long and hard about the players they’d be getting in return. Considering that Jackson will make a combined $13.3 million over the next two years, the Diamondbacks must have thought Kennedy could contribute to their success for the long haul, as he’ll be cheap for at least another two years before becoming arbitration-eligible. Of course, they might turn out to be wrong about that, but what fun would it be to never take a risk?

Question of the Day

How much of the Diamondbacks’ success in 2010 and beyond depends on the success of Jackson and Kennedy? How likely are they to be solid starters over the next few years? Were the Diamondbacks, in fact, crazy to execute that trade?

5 comments have been left for this article.

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