April 28, 2011
The Diamondbacks didn’t do anything particularly well in 2010, and ended up with a 65-97 fifth-place finish to show for it. However, they did do two things particularly badly—historically badly, even: make contact at the plate, and provide relief out of the bullpen. The bulk of our Arizona team essay in Baseball Prospectus 2011 was devoted to these dual weaknesses; I won’t rehash our analysis here, save to say that Diamondbacks batters struck out at the highest rate in history, and Diamondbacks relievers posted a collective 5.74 ERA, more than a run higher than that of the second-worst bullpen in the league, and almost two runs above the major-league average. The fourth-worst WXRL on record went a long way toward explaining how a team that would have finished with a winning record had all of its games ended after five innings actually wound up more than 30 games under .500.
Incoming GM Kevin Towers promised to address the epidemic of whiffs and blown leads in his first offseason at the helm. It’s still too early to conclude that he’s discovered the antidote, but through their first 22 games, the Diamondbacks have made major strides in both areas, which has helped them crawl closer to respectability with a third-order-approved 10-13 record and fourth-place status in the NL West. So how have the improvements been made? And more important, can we expect them to last?
Let’s tackle the strikeouts first. Sabermetric orthodoxy holds that strikeouts are no worse than outs by any other name, but stacking a lineup with high-strikeout hitters can have a compounding effect and contribute to volatile run-scoring; as we wrote in the annual, the Diamondbacks’ “feast-or-famine approach often prevented them from plating runners in key situations and cut down on their crooked numbers.” Last year, Diamondbacks batters struck out in 24.7 percent of their plate appearances. Before last night's game, they had gone down swinging or looking only 19.2 percent of the time, despite a league-wide decline in offense. Several months after wrapping up the most whiff-prone season ever, they’ve improved to slightly better than the NL average, ranking as the seventh-most-difficult team to strike out in the Senior Circuit.
When it comes to improving a team’s strikeout rate, a little less Mark Reynolds goes a long way. Among players with a minimum of 100 plate appearances, Arizona’s 2010 hack attack was led by the single-season-strikeout-record-holding Reynolds, John Hester, Rusty Ryal, Chris Snyder, and Adam LaRoche, none of whom remain with the team this season. Winter import Russell Branyan has picked up some of Reynolds’ strikeout slack, but his swings and misses have been offset by improvement from Justin Upton, who has nearly halved his strikeout rate in the early going, from 30.7 percent to 18.6 percent. The collective K rate of the Arizona offense has also been aided by the additions of Willie Bloomquist and Melvin Mora, who have struck out in 9.2 and 8.3 percent of their plate appearances, respectively, which just goes to show that putting the bat on the ball doesn’t always lead to good things (although Bloomquist was off to an uncharacteristically productive start before straining his hamstring).
Some of Arizona’s improved contact can be chalked up to regression to the mean, the tendency of any extreme performance to come back to earth with repeated observations. However, neither the team’s high-strikeout hijinks last year nor its 2011 turnaround can be dismissed as a fluke. The Snakes finished with either the highest or the second-highest team strikeout rate in the majors in each season from 2008-2010, but changes in roster composition have produced a more contact-friendly approach, so Kevin Towers can report a tentative “mission accomplished” in achieving his first objective. And though the difference can’t be attributed solely to increased contact, the Diamondbacks have upped their scoring by nearly half a run per game.
In his time in San Diego, Towers earned a reputation as a bullpen whisperer on the strength of his ability to conjure cheap and effective production from a part of the roster often prone to overpayment and wild swings in performance. Last September, I examined the origins of the Padres’ superlative pen; by that time, Towers had already moved on, leaving his successor, Jed Hoyer, with the fruits of his labor. Six of the eight relievers who had then spent significant time in the Padres pen had been acquired via Towers-masterminded trades, and six of the eight were also making under a million dollars. The other two had been either drafted (Tim Stauffer) or signed as an amateur (Ernesto Frieri) by San Diego; the only Padres reliever with a multi-million-dollar salary was Heath Bell, who began to grow expensive only after the team acquired him for next to nothing and extracted nearly four WARP at the major-league minimum over his first two seasons as a Friar.
Towers’ success in San Diego seemed to make him the perfect person to address Arizona’s bullpen boondoggle, and he’s wasted little time in putting his stamp on the team’s relief corps. Of the nine pitchers who have appeared in relief for the Diamondbacks this season, only four pitched for the Snakes in 2010. Thus far, the new group’s results have been impressive: the bullpen’s ERA has fallen by nearly two runs, to 4.06, and SIERA also suggests that the Snakes’ short men have made great strides, improving from 4.61 (30th in the majors) to 3.31 (fourth in the majors). SIERA is a park-neutral statistic, and both Chase Field and the Diamondbacks defense work against their pitchers, so we shouldn’t expect Arizona’s relief ERA to match its SIERA. That said, the team’s relievers have upped their performance in all aspects of pitching under their own control.
As Chase Gharrity observed in his look at the Padres pen late last season, Towers built his reputation for bullpen brilliance by making the most of what other GMs had, not by utilizing the arms already at his disposal. A complete bullpen makeover in the span of a single winter is beyond even the best GM’s abilities (save, perhaps, for Andrew Friedman), so give Towers credit for holding on to a few team-controlled pitchers with promise—namely, Sam Demel, Juan Gutierrez, and Esmerling Vasquez, each of whom commands annual earnings less than a baseball writer’s salary above the major-league minimum—while trimming the fat from last year’s group. Joshua Collmenter, a converted starter whose inaugural appearance in relief this season was his first as a pro since a 2007 stint in low-A ball, was also already in Arizona’s system when Towers took the reins, though he hadn’t yet sniffed the majors. (Unfortunately, his role isn’t the only thing that’s changed, as his most excellent mustache has become a garden-variety goatee.) The only curious holdover is Aaron Heilman, who isn’t young or inexpensive but was nonetheless retained, albeit on a one-year deal. Heilman did have durability going for him, at least before this season—after allowing three homers in his first four games, he hit the DL with shoulder tendinitis.
Towers got more creative with the rest of his relief corps. Hard throwers Kam Mickolio and David Hernandez were the proceeds of the trade that sent Reynolds to Baltimore, allowing Towers to jettison his most contact-averse hitter and bolster the bullpen in one transaction. (Mickolio started the season with the big club but has since been sent to Reno, though his peripherals thus far suggest that he won’t be long for Triple-A.) Joe Paterson, a prototypical LOOGY who’s recorded no more than one out in eight of his 11 appearances but has yet to allow a run, was a Rule 5 find from the Giants organization. Towers went relatively big-budget in procuring a closer, signing J.J. Putz to a two-year deal that will pay him $4 million this season, the same amount Bell earned in 2010. Putz has been paid better in the past, but Towers bought low in hopes that the righty would buck a recent trend toward fragility, and he hasn’t had cause for buyer’s re-MORP as of yet. Considering some of the other mega-contracts handed to relievers last winter, Putz may turn out to be a bargain, though there's still significant bust potential should his elbow act up.
Keep in mind that the bullpen’s improvement has come in roughly the same sample of performance that a single reliever might see in a full season’s worth of outings, and the same caveats apply. Still, it seems safe to say that the Diamondbacks no longer have to fear for their leads to the degree that they did last season, when A.J. Hinch and Kirk Gibson were forced to split save opportunities between Gutierrez and Chad Qualls.
The Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere this season, since even the most strikeout-proof bats or airtight bullpen can’t overcome the handicaps of a porous defense, an ace-free rotation, and a park-adjusted offense that might just barely aspire to league average even after its upgrades, thanks to its continued employment of subpar solutions like Juan Miranda and Gerardo Parra at premium offensive positions. Contenders aren’t often built in a single offseason, but we can tentatively credit Towers with making quick and concrete improvements to two areas of identified weakness.
Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.