June 16, 2011
Are the D'Backs for Real?
In 2007, the Arizona Diamondbacks roared back from three consecutive losing seasons to win 90 games and the National League West pennant, sweeping the Cubs in the first round before being swept themselves in the NLCS by the Rockies. Despite the disappointing end to the season, the D-Backs looked to be in solid position to contend for years to come. Six of the eight everyday players in 2007 were 26 or younger, and 19-year-old mega-prospect Justin Upton had forced his way to the big leagues to join them in August. Following the season, they acquired Dan Haren from the Athletics to pair with Brandon Webb to form one of the most imposing starting pitching duos around. As the young players matured, the idea went, the aces in the rotation would help them lead the club to glory.
It didn’t work. Many of the young players struggled to establish themselves, and the 2008 club slipped to 82-80. In 2009, with Webb lost for the season on Opening Day, they lost 92 games. 2010 was even worse as GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired in July with the club on its way to 97 losses. Weeks later, interim GM Jerry DiPoto sent Haren to the Angels for a package that was almost universally savaged, including in these very pages. The 2010 club truly hit rock bottom in nearly every area; the offense set the major league record for strikeouts with more than a week left in the season, the starting pitcher with the most starts and innings was–wait for it–Rodrigo Lopez, and the bullpen was one of the worst the game has seen in decades. (Anyone who reads my weekly relief pitcher “Value Picks” articles on a regular basis will surely remember how many different Arizona relievers we discussed throughout the year.)
This is the situation in which new GM Kevin Towers found himself when he took over the team in late September of 2010. Towers spent his winter mostly attempting to upgrade the bullpen by signing J.J. Putz and trading strikeout king Mark Reynolds to Baltimore for David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio, along with smaller acquisitions of Xavier Nady, Juan Miranda, Russell Branyan and Zach Duke. Few noticed; if anyone paid any attention to the Diamondbacks at all this winter, it was mostly to laugh at a roster that had somehow made teammates out of Melvin Mora, Willie Bloomquist, and Geoff Blum, or perhaps to gawk at a club that had brought Sean Burroughs out of cryogenic storage after nearly five years away from the majors.
Though Towers is well-respected from his years in San Diego, few thought much of the Diamondbacks heading into the year. Of the 30 BP contributors who made preseason predictions, only two–take a bow, Kevin Goldstein and Michael Street–didn’t think Arizona would end up in the basement, and even then they were only viewed as the fourth-best team in the NL West. They were 13th in the initial BP NL Hit List before the season, but it was hardly just here where they weren’t getting much respect; ESPN pegged them for 89 losses and a last-place finish, and all three Yahoo! predictors had them losing between 89-94 and in last place, as did all but four of the 22 at The Hardball Times. At FOX, Ken Rosenthal also picked them last, going so far as to say they were “below average in every aspect of the game”.
Yet, heading into games of June 15, nearly halfway through the season, the Diamondbacks are just 1.5 games out of first place with the best run differential in their division. They’ve won 21 of their last 30 after falling just short of a late comeback on Tuesday in San Francisco, and it’s getting to the point in the season where we need to start to ask if they can possibly keep this up. Back in April, Ben Lindbergh looked at the Snakes, noting that despite their losing record at the time, Towers had made a good start on cutting down on the strikeouts by trading Reynolds and not retaining Adam LaRoche (among others), and that the bullpen upgrades had begun to bear fruit. They were 10-13 and in fourth place at that point; since then, they’ve managed to go 28-17 and have been in and out of first. With the benefit of a few extra months of data, let’s try to see if this is a team full of guys who are truly playing over their heads, or if everyone really underestimated them before the season.
Unlike other teams of recent years who have made quick turnarounds with defense, the Arizona Defensive Efficiency rank of 16th is identical to what they did in 2010, so that doesn’t seem to be a factor. Let’s start on offense, looking at the nine hitters who have at least 130 plate appearances (all stats current heading into Wednesday night’s game).
What’s really notable here–other than Ryan Roberts, who we’ll get to in a second–is that this has been a group effort. TAv leader Upton’s .301 is a quality number, but ranks him just 49th among MLB hitters with at least 100 PA. Seven of the nine are outperforming projections and are above the average TAv mark of .260 with Nady just a hair under. Despite that, only Drew has a BABIP (.359) that seems wildly out of proportion, though he’s usually tended towards high numbers there anyway. Miranda–finally getting a chance to play every day after years as a Yankee farmhand–is also quite a bit above his projection, though of course he had far less of a track record to work with.
The two outliers here are Johnson and Roberts, on opposite sides of the spectrum. Johnson got off to an atrocious start, bottoming out at .181/.251/.300 on May 19. Since then, he’s showed signs of life by hitting eight homers (split evenly between home and the road) with a 1.025 OPS. Roberts is another story entirely as he spent parts of five seasons in Toronto, Texas, and Arizona displaying that he had neither the glove to stick in the middle infield nor the bat to play at the corners. Given a chance to play regularly this year, the 30-year-old had such a hot April (.313/.413/.594) that even his struggles since (.229/.322/.405) haven’t been enough to knock him below 3rd on the third baseman OPS leaderboard. PECOTA projects Roberts for a slightly below average .256 TAv the rest of the way, and that’s probably about right.
If there’s a common thread here, it’s that seven of the nine regulars here–all but Roberts and Nady–have yet to reach their 30th birthday. This is still a young group, and one that is mostly in their prime, so continued improvement isn’t unexpected. Of course, any discussion of the Arizona offense must include the standard disclaimer that they’ve clearly been assisted by their home field, where they rank 6th overall in OPS as opposed to 15th on the road.
Turning to the starting rotation, only three of the five original starters remain, as Ian Kennedy, Dan Hudson, and Joe Saunders–all obtained in recent, sometimes controversial trades for other notable young arms–lead a group that ranks in the bottom third of most metrics. That’s partly due to the early failed experiments with Barry Enright and Armando Galarraga, who combined to allow 53 earned runs in 77 1/3 innings over 14 starts.
Kennedy (3.23 ERA, 3.89 SIERA) and Hudson (3.82 ERA, 3.59 SIERA) have each been solid while performing more or less as expected, and there’s real value in that. The problem is that they’re the aces of this staff, when they really should be third starters elsewhere. They’re also the only two starters who can be expected to keep up their current positive production. I threw “positive” into that last sentence because while third starter Saunders (4.56 ERA, 4.97 SIERA) is also giving you what you’d expect, he’s just barely above replacement level while doing so.
If there was going to be hope here–tasty, unsustainable hope–fans hoped it might come in the surprising good early work of recent rotation additions Josh Collmenter and Zach Duke. The 25-year-old rookie Collmenter made Kevin Goldstein’s preseason Top 11 prospect listonly as an extra sleeper. (It’s at this point I’m contractually obligated to share this 2008 picture of Collmenter and his goofy mustache.) He started the season in the bullpen before joining the rotation in May and allowed just four earned runs in his first six starts, which is how you get a shiny 1.86 ERA. The magic started to wear off when he allowed eleven baserunners and five earned runs in five innings against the Giants on Tuesday, and the 4.10 SIERA suggests it was never really there in the first place.
Duke spent years in Pittsburgh trying to recapture the magic of his 8-2, 1.81 ERA rookie debut in 2005, and after missing the first two months due to injury, he made quite the Arizona impression. In his first start on May 28, he tossed seven scoreless innings in Houston; back in Pittsburgh on June 8, he again went seven, allowing just one run. Any feelings that this might be a new, improved Duke, however, were put aside on Monday in Florida when he allowed 13 hits and seven earned runs in just 4 2/3 against the reeling Marlins. His SIERA stands at 4.02, though that’s likely to rise after four consecutive years between 4.60-4.75.
The bullpen has seen significant improvement, though it would have been difficult for it not to after last season’s historically bad performance from Chad Qualls and friends, and unsurprisingly it’s being led by three Towers additions. Free agent import Putz has been excellent, alleviating last year’s ninth-inning issues by striking out nearly five times as many as he’s walked with just two blown saves. Former Oriole Hernandez, someone I discussed often last year as being a far more effective reliever than starter, has had some control issues but has allowed just six extra base hits, solidifying his grasp on the setup role. Even Rule 5 pickup Joe Paterson, second only to Hernandez in games pitched, has contributed with a 3.73 SIERA.
Several of last year’s holdovers have bounced back as well, though some misleading ERAs might skew that perception. Aaron Heilman (7.50 ERA, 3.47 SIERA) and Juan Gutierrez (5.40 ERA, 3.41 SIERA) have contributed despite ugly traditional lines, and Sam Demel (1.72 ERA, 3.96 SIERA) and Esmerling Vasquez (3.33 ERA, 4.72 SIERA) have been decent, if not as good as their ERAs make them seem. As a whole, the bullpen group is merely middle-of-the road (16th best OPS against, with a .239/.320/.366 line), but even that modest figure is a massive improvement from 2010’s disastrous .282/.368/.452. The additional relief from the bullpen is a large part of why the Diamondbacks are 14-9 in one-run games, as compared to last year’s 19-23.
Getting back to the original question of “are the Diamondbacks for real?” the answer is, probably not. The bullpen is certainly better, and Kennedy and Hudson are nice pieces in the rotation, but they just don’t have the overall pitching talent, nor the depth to overcome any injuries to their key pieces. While the offense is performing better than expected, it’s also not so good that it can overcome a large amount of pitching concerns, particularly on the road. The Playoff Odds largely agree, giving them just a 6.2% chance of seeing the postseason, expecting them to go 44-50 the rest of the way. That would give them a .500 record for the season, and that’s just not going to cut it.
Remember, however, that this team lost 97 games last year. The playoffs were never really an attainable goal to begin with, so if the main goal for Arizona this season was to put their franchise back on the right foot after several years of disappointment, then in that sense, 2011 would be a smashing success. With last week’s draft adding an impressive haul of pitching talent to a system that already possesses the highly regarded Jarrod Parker, this is an organization in far better shape than it was one year ago–even if their 2011 chase isn’t likely to pan out.