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May 16, 2005

Prospectus Today

Illusions in Phoenix

by Joe Sheehan

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Ten major league teams have been outscored by at least 20 runs.


               W   L   Pct.   RS    RA
Diamondbacks  23  16  .590   173   193
Giants        18  19  .486   170   190
Pirates       17  19  .472   136   160
Indians       16  20  .444   138   161
Phillies      17  22  .436   163   190
A's           14  23  .378   134   194
Reds          14  23  .378   174   217
Devil Rays    14  25  .359   178   236
Royals        11  27  .289   145   204
Rockies       10  25  .286   174   212
Sing it with me…"One of these things is not like the others…"

The Diamondbacks are not just the only one of these teams above .500, but after a successful trip to Colorado, they're in first place in the NL West.

The first thing you look for in a situation like this is an ungodly record in one-run games. It's not there. The Diamondbacks are 9-6 in one-run affairs, a near match for their .590 overall winning percentage.

According to BP's Adjusted Standings, the Diamondbacks should be in fourth place in the West with a 16-23 record, a reverse of their actual mark. The seven-game gap can largely be explained by their outplaying their actual runs scored and runs allowed marks. They've allowed slightly fewer runs than estimated, and they've benefited slightly from an easier schedule, but the bulk of the gap (5.6 wins of 6.5), is outplaying Pythagenport estimates of their record.

If not one-run games, then how are they doing it? Take a look at the other end of the spectrum. In games decided by at least seven runs, the Diamondbacks are 0-4. That's four blowout losses (8-1, 16-6, 16-2 and 18-3) for a net of -46 runs. They have no blowout wins, so those four games--really, the two biggest losses--are serving to distort their RS/RA at this point. Those losses are been exacerbated by a horrible back end of the bullpen. The Snakes have five relievers who have made at least four appearances and posted an ERA of at least 8.31, plus Greg Aquino's sole contribution of the year, a four-run inning on Opening Day. The 16-2 loss to the Pirates? A Kerry Ligtenberg one-inning, seven-run meltdown. Rockies win 18-3? Ligtenberg again (five runs in 1 2/3 innings) and Javier Lopez (five runs in 2/3 of an inning).

Over a full season, runs scored and allowed are a pretty good barometer of a team's quality. In shorter timeframes, however, a few very good or very poor performances can be deceiving. The Diamondbacks' 23-16 is actually a better indicator of their play to date than their -20 run differential, because that differential has been impacted not by their core talent, but by fringe pitchers who are unlikely to play any kind of role if the team does contend. The work of Ligtenberg, Lopez, Aquino, and Mike Gosling points to a need to shore up the bullpen, certainly, but doesn't reflect on the Diamondbacks' overall quality.

With that said, I'm still not inclined to see this team as a true contender in the NL West. They are absolutely awful at shortstop, barely replacement level at catcher, and have deficiencies at first base and wherever Jose Cruz Jr. isn't playing in the outfield. The bench is bad, and even the relievers who have been good so far--Lance Cormier, Brandon Lyon--are something shy of locks to keep pitching well.

The Diamondbacks' strengths are a rotation that should provide innings and a lineup core than can put up runs. That makes them dangerous if everyone stays healthy and avoids decline. So far, Brad Halsey has been a pleasant surprise, and rates as the team's #3 starter, ahead of Shawn Estes and Russ Ortiz. Estes is off to his best start in years, with a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and much improved pitch efficiency.

One thing to consider is that there's virtually no precedent for a team as bad as the 2004 Diamondbacks were to come back and contend the following year. In the era of 162-game seasons, just 16 teams have finished with 54 or fewer wins.


Year Team         Record        Next Year
1962 Mets         40-120         51-111
1963 Mets         51-111         53-109
1964 Mets         53-109         50-112
1965 Mets         50-112         66-95
1969 Expos        52-110         73-89
1969 Padres       52-110         63-99
1972 Rangers      54-100         57-105
1977 Blue Jays    54-107         59-102
1979 A's          54-108         83-79
1979 Blue Jays    53-109         67-95
1988 Orioles      54-107         87-75
1988 Braves       54-106         63-97
1996 Tigers       53-109         79-83
1998 Marlins      54-108         64-98
2003 Tigers       43-119         72-90
2004 Diamondbacks 51-111          ---
Just two of these teams finished above .500 in the following season. The 1980 A's added one of the greatest short-term managers and the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, neither of whom are showing up in Phoenix anytime soon. The 1989 Orioles of "Why Not?" fame were something of a fluke, but the highly underrated Frank Robinson's marks were all over it-he gave Randy Milligan and Mickey Tettleton jobs, and got good work from a no-name bullpen, highlighted by what you might call the 1988 version of Chad Cordero in Gregg Olson.

Neither history nor talent level are on the Snakes' side.The Diamondbacks are likely to be a 75-79 win team, just as they looked in March. They're not as good as their record nor as bad as their Pythag, however.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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