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June 13, 2006
Cause and Effect
Thanks for all the feedback on yesterday's column, the majority of which was positive. Those who disagreed raised interesting points, and I'm comfortable in saying that the caliber of discussion in those e-mails rises well above that in the mainstream.
I did want to issue one correction. The statistics on positive tests were slightly off: in 2003, there were 96 positive tests among major leaguers. In 2004, there were 12 positives. In 2005, 13 positives; and in 2006, we've seen three positives (Yamid Haad, Nerio Rodriguez and Yasuku Iriki).
OK, on to baseball…almost.
The Diamondbacks' seven-game losing streak has been blamed in part on the Jason Grimsley case. The theory goes that the distractions associated with the player's involvement in the governmental investigation, and his subsequent release and suspension, have caused the D'backs to fall into a tailspin, unable to focus on baseball in the midst of the chaos.
This, to me, is one of those convenient after-the-fact rationalizations that drives me crazy about sports coverage. Just because A follows B doesn't mean that B caused A, but the vast majority of chemistry arguments are built upon insisting that B always causes A, at least until A changes, at which point we forget the initial argument happened.
Jason Grimsley was with the Diamondbacks for about 14 weeks, from the start of spring training through June 7. He threw 28 2/3 innings of mostly low-leverage relief, posting a 4.88 ERA and a 10/8 K/BB. He was one of the worst Snakes' relievers by WXRL, and just seventh on the team in Leverage. He was not at any point a significant part of their bullpen, and with the acquisition of Jorge Julio, he was going to be fighting an uphill battle to stay on the roster all season.
This wasn't the loss of a good player, a key player, a longtime teammate or even a well-known good guy. This was the loss of a guy who'd been in the room for less than four months, who'd made few tangible contributions to the D'backs 34-22 start, and who had been waiver bait over the winter. There was a very good chance Grimsley, absent taking delivery of a package of illegal drugs while the feds were watching, wasn't going to be around much longer anyway, and had he been disappeared for baseball reasons, no one would have cared.
The Diamondbacks lost 4-3 to the Phillies last Monday, as the Phils' left-handed hitters got to Brandon Webb to tie the game in the sixth and seventh before Brandon Lyon coughed up a run to lose it. This game came before the Grimsley news, however. That came out Tuesday, not long before the Diamondbacks took the field and got hammered, 10-1. I can believe that the controversy affected them that night; however, I can also look at Cole Hamels vs. Russ Ortiz and see a lot of ways in which the Diamondbacks were set up to lose big regardless of what was happening around them.
The rest of the week played out in much the same fashion. The Diamondbacks finished that series with the Phillies and then played the Mets, and with the exception of Webb's start Saturday against Alay Soler they haven't had the better starting pitcher in a game since the Grimsley story broke. They've been playing better teams and getting beaten by them, and considering how it's happened--54-13 RA/RS since HGHGate, and they haven't led in that span--it's not entirely unreasonable to expect that from a team with the D'backs' rotation. Dustin Nippert, Claudio Vargas, Miguel Batista and Russ Ortiz are a losing streak waiting to happen.
Let me put it a different way: if I had to choose between blaming Jason Grimsley or blaming Russ Ortiz for the D'backs' losing streak, I'll choose Ortiz every day and twice on Sunday.
Of course, the pitching has been just part of the losing. Diamondbacks' hitters are at .199/.264/.283 over the six games (leaving aside the 4-3 loss before the news broke). The lineup's core is largely to blame: Shawn Green, Conor Jackson and Luis Gonzalez are 10-for-59 with no extra-base hits in that span. Again, the D'backs have faced some pretty good pitching in that stretch: Hamels, the rejuvenated Ryan Madson, and Pedro Martinez.
Here's the point that jumps out at me as I look at those numbers. The Diamondbacks' veterans--Green, Gonzalez, Damion Easley, Eric Byrnes--have led the charge to the bottom over the last week. If veteran leadership is all it's cracked up to be, shouldn't those be the players least susceptible to falling apart in the wake of a controversy? Not that Jackson or Chad Tracy have done anything of note, but I'm having a hard time reconciling the idea that veterans have value beyong their performance because of their composure with the Diamondbacks' last six games.
Which is the point, of course. The D'backs' lack of offense last week doesn't need to be explained away; middling offensive teams facing good pitching staffs can post a 547 OPS over six games just because that's the way the game is. Chemistry arguments can be used to rationalize anything, and I have no doubt that the next four-game win streak in Phoenix will be met with a score of column inches about the way the team pulled together after the controversy thanks to the quiet determination of their veteran core, but in reality, it'll just be another peak in the ebb and flow of a baseball season.
The Diamondbacks haven't lost every game since the Grimsley story because they've been somehow emotionally scarred or distracted by it. They've lost because they've been playing better teams with better starting pitchers, and their own starters, Webb aside, are very capable of getting battered early in games by good lineups. That the team's bats fell silent at the same time is attributable to their own medicority and the pitching they've been facing. That's all.
Blaming the losses on the absence of a low-leverage reliever who was barely in the room long enough to learn everyone's name is a reach.