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August 16, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Snakes' Progress

by Joe Sheehan

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The Arizona Diamondbacks have the second-best record-just shy of the best-in the National League.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have been outscored by 27 runs.

Now, I suppose we could just give all of the credit for this to Eric Byrnes. After all, the Diamondbacks' front office seems to have done so, signing Byrnes to a three-year, $30-million contract that wildly overpays for the decline phase of a fourth outfielder. Let's see if we can't find other reasons, however.

As I wrote about last month in looking at the Mariners, a team's bullpen can have an affect on its performance in one-run games and, by extension, its record relative to its runs scored and allowed. The D'backs have an excellent bullpen, good for third overall in team WXRL to the Padres and Red Sox. That unit feature hard throwers in Jose Valverde and Juan Cruz, a changeup specialist in Tony Pena, and Brandon Lyon's keep-the-ball-down act. The highest ERA among the D'backs' top five relievers is 3.15; that's Cruz's, a mark that should rightly be higher, as one of every three runs he's allowed has been deemed "unearned."

One of the things that jumps out at me about the Diamondbacks' bullpen is that Bob Melvin has done a good job of using his best pitchers in the right situations. Valverde, Lyon, and Pena have the three highest Leverage scores on the team by a significant amount, and they've been the three most-effective pitchers. Edgar Gonzalez and Dustin Nippert, who have been largely ineffective, have also been restricted to low-leverage work (.53 and .51 LEV, respectively). This severe a partitioning of the workloads is uncommon, and is in part responsible for this:

Record by Run Differential

1:  26-16
2:   10-6
3:   12-4
4:    8-5
5:    2-5
6:    5-6
7:    2-4
8:    2-2
9:    0-2
10:   1-0
11:   0-1
13:   0-1
14:   0-1

The Diamondbacks' record in close games is unmatched by any other team in baseball. They are an amazing 48-26 in games decided by three runs or less, and an impressive 56-31 in games decided by four or less. The good relievers handle the work in these games, and they've been lights-out.

When the games aren't as close, however, the Diamondbacks do poorly. I see a handful of reasons for this. One, the relief work in these games has been done by Gonzalez and Nippert and Brandon Medders. Gonzalez has been very ineffective as a reliever, with a 6.90 ERA and seven home runs allowed in 30 innings. The Diamondbacks have also run through a notably wretched group of cameo performers: the nine pitchers who have appeared in a game for the D'backs but thrown less than ten innings have combined to allow 36 runs in 20 innings. That's the kind of back-end bullpen work that affects a run differential more than it does a record.

Consider, also, that the Diamondbacks have not had a very good offense this year. They're last in the NL in EqA, and 28th overall in baseball. To win a game in which the margin of victory is at least five runs means they have to score at least five runs, and this offense doesn't get there nearly as often as it needs to. The Snakes have won just one game by more than eight runs this season, and their -46 mark in contests decided by at least nine runs is among the lowest in baseball. They don't blow opposing teams away because their offense isn't good enough to do so.

It's impossible to fully dissect the impact of everyone's favorite factor, as well. To have the records in close games that the Diamondbacks have, they have to have been lucky. From year to year, the biggest factor in close games is luck, and while we can tease out the influence of bullpens or notably good or bad performance in clutch situations on the margins, there's no question that the Diamondbacks are a bit lucky to have such a good record, not to mention a three-game lead in the NL West.

How lucky? The Diamondbacks are in line to be have the best record ever by a team that was outscored during the season. Dan Fox and Bil Burke both cooked up the following chart of the competition since the AL came into being in 1901:

1981 Orioles    59-46  .562    -8*
1932 Pirates    86-68  .558   -10
1984 Mets       90-72  .556   -24
1997 Giants     90-72  .556   -19
1948 Athletics  84-70  .545    -6
1917 Cardinals  82-70  .539   -36
1982 Giants     87-75  .537   -14
1925 Browns     82-71  .536    -6
1929 Indians    81-71  .533   -19
1943 White Sox  82-72  .532   -21

*strike-shortened season

If the Diamondbacks sustain their .562 winning percentage while being outscored-note that their -27 differential would be notable even in this company-they'll set the full-season mark in the category. The catch, however, is that it is unlikely they will do so. The Diamondbacks are simply unlikely to keep playing at a 90-win pace while also being outscored, no matter how good their bullpen performs. They will likely see either their run differential improve, or their record sag, because run differential is a more powerful indicator of team quality and future performance than actual record is.

Which will it be? Adding Justin Upton and his ridiculous talent will help an offense that simply hasn't gotten enough production from hitting positions this year. A healthy Chad Tracy would also help; Mark Reynolds' performance since his hot start has been simply inadequate, even with a big August tacked on to his stat line. Someone from the disappointing group of Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin, and Chris Young has to step forward and hit as they were projected to hit. This is a good pitching staff, but it's not one built to carry the worst offense in the league.

I've been on the Diamondbacks' bandwagon since last season, so this would be a strange time for me to get off, especially since I did pick them to have the best record in the league this year. However, while the talent is there, the underlying performance has not, and the gap between the performance and the record has grown since the All-Star break. That reinforces the idea that the team isn't as good as it looks, but conversely-and more importantly-it increases the margin of error going forward. The Diamondbacks have a three-game lead over the Padres in the NL West, and are up 3 ½ on the Braves for the wild-card slot. Our Playoff Odds report currently gives them a 38 percent chance to win the division and a 49 percent shot at a playoff spot. Regardless of their run differential, the wins already in the bank have an enormous amount of value, and set the D'backs up as the favorite in the NL West.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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