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September 10, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Snakes Down a Drain

by Jay Jaffe

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This past Saturday, the Arizona Diamondbacks did what they've been threatening to do for the better part of the last four months: they surrendered first place in the NL West, a position they had held at least a share of since April 6. Back in April, they appeared poised to build on last year's league-best record and run away with the division flag. Since then, they've been an adventure in mediocrity. On the heels of a three-game sweep by the Dodgers, Monday night's loss even knocked them below .500. If you were in an airplane with their Postseason Odds, you'd have strapped on your parachute, unbolted the door, and checked the crossbreeze by now.

Before peering too deeply into the abyss, a brief refresher course is in order. Recall that the Diamondbacks finished with a 90-72 record but became just the sixth team to make the postseason with a negative run differential. They wound up 12.2 games above their third-order projection, the third-highest mark of all time. It wasn't hard to envision the old Bill James Plexiglass Principle coming back to swat them on their collective derriere; exceeding expectations two years in a row is a very tough act. Nonetheless, the addition of Dan Haren to the rotation via a blockbuster trade with the A's, the return of Randy Johnson from injury, and steady improvement by a nucleus of players 25 or under—Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, and Chris B. Young—figured to make the Diamondbacks at least co-favorites in the NL West. PECOTA forecasted an 87-75 finish and a +58 run differential (821 runs scored, 763 runs allowed). Not thrilling, but nice.

That forecast looked to be well on the low side through the first month of this season. The Diamondbacks compiled the best record (20-8) and run differential (+56) through April 30 while opening up a 5½-game lead in the division. They scored 5.9 runs per game to that point, second best in the majors. Even more impressively, they allowed just 3.9 runs per game (third best in the majors), a Herculean feat given that they play half their games in the second-best hitters' park in the bigs. But since that sprint out of the gate, the D'backs have gone just 51-65 while wheezing their way to 4.2 runs per game (24th in the majors) and yielding 4.6 per game (14th).

The Diamondbacks' problems are myriad, starting with the fact that their offense just isn't all that much to write home about. They're ninth in the NL in both OBP (.324) and slugging (.412), and once their ballpark is factored into the equation, they rank 13th in the league in EqA (.251). They've simply got too many hitters who don't get on base enough, starting with Young (.309) and Drew (.318), who have combined to take about two-thirds of the team's plate appearances in the top two spots of the batting order. Though the latter has improved his OBP greatly since manager Bob Melvin moved him to the leadoff slot, that's more a function of luck on balls in play than of the kind of plate discipline that wears well in that spot over the long haul. Consider these performances (stats through Monday):


Bat 1st   AVG   OBP   SLG  BABIP  K/UIBB  PA/UIBB
Young    .230  .314  .395  .271    2.1       9.4
Drew     .303  .344  .492  .349    3.3      19.0
Lg Avg   .272  .339  .423  .305    1.9      12.2

Bat 2nd   AVG   OBP   SLG  BABIP  K/UIBB  PA/UIBB
Young    .280  .319  .536  .345    4.6      16.9
Drew     .261  .281  .441  .281    7.0      42.0
Lg Avg   .275  .336  .414  .312    2.0      11.7

Though both hitters have provided above-average power in the top two spots, on the balance it hasn't been enough to offset their other shortcomings, which include the minimal but particularly unspectacular performance of injury-wracked Eric Byrnes in contributing to this mess with about 10 percent of the team's PAs in the leadoff or second slots. In all, the top two spots in NL batting orders have combined to hit .274/.338/.419, while the Snakes' top two have hit .255/.313/.416, in a hitter-friendly environment to boot. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot. Young appears bound for a performance between his 10th and 25th percentiles PECOTA-wise; he's one of many promising center fielders around the majors who haven't lived up to their potentials this year. (Melky Cabrera, Carlos Gomez, and Jacoby Ellsbury come to mind, but that's a topic for another day.) The aforementioned quartet of young Snakes (Young, Drew, Reynolds, and Upton) were forecast for a combined .271/.345/.490 performance by PECOTA, but they've hit just .255/.322/.456.

Though they're ninth in slugging and tied for 10th in home runs, it's not entirely accurate to say that the Diamondbacks are short in the power department—though they've got plenty to kick themselves over when it comes to last winter's trade of AL home-run leader Carlos Quentin and the decision to give Eric Byrnes a long-term extension. Their Isolated Power (.162) is a respectable fifth in the league, but what hurts them is the fact that they don't make enough contact; they're 12th in batting average and second in strikeouts, with Reynolds (182 Ks) and Young (150) second and third in the league, respectively. Newcomer Adam Dunn, who's added some much-needed punch and plate discipline (.268/.455/.488 since being acquired from the Reds on August 11), is fifth in strikeouts, with 146 including his time in Cincinnati. That can make for some breezy nights in the high desert. Furthermore, the Snakes haven't really shown all that much power since their phenomenal first month. The Diamondbacks hit .268/.345/.468 through the end of April, but just .246/.319/.398 since. Conor Jackson slugged .630 in that first month, and has been hailed as one of the team's hitters who's come of age, but he's managed just a .405 SLG since, while Justin Upton fell off from .554 to .357.

Despite the boost provided by Dunn, the Diamondbacks are still reeling from the loss of Orlando Hudson, whose season ended when he dislocated his wrist on August 9, and has since undergone two surgeries to repair ligament damage. Hudson was second on the team in EqA at the time of his injury (.277) and he still leads all Diamondback hitters in WARP1 (6.0) after being gone for a month; what's more, the defense has suffered tremendously in his absence, dropping from a .693 Defensive Efficiency rate before the injury to .665 after, albeit in a much, much smaller sample size. It's probably just a coincidence that ace Brandon Webb has put up a 5.71 ERA and three straight disaster starts in his absence, but one doubts he feels a greater sense of security without the O-Dog gobbling up ground balls behind him.

Webb hasn't been alone in his struggles, either. Haren has put up a 6.17 ERA with just two quality starts out of seven since the beginning of August. Both pitchers reportedly dealt with arm issues earlier in the year (shoulder tendonitis and a cortisone shot for Webb, forearm stiffness for Haren), though their maladies haven't lined up with their performance woes. The official line—that Webb is simply struggling to command his sinker, while Haren has been out of whack mechanically—is a bit more ominous when one considers the fact that even with that dynamic duo, the Diamondbacks are just eighth in the league in SNLVAR. Randy Johnson's scratched start this past weekend, coming on the heels of an ugly outing on September 1, broke a string in which he'd strung together eight quality starts and posted a 1.82 ERA. Even so, he's still yielding 4.85 runs per nine (including unearned runs) and has a Support Neutral Winning Percentage (SNLVA_R + .5) of .489; one doesn't really know what to expect from the Big Unit on any given day. Max Scherzer certainly can put up tantalizing numbers, such as his 11 strikeouts in five innings in place of Johnson on Sunday, but his short leash—he's broken 95 pitches just once—puts a strain on the bullpen.

This is an especially ungood thing because the pen has rather quietly been one of the Diamondbacks' bigger problems this year. Last year's overachievement was owed in part to a relief corps that was second in the league in WXRL; Brandon Lyon, Jose Valverde, and Tony Peña all ranked in the top 10 individually. Valverde was traded over the winter to the Astros for no good reason, and a package of Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and Juan Gutierrez, in that order. Lyon is probably the least imposing late-inning option on the staff, but he assumed closer duties and has put up a 4.76 ERA, including an astronomical 10.93 since the All-Star break. His 1.047 WXRL is just third on the staff and 44th in the league; to put it in the context of closers, that figure ranks 28th among the 34 pitchers with at least 10 saves. Peña leads the staff and ranks a respectable 17th in the league, but he's the only Arizona reliever who's significantly more than a win above replacement level. Neither Qualls nor Juan Cruz has been particularly helpful, but worse has been Jon Rauch, whose -0.436 WXRL brings up the rear on the staff; he's yielded a 9.58 ERA since August 12, and his heavy workload (243 appearances and counting since the start of 2006, 16 more than the next pitcher, Aaron Heilman) may have finally caught up to him.

On the whole, this year's bullpen is 13th in the league in WXRL, hardly a recipe for a winner. In fact, since 1969 just eight teams have won their divisions with bullpens that ranked in the bottom quartile in the league in WXRL, and just three Wild Card teams have done so since 1995:


Year Team        W-L   WXRL  Rank
1971 Orioles   101-57  -0.1   10
1974 Pirates    88-74  -0.5   11
1987 Twins      85-77   3.0   12
1990 Red Sox    88-74   2.3   12
1997 Mariners   90-72   0.3   14
2002 D'backs    98-64   4.9   13
2005 Braves     90-72   1.1   16
2007 Phillies   89-73   7.3   13
1995 Yankees    79-65   1.8   13
2003 Red Sox    95-67   3.9   11
2005 Red Sox    95-67   0.5   14

The Diamondbacks aren't quite dead yet. They have a slight advantage over the Dodgers with regards to their remaining schedule, in that just eight of their final 18 games are on the road, compared to 11 of the Dodgers' final 17 games. However, Arizona's four remaining games against the Cardinals represent the only opponents above .500 that either team will face the rest of the way, and the Postseason Odds Report has them with just a 13.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, compared to a 86.2 percent chance for the Dodgers. The LA club's penchant for injuries and streaky play could leave the door open for Arizona, but even if they do, it's still up to the Diamondbacks to slither through it.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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