Will the last person out of Bank One Ballpark please turn out the lights?

The Diamondbacks have gone 21-29 since the All-Star break and look like they’ll be the next team to exit the NL’s wild card race. With last night’s 3-1 loss to the Dodgers (and 20-year-old, MLB-debut-making Edwin Jackson), the Snakes are seven games out in the race and trailing five teams, which is as good a comp for “done” as you’ll find.

Now, the easy thing is to look at the injuries the D’backs suffered this season and excuse their disappointing performance. Twenty million or so dollars invested in Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson have produced just 36 starts with an ERA of 3.54 and an SNVA of 5.4. That’s a lot of pitching to replace, and it would be difficult for any team to recover from that.

The problem is, the Diamondbacks did, and they did it without going outside the organization and, in fact, trading pitching depth for hitting help. They replaced Johnson and Schilling so well that the Diamondbacks, for the third season in a row, will have the best starting pitching in the National League:

Year     SNVA   Schilling + Johnson
2003      7.2            5.4
2002     11.4           16.1
2001      7.3           15.7

For the above, the Diamondbacks can thank Brandon Webb, who is the best pitcher in the NL this year according to SNWAR, and Miguel Batista, who ranks 11th in that same category. With those two picking up the slack, the loss of 30 starts by the veterans has barely been felt. Moreover, the Snakes are getting some of the best relief in team history. Their bullpen ranks third in the NL in Adjusted Runs Prevented, thanks to the emeregence of Jose Valverde and the return of Matt Mantei, as well as the absence of any truly awful performances.

Randy Johnson’s injuries might be the excuse, but they’re not the reason. The Diamondbacks’ pitching has been excellent, easily capable of winning a division given a decent offense.

Oops. The Snakes rank 14th in the National League with a .249 Equivalent Average, a huge drop from their .265 mark last year that was fourth in the league. The team has been brutal during the second half: .242/.311/.370 since the break, averaging just 3.5 runs per game. How bad is that? They’ve been outscored by the Dodgers (186 runs in 49 games, an average of 3.8).

I think the Snakes’ second-half problems stem in part from their great June. That’s when the D’backs scored 149 runs in 26 games, hit .292/.345/.467 and ended the month with a 12-game winning streak that had them near the top of the wild card race and bearing down on the Giants in the NL West. That June was helped along by peak months from their core (Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley both had 1000+ OPSs), as well as the fluky two weeks of a utility-infield prospect named Matt Kata. Kata, who wasn’t listed in Baseball Prospectus 2003 or the 2003 Baseball Forecaster, was promoted when Junior Spivey sprained his ankle and hit the ground running: .375/.455/.667 in June, part of a 26-for-67 stretch to start his season.

When Craig Counsell came off the disabled list on July 7, the Diamondbacks looked at the assorted personnel and made a fateful decision: they effectively chose Kata over Lyle Overbay. Unlike Kata, Overbay actually had prospect chops, and he had done some contributing of his own: .287/.372/.426 through the 7th, including a solid June. A team that had happily employed Mark Grace long after his death now had a young Grace at first base; they should have recognized that fact and been happy.

They weren’t. Once Counsell was activated, the Snakes had five infielders for four spots, and Overbay had the misfortune to not get hot right then. Although he had pretty much been in the lineup against all right-handers to that point, Overbay began to lose at-bats as Bob Brenly made room for Kata. Between a spate of left-handers, an occasional missed righty and the All-Star break, Overbay batted just 39 times in the first three weeks of July.

Whether the sporadic playing time caused a slump or vice-versa can be debated, but Overbay went 2-for-18 with a double over two weeks starting July 8, and was demoted on July 23. While he hadn’t hit well in July, neither had Kata (5-for-33 with two doubles and a homer over the same two weeks), and there was much less reason to believe that Kata would hit at an acceptable level. With Spivey back, here is what Brenly had in front of him (leaving shortstop Alex Cintron out of the discussion):

                  Through July 22          2003 PECOTA

Overbay           .273 .365 .405         .267 .328 .421
Hillenbrand       .323 .352 .524         .279 .307 .435
Spivey            .254 .320 .435         .262 .345 .424
Counsell          .257 .371 .347         .262 .334 .338
Kata              .304 .371 .509         .247 .293 .357

Hillenbrand, just acquired for Byung-Hyun Kim and having a good year, needed to be in the lineup, and Spivey was obviously going to reclaim his roster spot. Counsell wasn’t going anywhere, either, so it came down to Overbay and Kata. Brenly chose the one who’d been hitting in great luck over the better player, and just in time for reality to set in. Kata played nearly every day in August and hit .242/.269/.374. Counsell hit .157/.254/.216. Hillenbrand hit .375 in July but slumped to .200/.219/.330 in August. All told, the three players who carved up what should have been Lyle Overbay’s playing time were key components in the Diamondbacks’ offensive face plant in August, while Overbay returned to Tucson and hit .286/.419/.479.

The decision to treat Counsell like George Brett plays into this as well. Counsell is a good utility infielder who might not kill you as an everyday second baseman. At third base, even in a good year, he’s David Bell without the power. The Diamondbacks installed him at third base this year and rode him into the ground, rather than using him in the fifth infielder role to which he’s suited. Making Counsell the extra infielder would have allowed Brenly to sit Spivey against tough right-handers and upgrade the corner defense late in games, all while keeping a good hitter, Overbay, in the lineup.

How much difference would Overbay have made? We’ll never know, but just giving him Kata’s 99 at-bats in August at even his PECOTA rate of .267/.328/.421 is worth 5-10 runs, and I think Overbay would have hit much better than that. He had a .372 OBP when Brenly started messing with his playing time, and what the Snakes really needed in August was some OBP, what with three infielders at .270 and below, Steve Finley at .306 and two catchers, Rod Barajas and Chad Moeller, in negative numbers.

The Diamondbacks are going home in two weeks because they didn’t score enough runs this year. One of the reasons they for that is that they messed up a key roster decision, allowing a high batting average in the short term to outweigh mounds of evidence that one player was superior to another. Choosing Kata over Overbay cost a lot of runs, and the Diamondbacks didn’t have those runs to spare. This one’s on Bob Brenly.

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