Jonah Keri debuts his new column, Rational Exuberance, today. Every week, the column will explore a variety of issues, from team building and game theory to the business of baseball, with interviews and other goodies for good measure. If you have any topics you’d like to see covered, you can reach Jonah at email@example.com.
I blew it.
I know, I know, that’s no way to launch a column, but there’s just no denying it. In picking the Arizona Diamondbacks to win the NL West this season, I whiffed.
After falling to the Marlins yesterday afternoon, the Diamondbacks dropped to 35-75 on the season. That’s right: A little more than two-thirds of the way through the year, the team sports a .318 winning percentage, worst in all of baseball.
The Diamondbacks’ 2004 woes were driven home last weekend, as the team attempted to dismantle the flaming wreck that was their 2004 Opening Day roster. GM Joe Garagiola Jr. shipped out Steve Finley and Brent Mayne to L.A. for prospects. He tried to trade Randy Johnson for a king’s ransom, but the Dodgers balked. Still, with Luis Gonzalez going under the knife for Tommy John surgery Monday and Richie Sexson long since out for the season after shoulder surgery, the name value of the D-Backs’ roster was reduced to roughly Randy Johnson, 14 Randy Readys and 10 Randy St. Claires.
Which brings us back to the original question: Exactly what was I thinking when I tabbed the D-Backs to win the West? Like star-struck late-90s investors trying to chase Qualcomm to the moon, was I guilty of what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan famously called “irrational exuberance?”
The D-Backs’ roster suggested otherwise. Though not the powerhouse that rolled up 190 wins and two playoff berths–including a World Series victory–in 2001 and 2002, Arizona was still coming off a solid 84-78 season, one that hinted at positive signs for the future.
Brandon Webb not only deserved to win the Rookie of the Year award last season; had he cracked the Opening Day rotation, he might have had a case for Cy Young as well. By year’s end, Webb had posted the second-best performance of any starting pitcher in the National League, according to Michael Wolverton’s Support-Neutral Won/Lost Report. An effective strikeout pitcher whose devastating sinker led to obscene groundball totals and a microscopic home run rate, Webb looked like the perfect candidate to take the co-ace’s mantle from the departed Curt Schilling. The buzz around Johnson in the off-season had the Big Unit coming back strong after a season derailed by knee injuries. Together they’d provide one of the best one-two punches in baseball.
The lineup looked improved too. Gonzalez and Finley, though aging, had maintained a strong record of performance well into their 30s. Sexson was the right-handed hammer who’d slot in perfectly between them; only Todd Helton and Jim Thome fared better among NL first basemen in 2003. Though not the threat he once was, Roberto Alomar figured to add good on-base skills and some doubles power to the offense.
For all the attention that other farm systems have received, the Diamondbacks churned out as impressive an array of big league contributors as anyone in 2003, with more help expected in ’04. Robby Hammock would get regular playing time behind the plate; Matt Kata would provide infield depth after a strong turn as a starter for much of ’03; Jose Valverde and Oscar Villarreal looked to build on their oft-dominant ’03 seasons. Those expected to make their first contributions included Scott Hairston and Chad Tracy, candidates for a cup of coffee, with potential for a big-league brunch. Casey Fossum and Edgar Gonzalez looked to bolster the back end of the rotation behind big guns Johnson and Webb.
Still, PECOTA wasn’t particularly bullish on the D-Backs at the start of the season. By plugging in individual player performance forecasts and doling out playing time accordingly, BP’s resident projection system pegged the team for an 81-81 record. In the AL East, that would barely be enough to keep up with Arizona’s aquatic expansion cousins, let alone the Yankees or Red Sox.
In the NL West, though, it looked like it’d be a different story. PECOTA’s projected division winner, the Padres, were tabbed for an 85-77 record. The Giants were picked second at 83-79, with the D’backs right behind them.
Granting the shaky rosters of their division mates–PECOTA figured the now-first place Dodgers for 74-88–one could argue it didn’t take a huge leap of faith to pick the Diamondbacks to win it. In Johnson, Webb, Sexson, Gonzalez and Finley, the D-Backs boasted two front-line starters and three established boppers to man the middle of the lineup. The key, it seemed, would be getting production from the other 20 men on the roster.
Let’s look at how the other 4/5 did, then. We’ll use projected Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) vs. actual performance. Since we’re only two-thirds of the way through the season, we’ll take year-to-date VORP for each D-Back and pro-rate it out to a full 162 games. For hitters, we’ll use the players projected for the most playing time by PECOTA, with the exception of Scott Hairston–who looked ticketed for the minors for Opening Day, with a later callup and playing time–over de facto third catcher Bobby Estalella and uberscrub Donnie Sadler. (All projections taken from PECOTA’s Fantasy Depth Chart projections at the start of the season, to account for jobs changing hands leading up to Opening Day. Players likely out for the season assume unchanged VORP.)
Projected VORP Actual VORP, Pro-Rated Roberto Alomar 26.0 12.6 Alex Cintron 24.1 -1.5 Shea Hillenbrand 17.0 31.6 Greg Colbrunn 7.4 -4.4 Robby Hammock 5.4 -6.5 Chad Tracy 3.8 15.5 Carlos Baerga 3.8 -5.7 Scott Hairston 2.7 10.5 Matt Kata 2.5 1.8 Danny Bautista 1.5 28.4 Brent Mayne -8.0 1.8 Total 86.2 84.1
The final tallies for the non-Sexson/Gonzalez/Finley hitters on the roster look nearly identical to their predictions. We obviously haven’t found the answer to why this team is on pace to lose 29 more games than projected, and 32 more than last season.
Despite the narrow gap between the two totals, a few performances jump out at you. Given his strong 2003 contribution and the fact that he’s been healthy all year, Alex Cintron has to be considered the team’s biggest disappointment. Though he came into 2003 with modest expectations, Cintron’s numbers in his first full season came much closer to Nomar’s than Neifi’s–.317/.359/.489, good for a VORP of 38.9. Even accounting for the 6% park factor bump he got in his home games, Cintron proved a key asset for Arizona last year. His minor league numbers suggested that some of that ability might be for real; he hit .322 in Triple-A Tucson, with ample doubles mixed in. Still, he didn’t walk and managed just six homers over 111 Triple-A games in ’02 and ’03. That he clouted 13 homers–while keeping his doubles and triples up–at the big league level suggested either a sudden step up in ability, or a bizarre fluctuation that pointed to a major step back in ’04. PECOTA split the difference; given Cintron’s .250/.295/.366 line this season, it was being far too generous.
It’s tough to find a major disappointment after that in this bunch. Injuries waylaid Alomar’s season. Given a clean shot at the regular second-base job in his stead, Hairston has picked up the slack somewhat, showing flashes of promise with the bat, even if he won’t be confused for Frank White with the leather. Beyond that, you have to go fluky, ugly performances by pinch-hitters such as Baerga and Colbrunn to find any notable disappointments. On the other hand, perennial mediocrities Danny Bautista and Shea Hillenbrand have pleasantly surprised, with Bautista on pace to give the D-Backs nearly three more wins than PECOTA expected.
Hmmm…maybe the pitchers hold the answer to this mystery. Let’s see how the rest of the projected rotation figured to fare:
Projected VORP Actual VORP, Pro-Rated Elmer Dessens 21.5 -5.0 Steve Sparks 14.9 -18.3 Shane Reynolds 8.1 -4.7 Edgar Gonzalez 8.0 -21.6 Casey Fossum 5.4 -16.8 Casey Daigle 0.6 -29.7 Total 58.5 -96.1
We have a winner. While Dessens-Daigle-Sparks would never be mistaken for Prior-Wood-Maddux, PECOTA expected competent innings-eating out of the back of the rotation. What the D-Backs got instead was a colony of arsonists, burning Arizona’s season to the ground. The top six expected innings guys on the staff have cost the Diamondbacks nearly 16 wins compared to expectations. Reynolds mercifully exited the staff after undergoing knee surgery. Dessens and Sparks couldn’t achieve even the modest success they’d had sporadically in prior years. Young guns Daigle, Fossum and Gonzalez have struggled mightily.
But wait, there’s more. Look at how the D-Backs’ top five projected relievers have fared:
Projected VORP Actual VORP, Pro-Rated Matt Mantei 17.0 -8.3 Jose Valverde 13.8 2.2 Shane Nance 10.7 -2.1 Oscar Villarreal 10.2 -2.7 Andrew Good 4.5 0.9 Total 56.2 -10.0
Given’s Mantei’s impressive 2003 campaign, his projection looked a little low; then you remember that this is Matt Mantei, the man who built Dr. James Andrews’ beach house. Valverde struggled with his control and the long ball before shoulder tendonitis knocked him out. Villarreal got knocked all over the park before succumbing to a forearm injury. All told, that’s another six wins off the expected ledger. Put the rotation and the pen together, and you get 22 letdown losses.
All of which may raise an eyebrow, given the easier story angle here. A severe shoulder injury cost Sexson his season, in the process subtracting the D-Backs’ biggest power bat (nine homers in 23 games before the injury) and creating a big hole in the lineup. Webb lost his command, his walk rate soaring to 5.1 per nine innings, vs. 3.4 last season. Though Johnson has rebounded to Cy Young form, Webb’s regression cost the Diamondbacks their co-ace, a loss they couldn’t afford.
Still, D’backs fans can put most of the blame on the rest of the pitching staff. Dessens’ and Sparks’ track records were too lumpy to suggest anything more than possible competence. Given that, the team’s young arms–from Fossum, Gonzalez and Daigle in the rotation to Valverde, Villarreal and company in the pen–needed to perform for the team to have a chance.
When a team relies on pitchers with strong track records, it can sprinkle in a few young arms, hope to catch lightning in a bottle, and be fine if it doesn’t happen. Without that underlying strength, it can’t.