- The Plunge: Five years ago, the second-year Diamondbacks bought their way to one of the greatest leaps forward in major-league history. After a 65-97 record in their inaugural season, the Diamondbacks won 100 games in 1999 behind the likes of Randy Johnson, Matt Williams and Jay Bell. Only six teams since 1900 have improved their winning percentage by at least 200 points from one year to the next:
Team Year W L Pct. Year W L Pct. Diff New York Giants 1904 48 88 .353 1903 84 55 .604 .251 Arizona Diamondbacks 1998 65 97 .401 1999 100 62 .617 .216 Boston Red Sox 1945 71 83 .461 1946 104 50 .675 .214 Boston Braves 1935 38 115 .248 1936 71 83 .461 .213 Philadelphia Phillies 1904 52 100 .342 1905 83 69 .546 .204 Baltimore Orioles 1988 54 107 .335 1989 87 75 .537 .202
This year, the Diamondbacks are headed in a vastly different direction. After finishing 84-78 last season, the Diamondbacks are on pace for one of the worst seasons by any team in the last 40 years; since 1965, only last year’s Tigers had a lower winning percentage than the D-Backs’ current mark of .313. (The current version of those Tigers can join the list above by winning eight of their final 11 games.)
In so doing, the Diamondbacks find themselves on another list; they may become just the ninth team since 1900 to see their winning percentage decline by at least 200 points from year to year:
Team Year W L Pct. Year W L Pct. Diff Philadelphia A's 1914 99 53 .651 1915 43 109 .283 .368 Boston Braves 1934 78 73 .517 1935 38 115 .248 .268 Baltimore Terrapins 1914 84 70 .545 1915 47 107 .305 .240 Cincinnati Reds 1981 66 42 .611 1982 61 101 .377 .235 Florida Marlins 1997 92 70 .568 1998 54 108 .333 .235 Cleveland Indians 1913 86 66 .566 1914 51 102 .333 .232 Chicago White Sox 1920 96 58 .623 1921 62 92 .403 .221 Washington Senators 1933 99 53 .651 1934 66 86 .434 .217 Arizona Diamondbacks 2003 84 78 .518 2004 47 104 .311 .207
Most of the teams on the list are there for non-baseball reasons. The rise of the Federal League in 1914 is directly responsible for the inclusion of three teams on this list. The 1935 Braves are one of the great fluke teams in history, as they bounced back to mediocrity the following season (notice that they’re on the first list as well.) The Reds’ record is tainted by a strike; the Marlins sold off their team; the White Sox turned Black.
The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, have no excuse other than poor baseball management. Specifically, the franchise built its success on the performance of veteran players, veterans whose signings the D’backs financed by deferring millions of dollars in guaranteed money. The team’s economic creativity led to a World Championship, but the economic reality of their situation was undeniable: the team could not sustain their increasing debt forever. Toss in the fact that the veterans they employed were steadily getting worse while their salaries were getting better, stir in the bad contracts (Matt Mantei, anyone?) that were the by-product of the team’s profligacy when times were good, and their historic decline doesn’t look nearly so surprising.
The sheer swiftness of the team’s collapse may be breathtaking, but let’s face it: old teams can collapse quickly. And if there’s one thing that the Diamondbacks were, it was old. The 2002 Diamondbacks, with an average of 32.690 years, are the second-oldest team in history, just a day younger than the 1983 Angels’ average of 32.693. (Team ages are calculating by weighting each hitter’s age by his number of plate appearances, each pitcher’s age by his number of innings, and averaging the pitching staff’s age with the age of the position players.)
In fact, by any stretch you want to break it down–one year, two years, all the way up to five years–the 1999-2003 Diamondbacks rank among the three oldest teams of all time. The following table shows how they rank over a five-year period. (Overlapping teams have been eliminated for clarity’s sake.)
Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Team Years Age Age Age Age Age Avg. New York Yankees 1999-2003 31.62 32.31 31.53 31.93 32.41 31.96 Anaheim Angels 1981-1985 30.91 32.66 32.69 31.88 30.74 31.78 Arizona Diamondbacks 1999-2003 30.96 31.93 32.46 32.69 30.57 31.72 Brooklyn Dodgers 1924-1928 31.31 31.42 31.74 31.37 31.75 31.52 Philadelphia Phillies 1980-1984 30.46 31.54 32.03 31.94 31.03 31.40 Chicago White Sox 1957-1961 31.18 31.23 31.00 32.00 31.45 31.37 Baltimore Orioles 1996-2000 30.34 31.51 32.29 31.49 31.10 31.35 Detroit Tigers 1987-1991 30.88 32.10 31.53 31.04 30.59 31.23 New York Mets 1998-2002 30.66 31.94 31.19 31.31 31.01 31.22
Like the Diamondbacks, most of the teams on this list were contenders. Veteran teams tend to play well, because veteran players tend to be good players. But with the exception of the Yankees, who can simply replace one well-compensated veteran with another, most of the teams on this list declined quickly at the end of their runs, and recovered only slowly. Some have yet to recover at all.
- Breakout: His breakout season ended early with a torn ACL, but Carlos Guillen still stamped himself as one of the great stories of the season. After falling out of favor with the Mariners to the point where they unloaded him for Ramon Santiago, all Guillen did this year was:
- Hit a career-high .318;
- Smack 37 doubles, 10 triples, and 20 homers, all personal bests;
- Post a .379 OBP and a .542 SLG.
Guillen, amazingly, leads all major-league shortstops in batting average, OBP and slugging average. Only one major-league shortstop–Miguel Tejada–has an OPS within 90 points of Guillen’s.
The best part of Guillen’s breakout season, though, is his age. This is no thirtysomething ballplayer having a career season (though Melvin Mora will tell you there’s nothing wrong with that.) Guillen is just 28, which makes it more likely that his performance this season will carry over for the remainder of his career.
How likely? Let’s see if we can find players with a similar performance spike to Guillen, at a similar age. Coming into the 2004 season, Guillen had career marks of .264/.335/.383 in a little over 1,800 plate appearances. This season, while Guillen’s walk rate has been largely unchanged, his batting average is 42 points above his previous career high (.276) and his isolated power of .224 is 85 points higher than his previous career high (.139). So let’s take a look at the list of players who had a breakout season in which they:
- Hit at least 30 points better than their previous career high (min: 250 PA);
- Posted an isolated power at least 70 points better than their previous career high;
- Played a middle infield position;
- Were between 27 and 29 years old.
In addition, they had to have at least 450 plate appearances in their breakout season, and at least 1,500 career plate appearances before their breakout season.
It’s a short list, of decidedly recent vintage:
Breakout Season Previous Career High Year Player AVG SLG ISP AVG SLG ISP 2001 Rich Aurilia .324 .572 .245 .281 .444 .163 2004 Carlos Guillen .318 .542 .224 .276 .396 .139
If we’re searching for a likely career track for Guillen, PECOTA-style, this isn’t the kind of comparison that will please Guillen fans. In 2001, Rich Aurilia had one of the great fluke seasons of our generation; he’d never hit above .281 before, and never hit above .277 after. When midnight struck, Aurilia turned into a worse hitter than he was even before he tried on the glass slippers. Aurlia hit a respectable .281/.336/.444 and .271/.339/.444 the two years before his breakout season; the two years after, he hit just .257/.305/.413 and .277/.325/.410.
But one comp does not a projection make. So let’s eliminate our positional requirements and see what we get:
Breakout Season Previous Career High Year Player AVG SLG ISP AVG SLG ISP 1894 Hugh Duffy .440 .694 .254 .362 .470 .150 1914 Steve Evans .348 .556 .208 .294 .413 .120 1945 Tommy Holmes .352 .577 .225 .309 .456 .147 1994 Albert Belle .357 .714 .357 .290 .552 .262 2000 Charles Johnson .304 .582 .278 .251 .454 .204 2001 Rich Aurilia .324 .572 .245 .281 .444 .163 2003 Jose Guillen .311 .569 .258 .267 .430 .177 2004 Carlos Guillen .318 .542 .224 .276 .396 .139
A Guillen-level breakout season was essentially unheard of in the game’s first century. It was only accomplished three times, and each occasion came with an enormous asterisk. Hugh Duffy set the all-time major-league record for batting average during the majors’ high-water mark for offense, shortly after the pitching rubber was moved back to 60’6″; Steve Evans put up his numbers in the Federal League, a “major” league in name but not necessarily in quality; and Tommy Holmes put up his numbers against the lowest of war-time competition.
In the last ten years, this kind of breakout season has become almost commonplace, a revelation which will no doubt lead to whispers that start and end with a hissing sound. Without pointing fingers at the other players on the list, there’s no reason to think Guillen is guilty of ‘roiding up; if he is, he sure chose a peculiar time to do so, now that the major leagues actually have a testing policy in place.
As for what this means for Guillen’s future, he could go either way. Aurilia and Charles Johnson were stone flukes, but Albert Belle was the most menacing right-handed hitter in the game for the remainder of the decade, and Jose Guillen has sustained most of his gains from last season.
- King Jeremy the Wicked: It wasn’t that long ago–April, in fact–that Jeremy Affeldt was a trendy pick for a breakout season. There was little to quibble with in his stuff (a 97-mph fastball and a big-breaking curveball) or in his numbers, which included a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 98/38 in 126 innings last year. Affeldt’s biggest barrier to success in his first two seasons had been a recurrent blister problem, something he had off-season surgery to correct.
In a season in which just about everything that could go wrong for the Royals has, Affeldt followed suit. He was winless as a starter in eight tries, with a 5.25 ERA and barely more strikeouts than walks. The Royals finally gave up on him in the rotation, and decided to try him as their closer instead. The results there were only marginally better before Affeldt tore an oblique muscle and missed over two months.
But if you’ve written off Affeldt, think again. Since coming back from his injury, he has finally shown the form that made him a breakout candidate in the first place. Here’s a breakdown:
As a starter, through May 18: 46.1 IP, 59 H, 19 BB, 21 K, 3 HR, 5.25 ERA
As a reliever, May 19 – August 31: 19 IP, 22 H, 9 BB, 15 K, 2 HR, 3.79 ERA
As a reliever, September 1 onwards: 8 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 11 K, 0 HR, 0.00 ERA
There’s a danger into reading too much into three good weeks, of course. But in the progression of Affeldt’s career, it’s not the last three weeks that is the outlier; it’s the five months before that. If he really is on track, even if it’s in an 80-inning role instead of in a 220-inning role, the Royals can anticipate a major improvement from at least one roster spot next season.
- Zack’s Back: Without commentary:
Zack Greinke, through July 31st: 76.2 IP, 77 H, 16 BB, 51 K, 15 HR, 3-8, 4.81 ERA
Zack Greinke, August 1st on: 56.1 IP, 55 H, 7 BB, 41 K, 11 HR, 5-2, 3.20 ERA
- Life of Brian: The biggest flop of the season’s first half, Brian Anderson, may be righting himself again. Since working with new pitching coach Mike Mason on his mechanics over the All-Star break, the old Brian Anderson has emerged:
Before All-Star Break: 1-8, 7.23 ERA, 79.2 IP, 126 H, 30 BB, 30 K, 19 HR
After All-Star Break: 4-3, 4.22 ERA, 70.1 IP, 75 H, 22 BB, 32 K, 8 HR
Even at his best, Anderson is essentially a league-average pitcher, and as such will be overpaid for next season at $3.25 million. But at this point, the Royals will gladly overpay him if they can get 200 league-average innings as part of the bargain.
- The Buck Stops Here: This section of the article has more breakdowns than a Yugo, so let’s throw in one more for good measure:
John Buck, through July 31st: .191/.235/.218
Buck, August 1st on: .273/.306/.539
Buck’s turnaround has been credited to hitting coach Jeff Pentland tinkering with his swing, but the Royals admit that all Pentland did was to get Buck, who was trying to hit a home run on every swing when he was first called up, to return to his natural approach.
The issue of whether rookie players have an adjustment period when they are first called up has yet to be thoroughly explored. While Buck’s numbers since August 1 are undoubtedly above his true ability–he’s not a .539 slugger–the fact remains that he has already set the team record for homers by a rookie catcher with 10. In the long term, he’s a good candidate for 20-25 homers a year; in the short term, the Royals face a difficult decision about who to start when Benito Santiago, who was hitting .274/.312/.434 before breaking a bone in his hand, returns next season.