April Fools: The Diamondbacks month in review

Record: 9-13
Runs scored: 84. Runs Allowed: 105.

Not quite the way we wanted the season to start, was it? Despite playing an unprecedented eighteen games at home in April, the Diamondbacks lost five out of seven series completed in the month, bumping along at or near the bottom of the division, and only spending one day - Opening Day - above .500. Here's a breakdown of the factors which contributed to the disappointing first month.

Pitching

All told, the team had an ERA of 4.52 - very close to the league average for the month, which was 4.42, and probably slightly-above average, once park factors are taken into account. However, that near-mediocrity concealed a massive range of individual performances, in both the rotation and relief corps. Starters' ERAs varied from Dan Haren's 1.54 to Yusmeiro Petit's 8.62, and in the bullpen, the range was just as wide, with Tony Peña the best (1.74) and Jon Rauch the worst (9.31), among those who threw five innings or more.

Despite the absence of Brandon Webb after the first game, the starting rotation was solid, posting a combined ERA fractionally below four, at 3.95. Haren had one of the best ever Aprils by any Arizona pitcher, and could easily have gone 5-0, with a series of spectacular performances. In 35 innings, he's allowed only 21 hits and five walks, for a WHIP of just 0.743, the best in the National League. Meanwhile, his K:BB ratio is also top in the NL, at better than 7:1, with Haren fanning more than a batter per inning. Doug Davis was a very pleasant surprise too: his ERA of 2.91 also deserved more than two wins in his five starts. Perhaps the key factor was his walk-rate, 2.65 BB/9 being a massive drop from the 6.90 figure last season.

Further back in the rotation, Max Scherzer and Jon Garland have both been as expected. For Scherzer, that's dominating, but unable to pitch deep into games, averaging a mere 5.17 innings per start [2008 NL mean: 5.76]. He's been fabulous first time through the order, opponents going just 4-for-33 with 12 K's, but second time through...not so much, 10-for-29 with six K's. That's when those 20-25 pitch innings occur, that leave us going to the bullpen. Jon Garland had one awful start, but outside of that has been reliable, pitching into the 7th inning every other time. In the absence of Webb, the fifth spot has been Yusmeiro Petit's, but the results have not been good, even by spot-starter standards. Overall, however: the rotation is not a major problem.

The bullpen has had a sharp division among the reliable members and everyone else. The first group is led by Chad Qualls and Tony Peña, who have a combined line of 18.1 IP, 4 ER, 3 BB, 20 K, and have been almost completely rock-solid. Almost as good is Juan Gutierrez [17 strikeouts in twelve innings and a 3.00 ERA], while Scott Schoeneweis also should be included, albeit with the obvious caveat:
   Schoeneweis vs. LHB: 2-for-15, opponent's line .133/.188/.333 = .521 OPS
   Schoeneweis vs. RHB: 5-for-16, opponent's line .313/.353/.563 = .915 OPS
While a small sample, this split should come as no shock, since his OPS gap has been 400+ the past two seasons. But I'll keep repeating it until Melvin stops misusing our LOOGY and making him face more right-handed batters than left.

Outside of those men, the bullpen has been a patchwork quilt of poor performance. Jon Rauch, unaccountably, tied for the team lead in April appearances: surely we didn't needed a mop-up man that often? Oh, my mistake: five of those were in one-run games, though at least we never saw Rauch in a game we were actually winning at the time [AZ has a 1-11 record in games where Jon takes the mound]. Also appearing as minor members of the new constellation, Maelstromius [the Rotating Vortex of Suck]: Billy Buckner, Doug Slaten and Bobby Korecky, all now orbiting the Reno system. But never fear! For Tom Gordon has come to save u... Ah. About that... :-(

Offense

Expected to be a strength coming in to the season, the hitting has instead turned into the major problem, with an OPS+ of just 84, thirteenth best in the National League. The players came to Melvin's defense in the Republic on Friday. Said Eric Byrnes, "You want to point fingers, point them at me, point them at the other players. We're the ones out there who haven't been getting it done. "This has nothing to do with Bob. Bob and the coaching staff are very meticulous about giving us the information that we need to go out there and win. I think they do a very good job with that." Similar thoughts from Chris Snyder, but there's a very insightful comment - yes, I know, that may be a first on azcentral.com - which echoes how I feel

If it's one player that is not performing, then change the player. If it's multiple players, then change the coaching. If the strategy is not there, then change the coaching. If the strategy is there and sound, then the question to the players should be: Why aren't you following it? And the question to the coaching staff should be: What are you going to do about it?

That's the crux of it, for the offensive woes go across the entire roster. Of the twelve players with 25+ at-bats in April, eight had an OPS+ below 100 - the exceptions being Felipe Lopez (135), Mark Reynolds (123), Augie Ojeda (114) and Tracy (102). And the ones below average included some who were far below: five of them were sub-75, with the bottom rungs occupied by Chris Young (68), Chris Snyder (57) and Conor Jackson (46). With so many near-automatic outs in the order, it's no wonder the team has struggled, scoring only 3.8 runs per game, despite playing so many contests in hitter-friendly parks.

The team hit, collectively, only .231, and you can add onto that a below-average number of walks and above-average strikeouts. White batting aout .200 against southpaws was odd, personally, the I think problem was not what we did (or, rather, didn't - twice) against god pitchers like Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum - it's our failures against journeymen pitchers. Here are some selected April lines posted by opposing starters with a career ERA+ below 100:
  11th - Eric Stults (ERA+ 89), LAD: 5.1 IP, one run
  13th - Todd Wellenmeyer (98), STL: 7 IP, one run
  17th - Jonathan Sanchez (88), SFG: 6.2 IP, no runs
  22nd - Jorge de la Rosa (84), COL: 6.2 IP, two runs
  30th - Jeff Suppan (99), MIL: 6.1 IP, one run

All average, at best - not that you'd know it from the 1.41 collective ERA against us, in almost a quarter of our games. And it's continued into May against Manny Parra (98, 6 IP, one run). We just don't seem to have good approaches against mediocre pitchers and that points the finger at  the coaching stuff again.

And the rest...

Which would be defense, base-running, "intangibles" and anything else I can't be bother to write a full paragraph about or research properly. After a wobbly start, I'd say the defense has come on not too badly. The infield was the area of most concern, but I can't say I have had too many issues - Lopez does not appear to have been the disaster area with a glove he was predicted, fairly-widely, to be. As measured by UZR/150, he is currently 9th of 25 in the majors - Orlando Hudson, meanwhile, is 23rd... Perhaps more of a concern is Chris Young, currently 18th of 25th in center, and Conor Jackson's performance in left has also been poor. But overall, the team ranks sixth in the league to date, with Eric Byrnes (in LF) and Augie Ojeda posting the best figures to date.

Base-running has been looked at previously, so I don't want to go on about it in great depth here. To summarize, however, the straight stealing of bases - outside of the one game where we swiped five bags, almost half our entire total for the season - has been subdued, but the team has shown good aggression on taking extra bases, going first to third on a single, for example. There have been a number of what can only be described as brain farts; Felipe Lopez made a couple in the Brewers series, but I also note that we seem to have lost far fewer runners at home-plate than last season. Haven't got any stats to back that one up though.

Overall

Looking forward, this team needs to get on-base a good deal more than it has been. While long balls are nice, at time of writing more than 70% of our home-runs have been solo shots, well-above average - and those blast are worth exactly the same as a walk, followed by a stolen base and pair of productive ground-outs. We have already seen Upton breaking out in the past ten games, and we need the likes of Jackson, Snyder and Young also improving their production in May. It doesn't look like we'll get Webb back before the end of this month, but if Haren and Davis can pitch the way they have, we should be ok there. Getting some more reliable performances out of the bullpen would also help.

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