So, that was April - I would personally tend to think it went pretty much as expected in most ways. The Diamondbacks have shown flashes of ability, but have struggled to convert some fine individual performances into consistent results. They managed one winning streak of three games, but ended the month four games below .500. Let's take a look at the major areas of off-season concern and activity, and see what the early returns from the first 26 games have shown us. All stats are through and including April 30.
1. Shore up the bullpen
It would be difficult for this to be anything other than an improvement, if only because last year's relief corps were historically bad. Overall, they had a 5.74 ERA, and it was worse than that early on - in April 2010, our bullpen ERA was 6.85. This season, the number is all the way down to 4.17. That's a huge improvement, though it's worth nothing that, even after this 2.5+ run improvement, the number is still third-worst in the National League to date, ahead of just the Astros (5.06) and Dodgers (5.22). Admittedly, part of this is because relievers have been remarkably effective thus far; the overall NL average is 3.35, the lowest collective ERA over a single month since August 1992.
Still, I don't think we feel third-worst. Perhaps that's the relative improvement: when someone has been whacking you in the crotch for a year, it's a relief when they switch to just punching you in the stomach. But the other aspect that has helped has been the bullpen has been vastly improved when it comes to protecting leads. J.J.Putz's hiccup yesterday was really his first road-bump, and David Hernandez has been almost impeccable - between them, they have a 2.82 ERA in 22.1 innings of work. When we get the final third with a lead, it no longer feels like we're entering the toughest part of the game.
26 games in, we've reached the end of six innings ahead in eleven of them - we've won all but one, on pace for six such defeats this season. Compare that to last year, where we lost fifteen games we were leading at that point. Better yet: the Diamondbacks are a perfect 8-0 when in front after seven frames. It's safe to say the eighth and ninth have not been the problem in 2011. Now, about the first... There, we've already let the opposition put up a crooked number ten times, while managing it ourselves on only four occasions. But that's hardly the bullpen's fault, is it?
2. Cut back on the strikeouts
That has taken place, despite Kelly Johnson's best efforts. The Diamondbacks have struck out in 19.4% of plate-appearances to date, a sharp decrease from the 23.0% after the first 26 games last season. They're are now right in the middle of the pack, ninth in the league, only fractionally-above average (19.2%). Mission accomplished, right? Yes...and no. Because, whether directly-related or not, the offense has taken a step back along with the K's - runs scored by Arizona are down about 17% compared to the first 26 games last year, driven by a decrease in most offensive areas. We're hitting less, not getting on-base as much and knocking the ball out less often.
The hope before the season was that "small ball" would be able to replace Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche's 57 homers and 185 RBI, with the reduction in strikeouts improving our chances of a prolonged rally. That hasn't happened, with the Diamondbacks scoring exactly one run per game fewer than over the same period in 2010. The "big inning" has also happened less often: so far, we've scored three runs in a frame 13 times, which works out to one every other game. Last year, we had 89 of those for the year. So, while the strikeouts have indeed been reduced, if anything, it has hindered the offense.
Part of that is the reduction in walks. The overall K:BB ratio has gone the wrong way, from 2.25 in 2010 to 2.30 now. With two fewer power threats, opposing pitchers need to do less nibbling on the corners - they can tell Melvin Mora or Juan Miranda "Here you go," knowing they are unlikely to leave the yard. Fewer men on base and fewer homers = fewer runs. Basic baseball math, really. Hate to say, "Told you so," but...well, I told you so, when last September, I wrote:
If the strikeouts go down, but (as is likely) are largely replaced by other outs, and reduce the number of home-runs Arizona hits, the odds are that it will have a negative impact on the runs per game we score.
3. Controlling the running game.
There are two aspects to this crucial part of the 'small ball' philosophy, aggression on the basepaths. That means both taking extra bases - whether stolen directly or not - and also stopping the opposition from doing the same thing. To start with the first, the stolen-base was a significant weapon for the Diamondbacks during April, with 22 in 29 attempts: the Padres and Reds had more. The loss of Willie Bloomquist has slowed the pace somewhat; even though he played a mere 14 games, he still had three more in the month than the next member of the team. The success-rate of 76% is fourth-highest, so that side of things seems to be working well.
The aggression doesn't seem to take place once the ball is put in play. The best overall number to measure this is XBT% - the percentage of time an extra-base is taken, e.g. going first to third or second to home on a single. There, Arizona are exactly at league average, 42%. After a wobbly start where they led the rankings, they are also exactly at league average for the number of outs made on the basepaths, with nine. However, they are pretty good at converting base-runners into actual runs: 34% of all the Diamondbacks' men to reach base have ended up scoring, a number trailing only the Rockies.
On defense, it's a little harder, because there is no XBT Against% to which we can look. However, all the work put in this spring on pickoff moves does seem to be achieving a measure of success, for the Diamondbacks conceded a mere eleven stolen-bases in April. The Nationals' nine is the sole franchise who have done better. It's partly a low number of attempts, but nailing them at a 31% rate is pretty good, as league average is 28%. I tend to think both are mostly down to our pitchers, given Monterror's fondness for hurling the ball into adjoining zip-codes. Hey, at least there are now some short-stops - albeit only four - who have more E's to their names than Miggy.
4. Who's On First [and left... and third]
Take your pick. In the 26 April games, first-base was split close to evenly: Russell Branyan got 10 starts, Juan Miranda nine and Xavier Nady 7. Third-base was like that too, the appearances divided between Ryan Roberts (14) and Melvin Mora (12). In left-field, Gerardo Parra appears to be the regular starter, particularly with Bloomquist currently unavailable. Parra has made 17 starts and Bloomquist 8, with Ryan Roberts getting the remaining one. I'm a little surprised that we haven't used RyRo a bit more often there, especially against tough lefties.
Those were the three positions with the biggest question-marks coming in to the season. But has it worked? They are certainly places which are expected to shoulder their share of run creation. Here are the offensive numbers from each position for the Diamondbacks, compared to the NL average production for each spot:
|1B NL avg||.257||.339||.412||.750||3||14|
|3B NL avg||.268||.337||.399||.736||2||14|
|LF NL avg||.251||.324||.421||.745||4||14|
It's a bit of a mixed-bag. The 1B position is close to average, though the numbers above aren't park-adjusted, so the results are a bit worse than they look at first sight. Certainly, Russell Branyan's power hasn't been demonstrated, even at Chase, while Juan Miranda has been disappointing, and done little to suggest he can be more than a placeholder while we await the blessed coming by St. Paul of the Goldsmiths [do you think I am over-hyping him?]. LF continues to be a problem, in part because of the apparent inability of Nady to play there, which does expose Parra to more LHP's than we'd like. But he still can't hit for power and a .353 BABIP seems pretty high.
However, 3B has been a very pleasant surprise, thanks mostly to the blossoming of Ryan Roberts. Can he keep it up? Well, another home-run this afternoon puts him on pace for 36 this year, which would leave us saying, "Mark who?" The good news is, Roberts' BABIP of .313 isn't that out of whack, so much of his hitting for average seems sustainable. Less sure about the power though: 17.2% of his fly-balls have not come back, more than twice his career rate, so I'm inclined to enjoy this while it lasts, rather than expect it to continue.
I can't speak to what the veterans have contributed off the field, but their contributions between the lines have basically been close to a collective zero. Literally: April bWAR for them was -0.2 for Mora, -0.1 for Henry Blanco, 0.3 for Branyan, 0.3 for Bloomquist, and 0.0 for Nady and the entirely absent Geoff Blum. That's a grand total of 0.3 WAR between the six of them: to put it into context, Gerardo Parra finished the month at 0.7 WAR. Of course, it's one month, but those of us who were skeptical about the value of the 'veteran presence' can consider themselves vindicated, for April at least.