Diamondbacks First-quarter Report

USA TODAY Sports

41 games in, which is as near to one-quarter of the way there as we'll get. So, let's take a look at the Diamondbacks' season so far, and weigh good against the bad.

The overall picture

The Diamondbacks currently stand with a record of 23-18, half a game behind the Giants in the NL West, and the same distance behind the Pirates for the second wild-card. They have scored 169 runs, almost identical to the number scored through 41 games last season (167), but have pitched significantly better, conceding 151 runs, 33 fewer than at the same point in the 2012 campaign. They are five games better in the standing than where they were, and their Pythagorean record is 3.9 games better than at that time.

Hitters
Name fWAR Name bWAR
Gerardo Parra 1.8 Gerardo Parra 2.7
Paul Goldschmidt 1.7 Paul Goldschmidt 2.2
Didi Gregorius 1.1 Didi Gregorius 1.2
A.J. Pollock 1.1 A.J. Pollock 1.2
Cody Ross 0.6 Cody Ross 0.6
Pitchers
Name fWAR Name bWAR
Patrick Corbin 1.2 Patrick Corbin 2.1
Matt Reynolds 0.8 Trevor Cahill 1.1
Brandon McCarthy 0.7 Matt Reynolds 0.8
Trevor Cahill 0.7 Brad Ziegler 0.3
Wade Miley 0.6 Josh Collmenter 0.3

What's working

Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt is on pace for a 40-homer, 120+ RBI season. Oh, yeah: and steal 16 bases while he's at it. There has only been one such campaign in the National League since 2001: that was Albert Pujols in 2009, and he was voted NL MVP that year. At this point, the contract extension he signed before the season is already looking like a fabulous deal. Five years for $32 million? His production in the first quarter of this year alone, has already been worth around $9 million, and at this pace, he'll have repaid the entire cost of the deal before it even begins next season.

Remember when "they" said he couldn't hit right-handed pitching? He's batting .337 against them this season. Remember when "they" said he couldn't field his position? He played error-free defense through our first 35 games, and his UZR is up in positive territory for the first time in his career. And even when the pitchers refuse to feed him anything to hit, staying away, away, away - Goldschmidt is happy to take the walk and trot down to first-base. Only one Diamondback (Luis Gonzalez) has ever had more than 84 walks in a season. Goldschmidt is currently on pace for 91.

Defense. Truth be told, Gerardo Parra is perhaps having an even better season than Goldschmidt, with both a better bWAR and fWAR. But what he highlights is the excellent defense being played by Arizona this season - and it's readily apparent whether you look at traditional or new metrics in the field. Starting with the former, the Diamondbacks have committed a league-low twelve errors in the field. The next best in the National League? 14. League average? 23. Arizona are on pace for 47 errors this season, which would almost halve their tally from the 2012 campaign, when they committed 90.

The outfield have been particularly impressive, with a UZR of 13.7, which is the best in the majors (only one other team is even in double-digits). By that same measure, among major-league outfielders with 200+ innings pitched, the Diamondbacks have three of the top eight: not just Parra, but also A.J. Pollock and, perhaps surprisingly., Cody Ross [yeah, Jason Kubel still exhibits the range of a glacier, though runners still under-estimate his arm] On the infield, when you adjust for playing time, there are only two shortstops with a UZR/150 games of better than 25: the Braves' Andrelton Simmons and Didi Gregorius.

Patrick Corbin. Last year, Wade Miley barely made it on to the roster, and his season earned him the highest Rookie of the Year position ever by a Diamondback This year, Corbin had to fight for his rotation spot in spring training. not being named Arizona's fifth starter until March 30 - and has the third-best ERA in the entire league so far. The Diamondbacks have won every game he has started, in large part because Corbin has allowed two runs or less in 6+ innings, every time he has started. Never mind beginning of the year, his nine-start such streak (including Patrick's last appearance of 2012) is tied for the franchise's best ever, with some guy called "Johnson" in 1999.

There was a good article last week on Fangraphs, analyzing the reasons for Corbin's improvement. But in summary, he has increased his velocity, and his sinker is generating more ground-balls, both of which have helped his slider become a better strikeout pitch, and the latter is leading to a decreased home-run rate. He has also jacked up his first-pitch strike percentage, from 58% last year to 70% this. It still seems optimistic to expect Pat's current 1.52 ERA to be sustained over the entire season, so I would expect some regression. But it could double, to somewhere in line with his FIP (3.09), and this season would still be a huge success.

Depth. Remember the off-season, when there were frequent complaints about us having acquired too many outfielders, too many middle infielders and too many closer types? Hard to argue the depth has been more then necessary over the first quarter, and in just about all the places necessary. We've not yet seen Adam Eaton, and had Ross or Kubel out of action for almost the entire month of April. A similar situation on the infield has seen us without Willie Bloomquist, and Aaron Hill's leave of absence has just passed a month, with no apparent end in sight. Closer J.J. Putz is also on the disabled list, without a return date.

But the replacements have generally performed more than acceptably, though Alfredo Marte did prove to be not quite ready for prime-time. Pollock has shown excellent defense and hit better than most expected, while the unexpected promotion of Gregorius has gone much better than almost anyone would have predicted. Admittedly, Heath Bell has had what could charitably be described as "ups and downs" in the D-backs bullpen, but a 3.06 ERA since Opening Day is respectable, and it was good to have someone with closer experience to replace Putz, without needing to weaken the 8th-inning slot.

Honorable mentions: Trevor Cahill, Matt Reynolds, Eric Chavez, extra-inning games

What's not working

Martin Prado. Ok, many people expected Justin Upton to perform better than Prado (personally, the question there has increasingly become, not "How will Upton do in Atlanta?", but "Why didn't he do that here?" His April sOPS+ of 211 was better than all but one month from his entire time in Arizona). But how many people predicted Chris Johnson to be doing better than Prado's -0.5 fWAR? Okay, smart-asses. Cody Ransom? 0.6 fWAR. Ryan Roberts? 0.1 fWAR. The painful fact is, just about any of the alternatives we tried last season at third-base have put up better overall numbers this year than Prado, and would have been far cheaper, in terms of both salary and prospects.

When traded for, we were assured that fans would love him. He has hardly done anything to justify even mild affection, and if he continues to go 2-for-36 with runners in scoring position, I suspect that we will discover that fan patience is not an infinitely renewable resource. Of course, that's probably not going to happen. But the hole he has dug is deep: Prado could go 12-for-his-next-36 with RISP, and still be hitting under the Uecker Line in those situations. While his versatility is nice, if we want someone who is replacement level at a number of positions... Well, Bloomquist should be back shortly.

Base-running. There's more to this than stolen-bases, of course - but the truth seems to be that there's hardly an aspect of this at which the 2013 Diamondbacks even reach average. Most painfully obvious is the success-rate on stolen-base attempts: just 15 of 27, a 56% rate which is dead-last in the National League. It's way below the MLB average of 72%, and is nine points down on last year, when we were already crap. The main culprit is Parra, who has been caught more times than he has succeeded (four SB in nine attempts), but we also are tied for the major-league lead in pick-offs. Arizona are on pace for 32 there, which would be one-third up on 2012.

What's particularly discouraging is, we're doing this without apparently being any more aggressive on the bags. Across baseball, teams have taken an extra base 41% of the time: we're below-average, at 39%, a drop of two percent from the rate managed last year. And of course, there are the TOOTBLANs. Particularly at home plate, which - I suspect, largely courtesy of Matt 'The Windmill' Williams - marks the final resting place of seven D-backs runners; no team in the majors has more. And all this without a single appearance from Willie B who, along with Parra, was co-King of the TOOTBLAN over the last couple of season.

Ian Kennedy.He may not have the highest ERA in our rotation, but his FIP, xFIP and WAR are all the worst, which is definitely not what you would want from your Opening Day starter [and besides, we already discussed McCarthy in some detail]. Kennedy's peripherals are sharply off this season. From a K-rate of above eight per 9IP in 2011 and 2012, he has dropped to 7.16 this season, and his walk-rate has gone the other way: increasing from 2.38 to 3.74 per 9IP. Kennedy has actually been lucky with what has happened to balls in play, with a BABIP of .289 compared to MLB average .295. Given his elevated line-drive rate this year, it should likely be above average.

If that had been the case, his ERA would likely be significantly higher than the current 4.88. Like many of his colleagues, an elevated HR/FB rate has certainly hurt; however, Kennedy seems to be throwing fewer strikes, and batters are making more contact, particularly when swinging at pitches out of the zone, which may partly be responsible for Ian's decrease in strikeouts. The good news is, there doesn't seem to have been any loss in velocity, with Kennedy's fastball sitting around the same 90 mph mark we've seen before. So it may be just a question of a minor mechanical tweak to get him back on track. We can but hope so, anyway.

Situational hitting. The Diamondbacks had as many hits (five) in yesterday's game against the Braves, as they had over the previous eight games combined, when they went 5-for-56. Even that outburst had a limited impact on their season rate: they are still hitting .223 with RISP, 12th in the league and 27 points below NL average. However, there is a silver (or, at least, silver-plate) lining to this, in that the team has been demonstrating decent power in these situations. The Diamondbacks' ten home-runs there trails only the Mets (11) in that situation, and their overall slugging-percentage of .381 is fractionally above league-average.

There are certainly some gaps in our production. While the sample-size is small (33 plate-appearances), when we load the bases, we have a line of .167/.242/.208, an OPS of just .451, almost 250 points below league average in the same split. A runner on third and two outs, we're hardly any better., a .526 OPS that's fourteenth in the NL. There is some good news, in that the late and close situations which were a bugbear for Arizona last year, we have regressed to around the average. But given acquisitions such as Cody Ross, brought in for their "clutchiness", have a .526 OPS with RISP, the results have to be classed as disappointing.

Dishonorable mentions: Miguel Montero, Brandon McCarthy, save situations

Conclusions

The current standings certainly appear to confound sniggering pre-season predictions from certain pundits of failure, for a team built on grit instead of sabermetric talent. However, it has to be admitted that a lot of the success cannot be attributed to Towers' off-season acquisitions, but to the likes of Corbin, Parra and Goldschmidt. On the other hand, the emphasis Towers placed generally on fielding and pitching does appear to have been fulfilled: we covered defense above, and the team ERA of 3.49 is fourth-best in the league, while also being close to half a run better than last season.

Given the injuries to a number of key players, ending the first quarter half a game out is a significant achievement, especially considering the toughness of the schedule faced by Arizona thus far. The next quarter should be easier - it begins with three games against the woeful Marlins, about as good a start as one could want. When the likes of Aaron Hill come back, that should be a significant help to the offense, and if we can keep our other key players healthy, I'm generally optimistic, and like to think that we will be in shape to make a push to the top before the All-Star break.

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