The 2013 season: an obituary

Time of death: 12:20pm Eastern, August 22, 2013
Location: Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati
Cause: Pitching failure. Yes, again...

Yep, I'm calling it. I'd be delighted to proven wrong, but..

While there are those who will continue to hold out hope, that's it for me. Today's defeat at the hands of Cincinnati leaves Arizona trailing them by seven games in the wild-card race, and even further back of LA in the NL West. Even the usually optimistic CoolStandings, gives us only a 13.4% chance of the post-season, and that feels pretty optimistic to me. If the Reds simply play .500 baseball the rest of the way, they'll reach 90 wins: merely tying that would require us to go 25-11 during our remaining contests. While possible - hey, it's baseball, anything can happen - this just doesn't feel like a team that can do it: we've played exactly .500 baseball over the last 36 games.

So, I'm mothballing any realistic hopes for the team as a whole in the 2012 campaign. Those had become increasingly flimsy since the All-Star break, which we entered with a 2.5 game lead. I think the spell which personally did the damage was from July 27 through August 4. It was only eight contests, but we lost at home to the Padres, then dropped series in Tampa, Texas and Boston, and our deficit to the Dodgers ballooned from half a game to 5.5 in little more than a week. Those road games, where we went 2-4 against sides with genuine playoff aspirations seemed to demonstrate that the Diamondbacks just weren't good enough to compete with them.

Of course, the "cause of death" is a good deal more complex. Today, it might seem odd to blame pitching, in a game where they conceded only two runs. But the truth is, both those runs were gift-wrapped and handed to the opposition needlessly, courtesy of four wild pitches by Trevor Cahill and Euby de la Rosa. Also, it seems that it's pitching. of one form or another, which has been the biggest problem for the team as a whole this season. Despite off-season additions such as Brandon McCarthy, Heath Bell and Matt Reynolds, and the unexpected brilliant blossoming of Patrick Corbin, our overall team ERA+ dropped from 105 to 101.

However, bulk measures like team ERA are too blunt an instrument for this, because they conceal the wide variation in performance from individual players. Among our starters, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy and the now-departed Ian Kennedy, the top three men in our rotation on Opening Day, have now combined for 55 starts, a mere nine wins to go with 26 losses, and an overall ERA of 5.17. That won't get it done. [As an aside, you should spend some time reading McCarthy's post-game responses on Twitter last night. They're a marvelous mix of gallows humor, humble appreciation, undisguised sarcasm and #realtalk - last is NSFW, for language - that can only be applauded]

What role did the bullpen play in all this? It's harder to say. Some metrics show them as good: their ERA before today of 3.25 is fourth-best in the league, and that doesn't even take park factors into consideration. But 23 blown saves is already three more than last year, with six weeks left in the season, and is six more than anyone else bar the Cubs. However, did they have much impact on us? We haven't lost a blown save game since July 10, even as our division lead melted away to nothing over that time. Certainly, more reliability would have been nice, and the implosion of David Hernandez didn't help. Still, I'm reluctant to blame them too much.

On the offensive side, overall production is down a tad too, from 96 wRC+ last season, to 93 this time. If we compare fWAR for this season to date and last, the main culprits are:
a) Miguel Montero: 4.7 to 0.8
b) Aaron Hill: 5.5 to 1.9
c) Jason Kubel: 1.6 to -1.5.
Last season, they combined for 11.8 fWAR. This year, they're on pace for less than two. Obviously, Hill's injury was a significant setback: if he'd played all year, he'd likely be close to four WAR by now, much closer to his 2012 level of production [Nick Piecoro had a good piece on where Hill ranks among hitters since the trade from Toronto two years ago. Amused to see that by OPS, he is ahead of Prince Fielder...]

There has been positive stuff too, of course, and not just Goldschmidt happening, on what seemed like an everyday basis. Gerardo Parra has returned to form, while young players A.J. Pollock and Didi Gregorius have both contributed much more than expected this season. But you'd be hard pushed to say that, overall, this year's offense has been an improvement over 2012's, and this is probably an area which Kevin Towers will need to look at over the off-season. Outside of Goldzilla, we have almost no power threats at all - after him, our next HR hitter is Prado on 12, and there's a real chance we could be the first D-backs team ever with one man hitting more than 16 homers.

But there will be plenty of time left for that in the winter. The rest of the way, while there may not be as much excitement surrounding the games, there will still be things to enjoy and appreciate. We can follow Goldschmidt's MVP candidacy, though one senses it took a severe hit with the likely exit of the Diamondbacks from the playoffs. Just as Cabrera was seen as "more valable" than Trout last season, because of his pivotal role on a post-season team, the argument will be made that without Goldschmidt, Arizona would still likely be a second-place team. Still, his numbers promise to be fairly historic: he has a real shot at 40 homers and a .300 average, which is elite.

There are still team marks to be aimed for as well. I certainly want to see the team finish ahead of last year's 81 wins, and they need to go 17-19 to get there. More of a stretch will be getting their run differential up above last year's +46. They're currently at +13, so need to get some blowout victories under their belt down the stretch. In some ways, this is a better measure of overall performance, because win tallies tend to be skewed by performance in one-run games, which history tells us is more chance than anything - or, at the very least, is an extremely difficult skill to master.

We've got September call-ups to look forward to as well, and the "advantage" of dropping out early, is that it means we can evaluate talent for next year in major-league games, away from the stress of a pennant race and without having to worry about every last out made and recorded. Might we see Archie Bradley, David Holmberg, Chris Owings and the like with the team next month? Well, think I'll save that for a little more detailed analysis over the weekend!

So, the bottom line is, our post-season hopes may be slim, but there's still something to be said for watching your team, when there's little stress over the result and every pitch is no longer a white-knuckle ride of fear. We're not going anywhere, so enjoy the remaining 36 games with the SnakePit!

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