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The 2009 Diamondbacks Season, Part I: Overview

This is the first in what is probably going to be a rather lengthy series of pieces, in which we look back at the 2009 season. 'charmer has already provided an excellent pair of articles on the topic - here are the first and second parts - but I wanted to do something that crunches more numbers. Y'know, with tables and possibly a diagram or two. I love me some diagrams... Future entries will discuss the team's offense, pitching [I think that one will be in two sections, covering starters and the bullpen; heck, I could probably do one on the eighth inning alone], and 'fundamentals,' which will report on things like defense and base-running. That last mentioned piece might just consist, in its entirety, of this picture.

However, we will start by giving a general overview of this season, in an effort to work which of the above categories were perhaps most responsible for what transpired. Follow me after the jump for blame, recriminations and finger-pointing.

From a high of ninety victories in 2007, the Diamondbacks have now seen drops of about ten in their wins total for two consecutive years, a disturbing trend. To start with, here's a chart which compares various team stats over the past three seasons, grouped into three categories, to see if we can find out from where the losses have come. Some numbers may need explanation: RAR is Runs Above Replacement for batting, starting pitching, relievers and fielding; ERA is split up for starters and relievers; PADE is park-adjusted defensive efficiency; and finally, we have total wins above replacement.

Hitting Pitching Defense
2007 712 84 -85.2 732 114
129.4 39.4 106 70 1.19 6.7 11.5
2008 720 88 -55.7 706 115
3.95 4.09
199.5 39.9 113 70 -0.76 -26.6 11.4
2009 720 89 -68.6 782 101
4.35 4.61
133.2 36.0 124 68 -0.66 22.0 15.7
Sources: 2007 2008 2009
except RAR numbers, from 2007 2008 2009
and PADE, from Baseball Prospectus 2007 2009 2009

There is a lot of information to be gathered from the above chart, some of it potentially quite shocking. I'm sure pointing out certain aspects will receive the usual reaction from certain quarters about me being an apologist for the front-office [insert deceased equine pic here]. But I'm just reporting these numbers, and chose the categories above before I pulled up any stats. I've given the sources so please check out the data - to be honest, I was stunned by some of it myself. I'll likely end up going into more detail in later parts about possible explanations; here, I'm just going for a birds-eye view.

The first thing that leaps out is, if you had to pick the team that reached the National League Championship Series, based purely on those stats, it certainly wouldn't be the 2007 Diamondbacks. They had the best bullpen ERA, and made fewer errors than the other two teams, but otherwise... Their offense was the worst of the lot and their starting pitching wasn't any great shakes either. Is that what you need - good relief arms and defense - to be successful? Hard to say. In those categories, the NL post-season contenders this year were 1st, 3rd, 6th and 13th for bullpen sOPS+, and 2nd, 4th, 5th and 9th for fewest errors. Decent, yet hardly overpoweringly conclusive.

Defense in general throws up some interesting anomalies. Even as the team's number of errors increased 17% since 2007, the number on unearned runs which resolved held steady or even decreased very slightly. While our play may often have been painfully sloppy, it doesn't seem that it cost the team any additional runs. However, notice the diverging views of the defensive numbers this season; the past couple of season PADE and FRAR have at least both pointed in the same direction - better than average in 2007, worse in 2008. However, they differ sharply in 2009: PADE has us converting significantly fewer balls in play into outs than we should, allowing for park factors [Chase is moderately tough defensively], yet FRAR has us the fifth-best fielding team in the league?

Moving on to the offense, it's been remarkably consistent as run scoring goes over the past few years - and I don't mean that in a good way. However, it is worth nothing that league average there has been dropping steadily since it peaked at 771 in 2006 [mostly because home-runs are down about 10% over that time, the reason for which, I'm sure you can work out...]. 720 runs was above league-average last season, though this doesn't take into account the hitter-friendly nature of Chase. OPS+, which does, tells a harsher story: Arizona have ranked 15th, 13th and 14th there in the period covered. This has been a perennial problem for the franchise. The only Diamondback team in history to post an OPS+ above league-average was the 1999 one, which reached the dizzy heights of...101. BRAR concurs: any success the team has had of late, definitely does not stem from offensive production.

After being fairly consistent in 2007 and 2008, pitching took a definite step back this season. No doubt about the main reason: the loss of Brandon Webb was, safe to say, instrumental in the 0.40 ERA increase from the rotation. Last year, we had two aces (Webb and Haren), two middle-rotation starters (Randy Johnson and Doug Davis) and a replacement level pitcher (mostly Micah Owings); this season we had one ace (Haren), three mid-level (Davis, Jon Garland, Max Scherzer) and...well, let's be generous and call our #5 starters "replacement level." With just Haren and Scherzer sure to return in 2010, this promises to be one of the main areas of Josh Byrnes' winter activities.

The bullpen ERA went up even more - the decision to let Brandon Lyon and Jose Cruz walk, and pursue Scott Schoeneweis and Tom Gordon instead, proved a false economy. Matters weren't helped by the trades of Tony Peña and Jon Rauch, who would have helped keep the average down if they'd still been in Arizona. A curious thing: despite a higher ERA, the bullpen held batters to a lower OPS overall than the starters, .734 vs. .756; in particular, their HR/rate was much better, at 0.79/nine IP compared to 1.17 for the rotation. The OPS was just one point above the bullpen number from 2008, and not much above 2007 (.721), probably explaining why RRAR has remained fairly constant, as their collective ERA has risen by two-thirds of a run.

WAR? Skeptical Webb is skeptical.

Finally, there's WAR, by which metric this year's Diamondbacks were the best of the three teams. Yes. Best. As in "least worst". I just double-checked the numbers there, since I was so sure I'd copied them wrong. I'm having some real difficulty getting my brain around this one and am still not entirely convinced I amn't the victim of some kind of statistical jape over at, and Ashton Kutcher is about to leap out and tell me this is a special sabermetric edition of Punk'd... If we believe it, WAR indicates there wasn't all that much difference between the NLCS team and the worst in the West we endured last season. Certainly, WAR hates the 2007 D-backs; by that metric, they were 15th in the league that season.

There's a lot of documentation over at on how WAR is calculated. I'd definitely recommend reading Dave Cameron's pieces there - they're not scarily mathematical. Basically, it comes off total Runs Above Replacement from the four categories - hitting, starting pitching, relief pitching and defense, with ten runs equalling one win. If we go by overall WAR, the Diamondbacks were better than both the Giants and Cubs in 2009, something else I find a little hard to swallow. However, the NL playoff teams all occupy top five spots, so it's clearly not plucking teams out of a bucket. I suspect a good chunk of the difference can be seen in the Pythagorean record; it closes the gap between the 2007 and 2009 rosters from twenty games to a mere four.

One factor not listed in the table - it was already threatening the margins of the page - is the team's age. Pitching dropped from 29.4 years to 27.7 this season, though one suspects the departure of Randy played a significant part in that [the Giants' pitching age increased by almost the same amount, from 27.1 to 28.7]. It sets the team close to the age they had in 2007 (28.0). On the batting side, things have been even more consistent: after the age dropped three years in a single winter from 06-07, it's been almost rock-steady, with numbers of 26.6, 26.7, 26.5 since. That makes them the youngest hitting team in the National League for three straight seasons.

And that seems a good point to end this. A more detailed look at the offense will follow, later in the week.