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Diamondbacks: Where have the runs gone?

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Having been stuck in the sound booth at the comedy show last night - as the designated geek, I was deemed the only one qualified to twiddle the knobs - I didn't get the expected chance to work on my Sunday analysis of the team. So here it is, in which I take a look at the offense, and try to work out why this team is not scoring as often as was generally anticipated.

First, however: I hate to say, I told you so, but... Last week, I ranked Brandon Webb as the #1 player of most concern to the Diamondbacks: the associated poll tended to suggest only a small fraction of you agreed that he was the biggest issue facing the team. Unfortunately, since then, we've discovered that it looks like we won't be seeing Webb until some time in June - and that's if all goes well. The Diamondbacks now have to compete, in a division which was going to be tough to handle on a full roster, without their Cy Young-caliber starter. And for the moment, also without their best hitter, since Stephen Drew has been dropped on the disabled list too.

It's going to take something special for this team to - say - be playing .500 ball at the All-Star break. Given the general weakness of the division, that's a number which should probably still see them with a chance in the NL West race as we go into the second-half of the season. However, that won't be easy to do, given the wretched start which has thus far squandered the lengthy home stands given to the team to open the season. After the Cubs series, eighteen of Arizona's next twenty-four games will be on the road. Managing simply to play .500 ball there, never mind clawing back the four we are currently below that mark, is going to be a challenge.

It really comes down to one thing. Score more runs. 3.5 per game is not going to get it done, and in a very interesting piece on his blog, Nick Piecoro suggests that there may be a point where the team has to give up on 2009 entirely, and start constructing its roster with a view to 2010 and beyond. He says we have "Too many strikeout prone hitters. Too many streaky hitters who seem to run hot and cold at the same time. Too many fly-ball hitters. And they aren’t good enough at doing the other things -- from manufacturing runs to playing defense -- to make up for their deficiencies." But let's go a little deeper into the numbers, and see if we can take a look at three of the reasons suggested in various circles why the offense has proven to be such a damp squib so far.

1, Too many strikeouts
This is something that was supposedly being addressed in spring, with more emphasis being made on putting the ball in play. The results to date have been... Well, virtually non-existent. We have struck out in 20.4% of our plate-appearances this year, compared to 20.9% last year. One-half of one percent is not what I'd call real progress. Tearing down the numbers a bit further, we've been getting more pitches in the strike-zone than almost any team in baseball: 51.7%, trailing only the Padres. If you've watched us foul off deliveries "right down Broadway" [TM Grace 2009], that would seem to make sense.

However, we actually foul off fewer pitches than the average NL team - 25% to 27%, and take more strikes looking, 30%-28% [two percent may not seem much, but given the sample size, is not insignificant]. This is particular apparent when it comes to strike three: 28% of our K's find us with our bats on the shoulder, putting us in the lower-third of the league. Conor Jackson is our team leader there, six of his nine strikeouts being looking - contrast Justin Upton, who has gone down swinging 14 of 15 times. Hard to say which is worse: not hacking at a strike, or hacking at what may or may not be a strike, and failing to make contact.

I think it's probably the latter, as putting maple or ash on horsehide continues to be a problem, especially for some players. In the NL, the median contact percentage is about 79.5% - the Diamondbacks overall are at 79.0%, but there are wide variations among personnel. Here is the chart for the Diamondbacks who have 40 or more PAs so far this season. Columns headed "O-" are pitches out of the zone, "Z-" those in the zone - so "O-Swing" is the percentage a player swung at a pitch out of the zone: "O-Ctct" is the percentage of times he made contact on those swings. "Zone" is the number of pitches in the zone, and "F-Strike" the percentage of strikes on the first pitch.

Name O-Swing Z-Swing Swing O-Ctct Z-Ctct Ctct Zone F-Strike
Upton 28.6% 67.1% 46.1% 35.7% 72.7% 60.2% 45.6% 67.3%
Reynolds 15.8% 66.7% 42.2% 36.8% 74.4% 67.6% 51.8% 49.3%
Snyder 17.7% 54.2% 36.4% 35.7% 88.9% 76.3% 51.2% 56.1%
Young 18.2% 59.9% 38.6% 74.1% 80.0% 78.6% 49.0% 48.6%
Lopez 26.4% 72.9% 51.8% 50.0% 92.0% 82.3% 54.6% 55.6%
Tracy 27.9% 72.3% 52.3% 63.2% 95.0% 87.3% 55.0% 56.4%
Byrnes 29.9% 70.9% 50.6% 69.6% 94.6% 87.3% 50.6% 62.3%
Jackson 19.8% 55.3% 38.2% 84.2% 93.0% 90.8% 51.8% 51.6%
Drew 16.1% 61.4% 40.4% 64.3% 98.4% 92.1% 53.7% 68.0%

See what I mean about variation? If he swings, Upton makes contact barely six times in ten - Drew more than nine in ten. When Jackson hacks at a ball out of the zone, he still makes contact ten percent more often, than Upton swinging at a strike. There has been some improvement - Reynolds has slashed his O-Swing percentage from 24% last season to 16% - but for every step forwards, there's one back. Upton now swings more often at balls (29% vs. 24%) and his O-Ctct has dropped to 365 from 50%. This may explain why J-Up sees fewer pitches in the zone - opposing teams have realized they don't need to give him anything in there.

2. Bad lack and bad BABIP
There's no doubt our .254 BA on balls in play is a significant part of the issue. To put that into context, no team in the National League had such a low figure over the course of an entire month last season: sixteen teams, six months, so that's 96 chances and nobody was as bad as Arizona to date. The closest were the Cincinnatti Reds during June, who had a BABIP of .256 and scored a very Arizona-like 3.6 runs/game. The next month, basically the same roster rebounded to a BABIP of .285, which helped lead to the Reds scoring more than an additional run per game, up at 4.76. Stuff like that happens.

Of the ten Diamondbacks players with 40+ PAs, only Felipe Lopez and Mark Reynolds currently have a BABIP which is above the league average of .299: the rest go all the way down to Chris Snyder's .136. That suggests our catcher's wretched numbers so far may eventually come round, improving simply through regression to the mean, since his career BABIP number is more than twice that, at .275. However, his low line-drive percentage (13%, compared to a league average of 19% and career average for Snyder of 18%) may need to be fixed first - for obvious reasons, they tend to lead to a hit more often than fly balls or grounders.

Eric Byrnes is another candidate, with a BABIP of .154, compared to a career number of .283, and his line-drive rate is smack on the average at 19%. Those dreaded infield pop-ups are an issue, but he's far from the only offender, or even the worst one - both Snyder and Chris Young have a worse rate. At the other end of the spectrum, Reynolds has yet to produce an infield fly this season, though part of that may be down to his poor contact rate in general. His BABIP is all the way up at .343: that might make you think that, eventually, some of those balls are going to start finding fielders, and his BA will drop below .274 when it does. However, it's right in line with his career BABIP of .346: batters have a lot more control over that then pitchers, so that average may prove sustainable for Reynolds.

3. Aggression on the base-paths
Six stolen-bases so far is ahead of only the Braves in the NL, and a success-rate of 55% is well below the break-even point, generally felt to be around 75%. Thus far, therefore, while our efforts have been less frequent than average for the league, they have also hurt the team more than they've helped. Chris Young - failed on both attempts thus far - is the main culprit, but Augie Ojeda and Drew are also entirely in the negative column thus far. But there's more to aggression on the base-paths than straight stealing: going from first to third on a single, or second to home. We now have access to the numbers for that, so how are the Diamondbacks doing in these areas?

On first glance, the numbers look fairly encouraging. There have been 545 times in the NL this season when a runner has been on first and a single was hit. 389 times, the runner advanced safely to second; 147 times, they reached third; the other nine, he was thrown out, lost his way and ended up wandering the outfield, or was eaten by tigers. But I digress: 27% of the time, the runner got to third. For Arizona the numbers are 21, 11 and 10 - 48%, or almost half the time, we took the extra-base, well above the league average. We do the same for all the situations and this is what we find:
1st-to-3rd: Arizona 48%, NL Average 27%
2nd-to-home: Arizona 80%, NL Average 62%
1st-to-home [on a double]: Arizona 67%, NL Average 47%

Across all situations, we are consistently 18% to 21% more aggressive than the national average. But that should probably be expected, given our youth and vigor - at 27.9 years we do, after all, have the 3rd-youngest set of position players in the league [only Florida, 26.8, and Washington, 27.5, are less elderly]. Perhaps we should also check the numbers for the past couple of years, in the same three situations, and see what tale they tell.

2007 2008 2009
1st-to-3rd 29% 30% 48%
2nd-to-home 58% 59% 80%
1st-to-home 48% 34% 67%

It seems fairly conclusive proof that the Diamondbacks are indeed being more aggressive on the base-paths, the lack of success when stealing bases excepted.

Overall, I am not quite as convinced as Nick that the team needs to be thinking about 2010 at this state. I would want to wait until the BABIP returns to more reasonable levels, to give us a handle on the 'true' level of talent and offensive production we can expect. Then, we'll know whether we are who we thought we are, and can take appropriate action at that point.