We've all been thinking it the past week - "Is this going to be another 111-loss season?" and "We've weathered 2004, can we weather this?" So I decided to take a look and see how similar the years are going.
As of May 13th, the 2009 Diamondbacks had played one more game than the 2004 squad.
|2004 Team||2009 Team|
|Worse Teams||Expos (10-25)||Nationals (11-21)|
|Avg. Run Diff.||-1||-1|
It's an improvement that Runs Allowed is 26 points lower this year, but it's certainly not an improvement that Runs Scored is nearly double that, 49 points lower. By this time, the 2004 Diamondbacks had faced a 5-game losing streak and two 4-game losing streaks, while only having one 3-game winning streak. This year, the losing streaks have only reached 3 games, but that's happened four times (including the one we're at the end of right now, so it could get worse). The 2009 Diamondbacks seem more able to bounce back from a loss, but practically unable to get on any winning streak at all - they've only won back-to-back games twice all season.
(I promise, the rest of this story is NOT all numbers!)
Numbers aside, let's take a look at how similar these two teams are in terms of personnel. Before the 2004 season, we traded Curt Schilling to Boston for Casey Fossum and Brandon Lyon, Craig Counsell, Junior Spivey, and four others to Milwaukee for Richie Sexson, and John Patterson to Montreal for Randy Choate. We let Raul Mondesi and Miguel Batista walk as free agents, and we also signed Roberto Alomar Jr. before the season began. This year's off-season trades were minimal, but we lost Randy Johnson, Orlando Hudson, Adam Dunn, David Eckstein, and Brandon Lyon all to free agency. Additions so far in 2009 have been Felipe Lopez, Scott Schoeneweis, Jon Garland, and Tom Gordon (the last of whom has only spent two days not on the disabled list - similar to what Sexson did in 2004). I'm inclined to think that this season, the changes are working out much more in our favor (or at least equal) than in 2004, when we got the short end of the stick on most of those trades and signings. The front office is taking less of a chance with unknown, borderline players like Choate and Fossum, instead signing guys that are more proven like Lopez and Garland, and trusting the guys that we already have to fill in the blanks.
When I was thinking of comparable injuries and minor league call-ups to the 2009 season so far, it turns out I was originally remembering 2003 - losing Johnson, Schilling, Counsell, Kim, and a whole bunch of others to the disabled list at some point, and bringing up the host of "Baby Backs" from Double- and Triple-A. In 2004, the main injuries at this point were Richie Sexson, Matt Mantei, Roberto Alomar Jr. and Oscar Villarreal, with Gonzo the other big name player to join him later in the season. Notable 2004 callups included Casey Daigle, Chad Tracy, Scott Hairston, Brian Bruney, Luis Terrero and (later) Chris Snyder. The 2004 team, instead of calling up players from a rather depleted system, depended on the previous year's rookies and young'uns (Hammock, Webb, Kata, Cintron) to step it up and fill in for the injured veterans and other players let go.
The mentality has been similar in 2009. The biggest injury has been Brandon Webb, the impact of which seems to be akin to losing Sexson in terms of morale and ability to help the team win. Tom Gordon's injury certainly doesn't help solidify the bullpen like he was brought in to do, Petit's struggles haven't been good enough for the rotation, and losing Clark, Drew and Jackson are all painful to the offense. Recently we started to bring up the new round of Baby Backs - Whitesell, Vasquez, Augenstein and Parra last night from Double-A Mobile, I'm sure Zavada will get another chance - but we are still relying on the existing young players, such as Upton, Reynolds, Young, Rosales, and Scherzer to bring this team around.
But in the end, the real question is - why? Why is this team struggling so badly? We all sense that this year feels as bad as 2004, but is it really? Does this team have the potential to turn it around?
In 2004, the major problem was pitching. Only three players ended the season with an ERA below 4.00 - Johnson, Webb, and Aquino. (I'm choosing not to count Jeff Fassero's scoreless inning, nor will I include Wilson's.) Randy Johnson was the only pitcher with double-digit wins (16) and three players (including Johnson) had double-digit losses. Relievers accounted for at least 28 of the team's 111 losses (more likely close to 35), and interestingly I can't find the numbers on Blown Saves but I remember it being quite high. The average ERA in 2004 was 5.66, with home runs and walks being a major problem. (Webb lead the league with 119 walks!) The young defense certainly didn't help - 139 errors total (0.86 per game), four players had more than 10, and Chad Tracy alone had 26.
Thus far in 2009, relief pitchers have only accrued 4 losses (about half of the percentage of 2004's). Granted, the average ERA is much higher, but that's because Tom Gordon and Bobby Korecky's numbers are skewing it. This year's squad has nine pitchers with an ERA under 5.00, and seven of them are under 4.00. Despite recent poor play all around, the errors this year (25 in 35 games, 0.71 per game) are not what has doomed this team. No, the problem this year is not with pitching, it's hitting. Sorting the batting average descending, the Top 10 averages range from 0.348 (Roberts) to 0.211 (Haren). Haren and Scherzer both have better BAs than Byrnes, Tracy, Drew, Jackson and Young! 2004's Top 10 hitters ranged from 0.310 to 0.250. (Did anybody remember that Stephen Randolph was 5 for 12?) Sure, those numbers weren't great either, but most players were in the mid-200s; thus far this season, most hitters are in the low-200s to high-100s. And the players that are struggling this season are not first- and second-year players from 2004. The players having a rough start this year have 3 to 9 years in the major leagues.
2004's roster had 13 players with less than a year of service, another 12 with two years. This 2009 team is more mature - sure, there are already eight rookies, but only four guys with two years under their belts. These players have been up in "the show" for years, they are better than their numbers suggest, and they have more experience to draw on to improve their play than did the 2004 team. The injuries this season aren't as bad, the overall play of the team is not as bad, and I feel this group of players has a better chance to make a comeback than the 2004 team.
It's also interesting to look even further back at the past. The Diamondbacks won the Western Division in 2002, struggled with injuries and rookies in 2003, and relied on those rookies in 2004 to pick up the slack. They couldn't. The 2007 Diamondbacks won the Western Division (and NLDS), struggled in 2008, and are relying on these young guys in 2009 to make up for their collapse late last year. Of course, both teams also fired their Manager (Brenly for Pedrique, Melvin for Hinch) to try to shake things up.
Can your 2009 Arizona Diamondbacks learn from the past and pull through their struggles to make the rest of the season bearable? Only time will tell.