For fans of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2010 season was one of disappointment. It was our second straight year of being last in the National League West, our third manager in three years, and just another of many years of missing out on the post-season. For the fans, it was incredibly tough, and now we watch as others celebrate and hope our team can be there "next year."
But what is the ordeal of a season like for those whose job it is to spend their days bringing the tales of the Diamondbacks to the fans? For those who spend six or more hours a day with the players, 162 days a year? Last week in San Francisco, I sat down with Diamondbacks broadcasters Daron Sutton and Greg Schulte and spoke with them about their thoughts on the 2010 season and what lies ahead. Part I is a look back at the problems and highlights of the year; Part II, to be posted Friday, is a look ahead at the future of this team.
Hope Springs Eternal
Every spring training, all 30 major league baseball teams start training thinking they have a shot at the World Series. They think their club has what it takes, and their fans go around saying, "This year is our year." Over 33 spring training games, the Diamondbacks went 15-17-1. They hit a respectable .290 with 37 home runs and .465 slugging percentage; all were Top-5 numbers. Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, and Stephen Drew were tearing it up with averages over .350. Drew and Kelly Johnson were settling into their double-play rhythm, and. Nobody was too concerned about the 5.29 ERA our pitchers had accumulated. Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson, both acquired in a 3-team trade last December, were set to be the middle of our starting rotation, as Rodrigo Lopez pitched himself into the #4 spot over Billy Buckner and Kevin Mulvey. The #5 spot wasn't needed until a few weeks in, and Kris Benson would hold down that job until Brandon Webb was ready to return.
But Brandon Webb would never return; perhaps not "never ever", but at least not during the 2010 baseball season. He had setback after setback; he'd throw, and it would hurt; he'd throw and his release would be off; he'd throw and not have the speed. I asked Daron Sutton, who was a minor-league pitcher, about Webb's injury and why it was taking so long for him to recover. "I find myself curious about how deep this surgery was," he said. "It's the club's and the player's right to disclose what they want, but I think the seriousness of the surgery was much more than reported. It was kind of billed as a cleanup, and I actually think there was more than that. I think there probably was rotator cuff issues, possibly labrum issues, because otherwise, to have a ‘cleanup', there's no reason it should've taken this long."
The loss of Webb led to some dumpster diving. Kris Benson was signed in mid-March to a minor league contract, but after three starts in April, he was lost for the season to injury too. Minor leaguers Cesar Valdez and Billy Buckner were given starts in May; Valdez's ERA was 7.65 and Buckner's was over 11. Buckner was then traded in June for fellow struggling pitcher but former ace Dontrelle Willis. Willis pitched six scoreless innings in his Arizona debut, but then accumulated an ERA over 9 in his next five appearances (four starts, one relief stint) and was subsequently released into the wild blue yonder.
The established starters weren't having their best seasons, either. The starters' ERA for the months of April and May were over 5, and it was over 5 again in July. "Dan Haren was having a down year, for him," said Greg Schulte. "Edwin Jackson was, in a way, inconsistent; he wasn't the pitcher the Diamondbacks thought he was going to be. He had some good outings, there's no doubt about that. But the starting pitching struggled, really up until the time Barry Enright came up, they added Daniel Hudson, and Ian Kennedy got it going again. I think the last couple of months of the season, the starting pitching has been pretty good." And the numbers back him up - the starters' ERA for August (the Diamondbacks' only winning month) was just a notch over 4, and it was only 3.46 in September/October.
"A bad bullpen just destroys a ballclub," stated Greg Schulte matter-of-factly. The most talked-about aspect of the Diamondbacks failures this season was that bullpen. More dumpster-diving in the off-season and early in the year led to a bullpen roulette - names like Rafael Rodriguez, Saul Rivera, Daniel Stange, Cesar Valdez, and Bob Howry are a few that tried and failed to be effective bullpen pitchers this season. It was also part of what led to Josh Byrnes's demise on July 1st. "I think the decision that the bullpen and its parts can be interchangeable and we won't really invest in the bullpen, in the end proved to be something that I'm sure Josh Byrnes wouldn't want to put on his resume," said Sutton. "And I do give Josh credit for trying, he continued to look for people and try and add [including acquiring Sam Demel for Conor Jackson in June], but it turned out to be a messy situation. We invented ways to lose, especially during that 0-and-9 road trip out west [in Colorado, San Francisco, and Los Angeles]. I don't want to invent ways any more! We have found statistically, historically, so many dubious marks for this club: the most walk-off wins, the most bases-loaded walks, and on and on. But I can't put a finger on why they struggled so much except for the fact that there just weren't very many talented relievers down there this year. There needs to be some more talented, more consistent pieces down there."
Schulte and Sutton agree that, with a better bullpen, this would've been a completely different ballclub. Said Schulte: "I think our starting pitchers were good enough, I think the offense and defense was good enough, but when you're blowing games late, and the way they were blowing games, with home runs and walk-offs, the bullpen just destroys a ballclub." Sutton remembered discussing the situation with some fellow announcers in Atlanta in May. "If you took all the games that were blown saves and all the games where the team was tied when the bullpen came in and they eventually lost those games - in fairly dramatic fashion; most of those games it was tied or down by one and then a 6-run loss - if you just take the ties and the blown saves at about early June, and you just go at a 50% or 60% rate on the saves, which is not good, at that point you're still a .500 club. And all of a sudden the hitters have a different set of confidence. It was the bullpen early on that cost this team the season, then everybody else started pitching in."
In a sea of bad, there were waves of good. Jackson's no-hitter at the end of June was one of the highlights of the season for both Schulte and Sutton. Sutton recalled the sitting in then-manager A.J. Hinch's office the next day. "I give A.J. a lot of credit for that day, that was a courageous choice that he made. And the beer that I had in his office the next day with Gracie and when we sat and talked about it, you could tell he was in peril, he was struggling in his heart with where his future with the team was headed, but he had peace with that decision, and I was proud to be part of that day as a broadcaster."
Both broadcasters also mentioned Chris Young's bounce-back year, the back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs in Milwaukee, and Kelly Johnson - not just hitting for the cycle, but Kelly himself. "I like Kelly Johnson," Greg Schulte said. "I really like what I see out of Kelly, I think Kelly's a good ballplayer, I think he's been good for the ballclub." Sutton really enjoyed watching Johnson and Stephen Drew and seeing them improve together defensively. "You look at not only the zone rating and errors they cut down on, the ways to look at a defender, and they're both better, much better, year after year. And then I look at it with my eyes and I see that they're better." He also pointed out watching Daniel Hudson's starts. "That's probably close to one of the most exciting things for me - watching him, start by start, time after time, and him realizing, it's not fluky and it's not lucky, it's real stuff."
And of course, there was everyone's favorite television moment of the century: Chili with Stephen. Recalled Sutton: "Personally for me, as a funky little side note, the day that we sat in a hot Cincinnati sun and had chili and had Stephen out there was a highlight. And the reason I say that is, there couldn't have been a bigger show about nothing and it was kind of us mocking ourselves, but not mocking Stephen. It was our way to bring him out of the shadows a little bit, because he has had a hell of a year. [He's not one to say it] and he needs to say it more and with his faith and his core values, he won't offend anybody because he'll do it with respect."
And things did start to change towards the end of the season. Maybe we as fans couldn't quite see the improvements because they were so mired in losing, but there was improvement. The numbers support what was seen on the field. "Ian Kennedy I thought got really strong as the year progressed, especially at the end," said Schulte, despite rumblings that his struggles might cause him to get shut down early. "And Guti had several big losses early on, giving up all those home runs, but he's a completely different pitcher as we end the season." Schulte saw better baseball in August and September than he did the first four moths. "We were 16-13 in August, that was a lot better. It was a disappointing month of September [11-18 record] because I think they wanted to build upon that, but Upton [didn't play] this month, Reynolds [went through a] 4-for-57 slump no extra base hits. So it's taken a little step back here in the month of September." And the numbers support the idea that the pitching had improved - the combined ERAs of the starters and relievers for August and September/October was 3.90, a very respectable number.
Another big improvement this year was defense. Last year during our interview, we talked quite a bit about all the unearned runs  and even though there were more unearned runs this season , the defense wasn't as glaringly a problem as it was last year. But it is still an issue, said Greg Schulte. "When they made an error, it seemed it was at a critical time; or even if they're not charged with an error, maybe it's not hitting a cutoff man. They're still making some of those and that's something they still need to address going into next season." Mark Grace said something similar on television the closing days of the season - this team needs to work at being more "aware" ballplayers, being situational hitters and fielders.
There's a look back at the 2010 season through the eyes, ears and voices of your Diamondbacks broadcasters. On Friday, we'll look at where they believe this team is heading next season under the new leadership of Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson.