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Diamondbacks' Mid-Season Review: Looking Back and Forward

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The Diamondbacks have a chance to regroup for a few days, before returning to play on Friday. They're 34-55, 17.5 back and last in the NL West, 13.5 games behind the fourth-place team. All the team really has to play for in the second-half of the season is a bit of respect: even reaching .500 seems out of reach, and the best we can hope for is perhaps to try and get past last year's total of seventy wins. It's been another disappointment, with the hopes we had for the team in spring proving optimistic to a bitter degree.

What the heck happened? And can we hope for better in the second-half of the year? After the jump we'll take a look at what worked, what didn't and what to expect going forward.

OFFENSE

In this section, we'll be making use of a stat called sOPS+. This is a split OPS e.g. for a position, adjusted for park factors (OPS+) and then compared to the league numbers for the same split. So, this allows us to compare the Diamondbacks's offensive production at a given spot on the diamond, to National League average at the same position.

Overall, the Diamondbacks hitting hasn't been the reason for the team's poor performance. They are batting .252, which is below league-average (.257), but they have made up for this in walks - only the Braves have more in the NL, and this gives an on-base percentage which is slightly above average (.329 to .327). Arizona is slugging well too: they have exactly one hundred homers, third-most in the league, and as a result, an OPS of .748 and a sOPS+ of 103 are both fourth-best. The OPS is twenty points up on the 2009 first-half figure, and is the highest by the team since the .753 produced before the break in 2006.

[I note, over the past five seasons, the second-half AZ OPS has always improved, averaging 23 points better than the first. This applies on a smaller scale in the NL generally - the five-year average is about ten OPS points more.]

However, this improved level of production conceals a lot of variation from position to position. If we break down the OPS+ and compare it to league average at that spot, we can see that not every area has been equally productive:

  • Catcher: sOPS+ 121
  • First-base: sOPS+ 96
  • Second-base: sOPS+ 126
  • Short-stop:sOPS+ 114
  • Left-field: sOPS+ 74
  • Center-field: sOPS+ 111
  • Right-field: sOPS+ 95
  • Pinch-hitters: sOPS+ 72

The bench and left-field are the two obvious issues keeping the team back. For the latter, the departure of Conor Jackson (OPS .638) and his replacement by Gerardo Parra (.754), may be a step in the right direction, but Cole Gillespie (.655) is going to need to improve if he is going to be part of the solution. The bench has been even worse: in 123 at-bats, they are hitting .220 with seven doubles, no home-runs and only five RBI, less than one-third the NL average. Rusty Ryal and Tony Abreu have been getting the bulk of the chances, but are hitting .213 (13-for-61) as pinch-hitters.

DEFENSE AND BASE-RUNNING

Thus far, the overall opinion of the metrics put the 2010 Diamondbacks at about league average. Their 60 errors are tied for ninth in the league; Total Zone and BIS both rank Arizona tenth, but Fangraphs' UZR/150 has us fourth-best. Breaking things down to an individual level, Justin Upton, Parra and Chris Young generally rate the best for their defense, while Adam LaRoche is at or near the bottom of most lists. Our defense against the running game could be better, with only 20% of base-stealers being thrown out, well below league-average of 29%. However, the overall number is skewed by John Hester's 0-for-15: Montero's 31% rate continues to be an improvement on 2009 (26%) and 2008 (21%).

When stealing themselves, the Diamondbacks are slightly more successful than average (75% to 72%), but are dead on the mean with 53 stolen-bases so far. However, that isn't the case when it comes to taking extra-bases, such as going first to third on a single. Arizona has managed that only 33% of the time, which is dead-last in the NL, and well below the average of 40%. It doesn't seem to be just a question of a conservative base-coach either, as the Diamondbacks have run into a total of 32 outs (not including pick-offs or times caught stealing), which is tied for fifth-most in the league.

STARTING PITCHING

While the bullpen has obviously been the focus of many complaints about our pitching, the rotation overall has not been too impressive, with a 4.70 ERA that's ahead only of the Pirates (5.49). They can't claim to have been particularly unlucky or victimized by the defense either, as their fielding-independent number if hardly any better, at 4.63. The poor performance from the #5 slot has not helped. In sixteen starts, the Five-headed Beast of Webb Replacement (Kris Benson, Billy Buckner, Barry Enright, Cesar Valdez and Dontrelle Willis) have gone 4-8, with an ERA of 6.29.

But the front end of the rotation has been pretty unimpressive too: no-one with more than three starts possesses an ERA+ of even 110 - we share that dubious distinction only with the Pirates. Based on previous research, no-one for the Diamondbacks has been better than a #3 starter so far, and only Ian Kennedy reaches that level. Dan Haren and Rodrigo Lopez are borderline #3/#4 guys, Edwin Jackson has been a #4 starter and the Five-headed Beast of Webb Replacement is basically, as you'd expect, replacement level. That will put us at a clear disadvantage going up against any other, "standard" rotation.

It is probably true to say, however, that Dan Haren has pitched better than is shown by his raw ERA. He has had a BABIP of .339, more than forty points worse than his career number. If that regresses to the mean, there's a good chance he will improve in the second-half of the season, or at least it'll help mitigate the post-ASG slump he usually endures, as we saw in 2009. On the other hand, Ian Kennedy's .264 is probably not going to be sustainable: I would not be surprised if those two were to swap positions from here on out, and the same might happen with regard to Jackson and Lopez too.

RELIEF PITCHING

At the end of April, when our bullpen had posted a 6.85 ERA for the month, we comforted ourselves with the thought that things couldn't get any worse. How wrong we are, as the bullpen managed to reach levels of suck previously undreamed of, posting a May ERA of 8.56. In 68.1 innings of work, they allowed 95 hits, including 18 home-runs, and walked almost as many people (39) as they struck-out. It was, by almost half a run, the worst bullpen month in franchise history.

Things have improved since, albeit partly because from there, they really couldn't get any worse. The June ERA by our relievers was down to 5.53 - not actually the worst in the league [the Brewers were .02 higher], and the July number to date is teetering on the edge of respectability, at 4.24. The opponents' batting average is seventy points off what it was in May, we're walking people at about one-third of the rate (our K:BB ratio in July is a much healthier 29:7), and allowing half as many home-runs. As was recently noted, a second-half ERA of 5.60 would allow the 2010 Diamondbacks pen to escape being the worst in the past 25 years.

On the evidence so far, it seems Gibson is more inclined to put the bullpen in the game than AJ Hinch. Roles still seem to be up for grabs, but I wouldn't be surprised to see things eventually settle down to Sam Demel in the seventh, Aaron Heilman in the eighth, and Juan Gutierrez auditioning as closer, with a view to him getting the job full-time in 2011. Chad Qualls... Who can say? His BABIP has got to regress eventually, but I've been saying that for more than two months. Still, his .453 number can't last: I checked the records back to 1980, and no pitcher with thirty or more innings has had a BABIP of .450 over a full season. Still, can he return to the form we saw in 2009?.

SUMMARY

If there's one thing which would lead to better results, it's shoring things up in the later innings. Perhaps the most telling stat about the whole first half of the season is one which has been often-repeated - the Diamondbacks are 41-36 after the fifth inning of play, only to hemorrhage wins like a Japanese splatter movie [NSFW!] thereafter. Putting a tourniquet on the 6.07 ERA during the last third of games would certainly go a very long way to helping our W-L record. But it's not just the pitching. Over the same time-frame, our offense bats .233/.318/.374, a feeble .692 OPS; combining these two, we've been outscored 187-108 after the sixth inning.

As it was last year, the second-half of the season is going to be a laboratory, working towards next year. There will probably be personnel changes - the possible extent of which, we'll get into tomorrow. We could see more playing time for the likes of Ryal and Abreu. It may also be the point to make a decision whether Parra is the longterm solution in left-field, for the yawning offensive chasm which has been present there, for the past three years or more. For someone who is supposedly only an "interim" GM, the moves made in the coming months by Jerry DiPoto could turn out to have some very far-reaching consequences for the franchise.