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The Diamondbacks' Turnaround: What Does It Mean For 2012?

The Diamondbacks' success this season was as unexpected as it was pleasant: a team that had lost 90 games in consecutive seasons, went from last to first, cruising to victory in the NL West. But perhaps we should have expected this, for Arizona are the undisputed National League kings of turnaround. Under the current 16-team set-up, we are the only franchise to have improved by more than 23 games - and have now done that three times in a dozen years. This year's model was the biggest increase in the Senior Circuit since the 1999 Diamondbacks went worst to first, going from 65 victories to the century mark (mostly by spending like they meant it). 

But does this indicate anything for next year? Let's look at what happened to other teams which took a Great Leap Forward, and also see if there are additional indicators that might predict what happens.

In the Diamondbacks era, only one other outfit in the majors has improved their W-L records by a bigger amount than the 29 games managed by Arizona this year. Those were our expansion siblings, the Rays, who upped their wins from 66 to 97 in 2008. Here's the list of all teams to post an increase of twenty wins or more, season-on-season, going back to that 1999 campaign.

  • 35 games
    1999 Diamondbacks (65 > 100)
  • 31 games
    2008 Rays (66 > 97)
  • 29 games
    2004 Tigers (43 > 72)
    2011 Diamondbacks (65 > 94)
  • 26 games
    2005 Diamondbacks (51 > 77)
  • 25 games
    2001 Mariners (91 > 116)
  • 24 games
    2002 Angels (75 > 99)
    2006 Tigers (71 > 95)
    2009 Mariners (61 > 85)
  • 23 games
    2004 Padres (64 > 87)
  • 21 games
    2001 Astros (72 > 93)
    2001 Phillies (65 > 86)
    2003 Cubs (67 > 88)
    2003 Royals (62 > 83)
  • 20 games
    2000 Cardinals (75 > 95)
    2000 White Sox (75 > 95)

It's startling to note Arizona owns three of the five top improvements in the major-leagues. and appears to produce one of these on a strict six-year cycle. I'd be eagerly anticipating 2017 on this basis. Or maybe, we just need to really suck... However, what does it mean for the team's future chances? In his Baseball Abstract, Bill James came up with six indicators which could be used to indicate whether a team's record was likely to improve or not the following year. Let's take a look at these, and what they suggest about the 2012 Diamondbacks.

Pythagorean Record. Pythagorean record uses the number of runs scored and allowed by a team to give an expected record. Teams will diverge from this if, for example, they win their close games and lose blow-outs, but history has shown that performance in close games is rarely sustainable. The poster child for this would be the 2007 Diamondbacks, who posted 90 wins despite being outscored by the opposition, mostly because they were 32-20 in one-run games that year. The next season, Arizona regressed to 22-23 in that category, and that represented a good chunk of the eight-game drop in their record.

The bad news is, Arizona outperformed their expected record this year, by six games, which exactly matches the amount by which their record in one-run contests surpassed chance (they had 44 of those and won 28, rather than the 22 one might expect). If that returns to the normal .500 in 2012, it would take our record with it. The good news is, the Giants outperformed by the same six-game margin: they were outscored this year, and so were "lucky" to win as many as they did. All told, if you used Pythagorean expected records, we'd still have won the West, but with 88 wins, by four over the Dodgers, with the Giants a further four games back. 2012 prognosis: down.

The "Plexiglass Principle". Bill James reckoned that teams which improve one year tend to get worse the following year, or the other way round - the name comes from the way Plexiglass will spring back to its previous shape when bent. Does that apply to the franchises, such as the Diamondbacks, that made very large gains? Let's look at the 15 other teams to improve by 20+ wins in the past dozen years, and see what happened to them the season after their big uptick

Team W-L +/- Next Season
1999 Diamondbacks +35 -15
2008 Rays +31 -13
2004 Tigers +29 -1
2011 Diamondbacks +29 ???
2005 Diamondbacks +26 -1
2001 Mariners +25 -23
2002 Angels +24 -22
2006 Tigers +24 -7
2009 Mariners +24 -24
2004 Padres +23 -5
2001 Astros +21 -9
2001 Phillies +21 -6
2003 Cubs +21 +1
2003 Royals +21 -25
2000 Cardinals +20 -5
2000 White Sox +20 -12

Well, that's pretty damn depressing, isn't it? 14 of the 15 did indeed regress, with the sole exception being the 2001 Cubs, who added just a single extra win. The average drop-off was 11 games per team. Look at the pair of Mariners teams, who combined for an improvement of 49 games...and gave 47 games back over the two seasons that followed. Or the 2003 Royals, who dropped more games than they picked up. It seems that sustaining the improvement and staying on top, is perhaps even tougher than climbing up there to begin with. 2012 prognosis: down.

The "Whirlpool Principle" As James put it, "All teams are drawn forcefully toward the center. Most of the teams which had winning records in 1982 will decline in 1983; most of the teams which had losing records in 1982 will improve in 1983." We saw this in action last year, where 19 of 28 teams saw their records move in the direction predicted by James [Oakland and Detroit, who were at 81-81 in 2010, were excluded from this test]. This makes sense, particularly at the ends of the performance spectrum; it takes a lot of effort to lose or win close to a hundred games per year. This regression to the mean shouldn't require further explanation. 2012 prognosis: down.

Age. Okay: not so good thus far, with all the signs pointing to the Diamondbacks declining from the 94-win total this year. Now for the good news: Arizona are still a relatively young team, with most of the players, both on the mound and in the batter's box, on the right side of the aging curve. James found that, in general, young teams get better, while old teams decline - again, this would appear logical. Fortunately, the temple of awesomeness that is provides this information, weighted by playing time, for both pitchers and hitters. Because otherwise, I certainly wouldn't be doing the math. Here are the results for all five teams in the NL West, along with where they ranked in baseball:

Hitters (rank) Pitchers (rank)
ARI 28.3 (19th) 27.4 (26th)
COL 28.6 (17th) 27.7 (22nd)
LAD 29.8 (6th) 28.6 (10th)
SDP 28.0 (24th) 28.1 (16th)
SFG 30.2 (3rd) 28.6 (9th)

This is an area where the Diamondbacks can feel comfortable: among next year's likely starting line-up, Ryan Roberts will be the grizzled veteran at the ripe old age of 31. On the pitching front, J.J. Puitz, Brad Ziegler and Joe Saunders will likely be the only arms not getting carded when buying beer at Circle-K. If Trevor Bauer or Tyler Skaggs come through next season as hoped, taking innings thrown this year by the likes of Zach Duke and Armando Galarraga, one can only speculate where about the Diamondbacks might end up placing, in the 2012 rankings of pitcher age. 2012 prognosis: up.

AAA performance.This is a basic measure of what teams have down on the farm, though it seems that now, a lot more players seem to come from Double-A to the majors, than when James was writing in the early 1980's. For Arizona, Ryan Cook, Paul Goldschmidt and Jarrod Parker all made the jump from Mobile to the majors, bypassing Reno entirely, while Bryan Shaw spent less than three weeks in Triple-A before the big club called, and Wade Miley only about 1 1/2 months. Collin Cowgill was probably the only "true" Diamondbacks prospect to see significant time in 2011 with the Aces, on his way to the show.

Fortunately for this piece, it doesn't make too much difference, since both levels did well. The Triple-A Reno Aces won their division by seven games, with a record of 77-67, and the Double-A Mobile Baybears were even more impressive. They went 84-54 - that would be on pace for a 99-win full season - and won the Southern League title. So, if minor-league performance is any predictor of future major-league success, Arizona should be doing okay next year. 2012 prognosis: up.

Late-season performance. Finally, there's the theory that teams who play better in the second half of the year. will carry forward that improvement in to the next campaign. I can see why that would seem plausible, but looking at the most recent results, it's harder to see this as a pattern. In 2010, the Diamondbacks played their 81st game on July 3rd. Looking at the standings after that date, yes, the Phillies did have the best record in the majors, and the Rays were second in the American League, 8.5 games up on the Red Sox. But the best second-half AL Record was the Twins, who flopped this year, and the top four in the NL included the Giants, Reds and MLB-worst Astros.

That said, the four teams in each league with the best second-half records this year are exactly the four teams in each league who qualified for the post-season, including both late-surging wild-card winners from St. Louis and Tampa Bay. If you are looking for reasonably-safe bets to be decent teams in 2012, picking the eight franchises who made the playoffs the preceding year is hardly going out on a limb. The Diamondbacks did well there, finishing third in the National League with a 50-31 record in the second half, 1 1/2 games back of the Brewers and Phillies. 2012 prognosis: up.

Conclusion. With a nicely-even split, 3-3, of Bill James' six indicators of future performance, there doesn't seem to be any consensus based on them, as to where the Diamondbacks might go next season. It will likely depend on the weight of each of these factors, and how they play into proceedings. But it is perhaps worth noting that the only two previous years the team reached the 94-win mark, in 1999 and 2002, they dropped back in the standings the next season, by 15 and 14 games respectively. I suspect they already know this, but I think that the work for Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson is far from over.