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Diamondbacks Spring Training: Is It Time For Concern?

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The Diamondbacks enter today's split-squad games with a record of 3-8 in Cactus League play - the worst record of any National League team playing here. Should we be worried, or is it simply time to breathe into a paper-bag and, as pygalgia suggested yesterday, keep telling ourselves, "It's only spring training... It's only spring training..."?

After the jump, we'll crunch the numbers from the first ten days, see if we can come to conclusions, and also look to see which players have made an impression - in either direction - during the early going.

Hitting. In most offensive categories except for runs scored per game, the Diamondbacks are somewhere around the middle of the pack. While it's hard to compare numbers from the Cactus and Grapefruit League - the former is more hitter-friendly, due to a higher altitude and lower humidity, Arizona's batting average of .279 rank sixth in the NL, where the median is .276. And if you want some indication of the volatility spring training can create, leading the league are the Padres, who have hit .326 so far. The odds of either fact remaining true for long in the regular season, seem slim to none. Similarly, last are LA, one hundred points lower than San Diego.

In other categories, Arizona are at or very close to the median for both OBP, at .340 (8th), and SLG of .401 (9th). Combine those two, and we come in seventh for OPS, at .741 - it may be coincidental, but that number is almost exactly what the team produced over the 2010 season (.740). However, the spring hitting hasn't translated into runs as well. Last year, we scored 4.4 runs per game, but in Cactus League play, nearly the same OPS has seen the Diamondbacks average exactly four per game. It probably hasn't helped we've been caught stealing in almost half our attempts (6 of 14); that success rate is something we definitely need to improve come Opening Day.

One thing which seems to have changed - and this will likely please Kevin Towers - is our propensity for strikeouts. In the 2010 regular season, we struck out in 24.7% of plate-appearances. Thus far, that number has dropped to 17.7%. However, our walk rate has also declined somewhat, from 9.5% last year, to 8.6% in the pre-season. Overall, the ratio of strikeouts to walks remains a little above two: 2.05, to be precise, ranked 11th in the NL [you want a cause for concern, try the Astros, whose K:BB is 49:13 to date!]. The corresponding number for the 2010 Diamondbacks was 2.60.

Heroes and Villains (min. 15 PAs)

Ryan Roberts: .688/.783/.813
Russell Branyan: .429/.500/.786
Justin Upton: .381/.409/.619

Melvin Mora: .214/.267/.214
Tony Abreu: .182/.174/.182
Gerardo Parra: .133/.133/.133

Pathetically-small sample size complete disclaimer obviously applies here. Roberts was discussed on Saturday; Branyan has impressed with the bat, but reports have him looking shaky defensively at first. Nick Piecoro reports the latter will be an important factor, quoting Cap'n Kirk: "I will tell you we're looking for people who can defend, because our pitching has no shot if we can't." There doesn't appear to be much to separate Brandon Allen and Juan Miranda: Ian Kennedy, who came up with Miranda in the Yankees' system, notes improvement: "From the first time that I played with him to now, he's gotten a lot better. He looks like a good first baseman. He was raw before."

At the other end of the spectrum, the numbers largely speak for themselves. Given Parra and Abreu are both fringey roster candidates, one would have been hoping for better numbers from them. They have also yet to draw a walk between them, in a total of 40 plate-appearances to date. If there truly is competition for positions, they need to start ramping things up, or they could end up playing themselves out of a spot, like Roberts did in 2010.

Pitching. This perhaps is where we've been losing games, with a collective ERA of 4.91, almost a full run worse than the NL median (3.93), though we are still ahead of two divisional rivals, in the Padres (5.09) and Rockies (5.45). Perhaps more disturbingly, it's also one-tenth worse than the 2010 Diamondbacks produced, and our Cactus League WHIP of 1.49 is also up slightly on the number last regular season (1.43). Our opponents' OBP has been .356 (11th) and SLG is at .428, 10th in the league, so we're a little below average there as well.

The pre-season directive to control the running game doesn't seem to be working so well, with the 18 stolen-bases allowed by the Diamondbacks, the most in the majors [though on a per-game basis, the Rangers are slightly ahead of us]. In defense of our defense, they've also caught six thieves, and the resulting success-rate of 75% is not terrible - last year, it was 74%, with a league average of 71%. Yesterday's performance, with the Angels going 3-for-3 didn't impress Gibson: "We didn't execute things right. We didn't give Henry a chance at all, missed a couple of signs and stuff like that. We've got to tighten that up."

Walks are up, from 3.4 to 3.7 per nine innings, which will no doubt trigger a disapproving glare from the bench, and I'm a bit concerned by the sharp drop-off in strikeouts. In 2010, we averaged 6.7/9 IP, but thus far, we've fanned a mere five hitters per nine, a number which sits ahead in the NL of only the Marlins (4.50), Rockies (4.31) and Astros (3.78). We have been doing a much better job of keeping the ball in the park, with only six home-runs allowed in the eleven games to date. And it doesn't appear to be the new stadium, as our Colorado room-mates have given up eleven long-balls in only eight contests.

Heroes and Villains (min 3 IP)

Aaron Heilman: 5 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
David Hernandez: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
Sam Demel: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Brian Sweeney: 3.2 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Zach Duke: 4 IP, 12 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 1 K
Joe Saunders: 5.2 IP, 13 H, 10 ER, 1 BB, 2 K

You thought the sample-size for hitters was trivial...this falls into the "utterly laughable" category. Still, that's what spring training is all about, isn't it? Some of our bullpen have been looking quite good to date, led by the man who would be king a starter, Mr. Heilman, who has been almost impeccable thus far - he works again today, out in Surprise. It's certainly a breezy day here, though I'm not sure how the ballpark there is oriented with regard to the wind direction - we'll see how he copes. Hernandez has generally been good too, though did hand out a couple of walks yesterday, which we'd like to avoid from our eighth-inning guy.

The other candidate, Juan Gutierrez, only avoided a spot on the 'villains' list, by sucking so badly he has not yet got through three innings. His line to date - 2.2 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 1 K - certainly deserve a dishonorable mention. While we are certainly still in the early days, it's disappointing to see two of our projected rotation occupying the bottom end of the list. Yesterday, Saunders said, "[I] shot my wad and sort of hit a wall in the third." Don't know about you, but I am definitely concerned to hear that our likely Opening Day starter, with maybe four outings left to go, is apparently running of gas after two innings.

Overall, however, having looked at the numbers, I have climbed down off the window-ledge where I spent most of yesterday. While there are some areas of concern, for everyone whose numbers look awful, there's someone else for whom they look incredible - at both ends, they are likely unsustainable. We'll see how things shake down, and revisit the charts towards the end of next week.