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"Veteran Presence" and Production For The Diamondbacks

Sean "in play, out(s)" Burroughs
Sean "in play, out(s)" Burroughs

There's an awful, awful lot to like about the 2011 Diamondbacks. Kevin Towers, Kirk Gibson and the coaching staff have taken a team that finished dead last and transformed it into one, likely to surpass last year's win total with a quarter of the campaign still to play. Those who expected a turnaround to take several seasons - and I admit to being among them - have been proven wrong. The bullpen, particularly in the 8th and 9th, has been a lot more stable, and the front of the rotation is the best it has been since Brandon Webb and Dan Haren were firing on all cylinders.

It is still a work in progress - for example, the 29 games from five different starters at the back of the rotation (Armando Galarraga, Zach Duke, Barry Enright, Micah Owings and Jason Marquis), have had an overall ERA of 6.07. But in most areas, the team has defied expectations, with Gibson and Towers crafting an amazing turnaround in a few short months. But there's one area where critics do appear to have been proved right: the 'veteran presences' signed off-season have, almost without exception, failed to produce.

Below, is a table, listing the fourteen position players for the Diamondbacks who have had 50 or more plate-appearances this season. They are listed in descending order of age, along with their offensive numbers. In case you don't spot the trend, there's a large black line across the middle of the chart, dividing the young from the not-so young....

1 Henry Blanco 87 76 39 .214 .276 .414 .691
2 Melvin Mora 43 135 39 .228 .244 .276 .520
3 Russell Branyan 72 69 35 .210 .290 .339 .629
4 Willie Bloomquist 84 239 33 .273 .316 .355 .671
5 Xavier Nady 81 213 32 .254 .291 .371 .662
6 Sean Burroughs 20 59 30 .211 .207 .228 .435
7 Ryan Roberts 119 375 30 .259 .351 .451 .802
8 Kelly Johnson 96 429 29 .215 .296 .425 .722
9 Stephen Drew 95 354 28 .252 .317 .396 .713
10 Juan Miranda 96 202 28 .213 .315 .402 .717
11 Chris Young 109 474 27 .247 .326 .441 .767
12 Miguel Montero 119 377 27 .273 .346 .457 .803
13 Gerardo Parra 115 318 24 .289 .355 .429 .784
14 Justin Upton 150 478 23 .299 .377 .546 .923

It's a very sharp line. Burroughs was born just a week before Roberts. But in terms of performance this year, the gulf between then could hardly be more chasm-errific. It's a very sharp delineation. Every qualifying player both after September 15, 1980 has an OPS+ of 95 or better. Every one older than that, has an OPS+ of 87 or worse. Looking at the 2011 Diamondbacks alone, an alien would deduce that baseball players basically start out really good, and then decline, more or less consistently from that point.

That's not the case, of course - but you might be surprised how early a player will tend to peak. Jeff Zimmerman looked at this recently on Beyond the Box Score, and concluded that over the past 30 years, position players generally peak at an age of just 26, when you combine hitting, defense, etc. [So, by the time J-Up hits free agency, he'll be past his best...] By the age of 31 or so, RAA (Runs Above Average) is back close to zero, and declines thereafter. That's what we see in Arizona. The six veterans on top of the list have combined to earn somewhere north of seven million dollars and be worth a total of -1.1 bWAR or -0.6 fWAR, over approaching 800 PAs.

In some ways, it does seem churlish to object, when the overall season has gone so well for the D-backs. And credit is certainly due to Towers for realizing the likes of Mora and Branyan weren't working, and cutting bait on them. [As we saw previously, getting rid of deadwood has been a key component in the Arizona rebound].Obviously, Bloomquist's playing time is partly a result of the injury to Drew, and he hasn't been bad [though as shoe pointed out, nail-gunning Willie to first-base would sharply improve his value]. Blanco is there as a veteran mentor for Miggy, which is fine. Nady is... Nady. Best leave him there, to avoid mrssoco hurling TV sets again.

That only really leaves the apparently inexplicable, ongoing presence of Sean Burroughs on the roster. Perhaps surprisingly, he is not the worst player in the history of the entire universe [though the previously mentioned alien might think so on reading the 'Pit!]. He's not even the worst in our division. Three NL players have a lower OPS+ and 40 or more games played. #3 is Tyler Colvin (OPS+ 19), hitting .127 with the Cubs. #2 is the Rockies' Ian Stewart (18), batting .148 with zero HR in 128 PAs. And #1? Sadly, it's Craig Counsell, whose line of .145/.235/.179 in Milwaukee is a 16 OPS+. He's currently ohfer his last 45, within touching distance of the all-time record.

But Burroughs is still pretty bad. His OPS of .435 is the worst of all time by any D-back, in a season with 40 games played. [Though adjusted for era, Rod Barajas did post an even lower 15 OPS+ in 2001, when offense generally was higher]. Here are the ten most offensive offensive seasons - if you see what I mean - in Diamondbacks history.

Rk Player OPS+ G Year Age PA BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Rod Barajas 15 51 2001 25 110 .160 .191 .274 .464
2 Sean Burroughs 20 42 2011 30 59 .211 .207 .228 .435
3 Andy Green 29 46 2004 26 119 .202 .241 .266 .507
4 Augie Ojeda 31 59 2010 35 92 .190 .258 .228 .486
5 Andy Stankiewicz 31 77 1998 33 155 .207 .252 .241 .493
6 Jorge Fabregas 35 50 1998 28 167 .199 .263 .245 .509
7 Alberto Callaspo 36 56 2007 24 156 .215 .265 .271 .535
8 Juan Brito 37 54 2004 24 184 .205 .246 .298 .544
9 Quinton McCracken 39 115 2003 32 226 .227 .276 .271 .547
10 Melvin Mora 43 42 2011 39 135 .228 .244 .276 .520

Man, that table is less a gurgling vortex of offensive suck, than an epic singularity. Back-up catchers with no plate discipline; middle infielders lacking in pop. And McCracken. Three years have two representatives: 2004 and 1998 were probably the worst years in franchise history [1998 beating 2010 on the run-differential tiebreaker]. 2011 is the other listed twice - and clearly won't be anything like the other two.

It is certainly the case that 'veteran presence' is not just about on-field production, and it's possible that the likes of Burroughs are contributing to the roster in other, less tangible ways - Burroughs' history certainly could provide a valuable life-lesson for young players. But my stance is always, "That's what coaches are for." With the Diamondbacks now in the hear of a pennant race, every game and every at-bat is potentially crucial, and we can't afford to give any of either away.

To some extent, the Giants demonstrate the same issue. Of their nine players older than Roberts, with 50+ ABs, only one (Pat Burrell) is on the current roster and has an OPS+ better than 91.Younger, better alternatives, such as Brandon Belt, are available there. But the Diamondbacks this year have generally been about squeezing every ounce of production out of their roster. And it's hard to see how giving at-bats - or, worse yet, starts - to the likes of Burroughs or Nady, are complementary to the approach, even if it has taken the team far further than most people expected.