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The 2012 Diamondbacks: Regress or Repeat?

A few months ago, we looked at the performances of teams which made major strides forward in a season - what happened to them the next year? The results weren't pretty. Of the 15 teams to have improved by 20 games in a season since the Diamondbacks came into being, their W-L record the following season was, on average, 11 games worse. Only one team - the 2004 Cubs - were able to match the win total from their "Great Leap Forward." So, Arizona will have to buck the trend if they are to win 94 games again in 2012. But what if we drill down a little further?

Let's start by looking at the source of Arizona's wins in 2011. I'm using fWAR throughout this piece, largely because easily allows you to slice up WAR by position, thereby taking into account that we had six different players start games at 1B and LF, with five as SS and 3B. The table below shows the WAR by position. for each team in the NL West - additionally, for Arizona, I've included a column showing where our WAR at that position ranked in the National League.

C 5.4 #1 3.6 1.9 3.4 2.6
1B 1.0 #14 3.9 2.8 2.7 0.8
2B 3.0 #8 0.4 2.6 2.0 0.5
3B 3.4 #5 -1.5 2.2 2.7 5.7
SS 2.2 #8 6.2 3.3 1.6 0.9
LF 3.5 #7 2.3 2.1 3.3 2.8
CF 4.9 #5 2.9 8.7 4.2 3.1
RF 6.6 #2 4.9 3.7 4.2 3.8
SP 12.5 #8 10.3 13.8 8.0 17.6
RP 3.4 #6 4.5 2.7 1.3 5.3
Tot 47.4 36.0 40.6

Let's go through each of these positions, and see whether we should expect them to improve, regress or stay about the same.

Down_medium Catcher. 2011 WAR: 5.4. Starters: Miguel Montero (131), Henry Blanco (31).
2012 Depth: Montero, Blanco

2011 seemed a perfect storm of catchiliciousness for Arizona. Not only did Montero blossom into an All-Star caliber starter, he also avoided the health problems - in particular, his knee - which has limited his playing time previously. And back-up Blanco became just the seventh player in baseball history with eight homers in 100 or less ABs. It seems unrealistic to expect everything to go quite as well. Montero may be as good - but will he be as healthy? Since 2000, only four catchers - Jason Kendall (2000-06, 2008-09), Jorge Posada (2002-03), Kurt Suzuki (2008-09) and Russell Martin (2007-09) - have started 130 games in back-to-back years, so the odds are against Montero. Not impossible; just against. Blanco hitting like Mark Mcgwire also seems unlikely.

Up_mediumFirst-base. 2011 WAR: 1.0. Starters: Juan Miranda (46), Xavier Nady (44), Paul Goldschmidt (41), the field (31).
2012 Depth: Goldschmidt, Lyle Overbay
After several seasons where the D-backs have lacked a reliable, everyday first-baseman, things are looking a good deal brighter in 2012. Goldzilla has an inside track on the role, and showed down the stretch in 2011 that he possesses the tools to deliver there. Starting in about one-quarter of Arizona's games, Goldschmidt put up 0.6 WAR in his rookie season, more over his 177 PAs than all the other players at the position did combined, in their 580 PAs. Part of this may be small sample size, but if the D-backs are to avoid regression this year, the engine-room as far as their position players are concerned, is likely to be first-base.

Equal_mediumSecond-base. 2011 WAR: 3.0. Starters: Kelly Johnson (106), Aaron Hill (32), the field (24).
2012 Depth: Hill, Roberts/Bloomquist

I was surprised to see how well Arizona ranked in this area, basically ending up at the middle of the pack. Even more than at first-base, the late arrival really turned the position around. Hill picked up 1.6 WAR in about 20% of the season, again matching the output of everyone else over the preceding four-fifths. Nice though it would be to extrapolate this to 8 WAR over the course of a full season, there's no realistic grounds for so doing. However, the fan survey on Fangraphs cam up with a figure of 2.5 WAR for Hill in 2012, indicating there will be a significant rebound for Hill from the last couple of seasons in Toronto. I'd settle for something around the same level as in 2011.

Down_mediumThird-base. 2011 WAR: 3.4. Starters: Ryan Roberts (102), Melvin Mora (30)., the field (30).
2012 Depth: Roberts, Bloomquist.

Just the other day, Dan went into great detail about Ryan Roberts spectacular and surprising success last year. I'll simply steal a couple of late sentences, in response to the question of whether RyRo can do it again: "Yes, he can, but relying on him to do so probably isn't a safe choice without taking special care to cover his biggest weaknesses. That's an unsatisfying answer." I don't expect Roberts to be a disaster, and he should still represent good value for $2m (plus the odd five hundred bucks), Not having Mora around for 30 starts will also be a help. But I think that a repeat performance from the Dread Pirate is something I'm hoping happens, rather than expecting to occur, based on a solid foundation in reality.

Equal_mediumShort-stop. 2011 WAR: 2.2. Starters: Stephen Drew (83), Willie Bloomquist (57), the field (22).
2012 Depth: Drew, Bloomquist, McDonald

This one is a question-mark, because of the big health issue here. A full season of Drew and it should be firmly up. In 86 games last year, he had 1.9 WAR, and he produced more than five WAR in the full season which preceded that. However, an entire campaign of Bloomquist would probably be a very different matter. Over his entire career, since making his debut in 2002, the Bloomster has accumulated only 1.3 WAR in total. At this point, we have little or no idea what the ratio of Stepheness to Willieness will be. The heavier the balance is tilted toward the former, the better. For now, let's not expect too much.

Up_mediumLeft-field. 2011 WAR: 3.5. Starters: Gerardo Parra (117), Bloomquist (22), the field (23).
2012 Depth: Jason Kubel, Parra.
Though many might disagree, I reckon there's room for improvement - I admit this depends heavily on Kubel enjoying the move from Target to Chase. It will certainly improve the power we get from the position: despite our park, last year, the Pirates were the only NL club with fewer homers from left-field than Arizona's nine. The key question is likely to be defense. If Kubel is as much a butcher as some fear, the offensive upgrade he represents may turn into an overall wash (for a lot more money, obviously). But if carefully managed - we've already discussed the concept of Parra being a "personal left-fielder" for some starters - I think we could be pleasantly surprised.

Equal_mediumCenter-field.2011 WAR: 4.9. Starters: Chris Young (155), the field (7).
2012 Depth: Chris Young, Parra
Young has been very consistent the past couple of years, posting 4.6 WAR in both 2010 and 2011, and health permitting, there's no reason to expect anything different from him in 2012. He'll turn 29 in September, and so should be at his prime. I think I've more or less given up on expecting him to have a breakout season at the plate, hitting .280 while keeping his power, but decent on-base skills and a 20/20 HR/SB season is pretty damn good for the position, especially combined with his solid defense. Little or no fuss (save the odd walk-off home-run), it's surprising to realize that by the All-Star break, Young will likely be second on the franchise all-time list for games played.

Equal_mediumRight-field. 2011 WAR: 6.6. Starters: Justin Upton (156), the field (6).
2012 Depth: Upton, Parra.
Could J-Up actually be better this year? It's hard to think of how this could be possible, save perhaps for cutting back on the errors. In 2011, Justin clobbered 31 HR, hit .289, and stole 21 bases. But the scary thing - for our opponents - is that he's only 24, and every aspect of his game should be expected to improve for the next couple of seasons. Now, some of that may be negated by the fact that Upton is already a lot more experienced than most 24-year olds (he's already in the franchise top 10 for PAs!), and it seems like drooling fandom to project any kind of uptick in production. So I won't. I wouldn't bet against it, however...

Up_mediumStarting pitching. 2011 WAR: 12.5. Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders (33 each), Josh Collmenter (24), the field (39).
2012 Depth: Kennedy, Hudson, Trevor Cahill, Collmenter, Saunders.

Kennedy, Hudson and Saunders are common to both years, in full; a little regression from Kennedy, should hopefully be countered by a full season of Collmenter and Hudson improving (Saunders will be Saunders, and I have reached a Zen-like tranquility about this). The big boost is having Cahill to replace the collection of malcontents and replacements found at the back of the Arizona rotation in 2011. Those 39 starts by "the field" had an ERA of 5.55, and Cahill will be much better than that. The good news is, there's depth as well, such as Wade Miley (4.15 ERA in seven starts), even before we get to... Well, you know who are waiting in the wings...

Equal_mediumRelief Pitching. 2011 WAR: 3.4. Most games: David Hernandez (74), Joe Paterson (62), J.J. Putz (60), Sam Demel (34), Bryan Shaw (33), Aaron Heilman (32), Esmerling Vasquez (31).
2012 Depth: Putz, Hernandez, Takashi Saito, Shaw, Brad Ziegler, Paterson,. Craig Breslow.
Yeah: Sam Demel had the fourth-most relief appearances for Arizona last year. Who knew? It's numbers like that which will help to balance out the possible over-achievement of Messrs. Hernandez and Putz last time, since those Demel, Heilman and Vasquez innings will likely be pitched by someone significantly better in 2012. The wild-card here is Saito. If healthy, damn few are better: since his arrival in 2006, among pitchers with 300 IP, only Rivera and Nathan have a lower ERA than Saito's 2.18. A full season of that, and this one turns sharply up.

All told, there doesn't seem to me an obvious case for major regression at the base level of performance for Arizona. The D-backs will likely lose some ground due to an evening out of their record in one-run games. We went 28-16 in those, which is a "skill" notoriously hard to reproduce, year to year. However, we do have some leeway: the Giants were outscored by their opponents, so are likely in line for significant regression of their own - they shouldn't expect to go 33-22 in one-run games next season either.

Our biggest threat may be the Dodgers, as they were the closest to the D-backs in Pythagorean record, just four games back of us. However, it's not as if they have done much this winter, beyond locking up Matt Kemp for the long term. Like the rest of our divisional rivals, they made limited moves, with signings like Mark Ellis and Aaron Harang. Not exactly names that spring to the lips when you're looking for a big piece to push you over the top. Having lost Rod Barajas and Casey Blake (3.5 WAR between them in 2011), it doesn't seem like they've done too much to close that four-game advantage we had in Pythagorean record.

On the down-side, the above analysis assumes perfect health except at short-stop, and the odds are against that. Last season, we had five players with 140 or more appearances, tied with the Marlins for most in the National League. It's quite likely that at least one Diamondback will miss significant playing time as the result of injury: it's just the nature of the beast, and it will have a knock-on effect in terms of production, since their replacement will typically be... Well, replacement level, obviously. Though, as noted above, that is less the case for our rotation, where you could argue not all our "five best" pitchers will be found in the major-leagues....

Overall, I'm quietly optimistic. As champions, we're the team to beat, making it up to the rest of the division to chase us down - which they seem oddly disinterested in doing. Arizona lost virtually no-one of importance to free agency this winter - Zach Duke's 0.8 WAR as a pitcher was the only significant hit the team took there - and they're generally young enough that another year on the clock is not something to fear. While an injury to one of our proven major-league stars would be problematic, as we saw last year with Drew, it's not necessarily fatal. A decade since Arizona went back-to-back, I've got to think we have a good chance of doing so again in 2012.