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Why Can't The Diamondbacks Get Any Respect?

2012 Pecota Projections
2012 Pecota Projections

The Diamondbacks are the reigning National League West champions, and it wasn't even close. The eight-game margin of victory over the Giants was the widest the division had seen since 2003. Virtually all the key components of the team are back for 2012, and if anything, the team improved both on the pitching and hitting fronts, with the acquisitions of Trevor Cahill and Jason Kubel.

And yet... As was noted in this week's round-table, pundits, projection systems and Vegas are queuing up to anoint the Giants as favorites to reclaim the division in 2012. What's up with that?

Pundits are one thing: they are under no obligation to explain themselves, and everyone's opinion in terms of preseason predictions is, let's face it, about as good as anyone else's. But projection systems are a slightly different matter. They're not supposed to be swayed by shiny baubles like ESPN: The Magazine covers or Taco Bell endorsements. They are machines, given only to cold, hard facts. Like the cold, hard fact that the Diamondbacks won the NL West by eight games last year. And yet...

Giants 85 84 88 86 85.75
D-backs 84 84 82 83 83.25
Rockies 81 86 80 80 81.75
Dodgers 75 77 79 78 77.25
Padres 76 73 74 79 75.50

If you compare this to the standings from last season, and round the average projection to the nearest game, here's what we see. The Giants are unchanged at 86 games. The Rockies come out nine games better at 82. The Dodgers drop down five wins to 77. The Padres go up four or five - it's not really important which - to 75.5. And the Diamondbacks? Well, the consensus sees them eleven games worse at 83. A young team, that lost no-one of importance, picked up two players who are not exactly replacement level, in Kubel and Cahill, and we're expected to slump like the 2011 Reds? You got some 'xplaining to do, PECOTA...

Certainly, the Giants had some bad luck with injuries last year, and even if this simply balanced out their freakish good fortune in the same department during 2010, they will likely be healthier in 2012. However, that bad luck was balanced by good luck in close games, where they had more one-run wins (33) than any team in baseball. Now, you may think so many close contests was the result of their bad offense and good pitching, but plenty of teams were involved in more one-run games than San Francisco's 55: Cleveland (56), Toronto and KC (57), Anaheim (58), Florida and Minnesota (59), and Cincinnati (62).

To quote Bill James, "Winning or losing close games is luck. Teams which win more one-run games than they should one year have little tendency to do so the next year." He has since modified this to "probably not all luck", but it's still very little reflection on team quality. Witness the 2003 Tigers, who went 43-119...but were 19-18 in one-run games. So if the Giants play the same number of one-run games in 2012, odds are they'll win less of them. While they might not flip-flop entirely and go 22-33, even if they end up winning half of them, that's a 5.5 game drop - wiping out everything they can expect from Buster Posey's return, and then some.

We know this from fan experience, because the 2007 Diamondbacks went 32-20 in one-run games, and like the Giants, did well despite being outscored by the opposition. But in 2008, their record regressed to 22-23, likely costing them the division. Now, the 2011 Diamondbacks were similar over-performers, just as likely to drop back as the Giants - that's one of the reasons why I think it'll be tough for us to reach 94 wins again. But we have the advantage of being eight games in front. If we both suffer similar amounts of regression, that's still eight games San Francisco need to catch up.

However, I'd say the more surprising number overall, is the Diamondbacks being projected to drop back so far. Fortunately, the systems provide some more information, and it's worth breaking down the numbers a bit further. Let's look at the projected runs scored and allowed for both ourselves and the Giants, for the systems (except MORPS, which doesn't give those), and how those compare with the actual 2011 numbers.

RS RA Diff RS RA Diff
2011 731 662 +69 570 578 -8
CAIRO 659 634 +25 663 630 +33
MARCEL 720 693 +27 637 610 +27
PECOTA 711 690 +21 640 594 +46

Those are some...numbers. The one leaping out in particular is CAIRO, which expects - and I can't believe anyone wrote this with a straight face - the San Francisco Giants offense to score more runs than the Arizona Diamondbacks this season. Short of BALCO having moved to cloning technology, and the Giants' line-up now consisting of five Buster Poseys and three Pablo Sandovals, this seems distinctly incredible, in the strictest sense of the word. Heck, even 67 more - from the least optimistic MARCEL - seems a stretch.

Because let's not forget just how bad the 2011 Giants offense was. Their 570 runs weren't just the lowest scoring team in the National League last season. They were the lowest scoring team in the National League since the 1994 Cardinals. And that came in a strike-shortened season where St. Louis played only 143 games. The 2004 Diamondbacks, the historically awful ones that lost 111 games? They scored 45 more runs than last year's Giants. Exactly how the arrival of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, plus a full season of his divine Poseyness, suddenly translates into 67-93 more runs, is... well, let's say "unclear".

The knock on the Diamondbacks is that it took career seasons from a whole host of spots in order for them to succeed in the way they did, and these are unlikely to recur in 2012. What, you mean like Ryan Vogelsong? A man who, in his entire major-league career from 2000-10, had accumulated -3.9 bWAR, only to be worth +3.7 bWAR in 2011? Yeah, that's reproducible, especially from a man who'll turn 35 in July. The Giants also need another 6+ bWAR season out of Pablo Sandoval, which was such a crucial part of last year's unstoppable offensive force. They'd better hope he's repeating his 2010-11 offseason training program.

Bur enough whining about the Giants. For us, the expectations of the three systems are similar, though they get there in different ways. The reason for the D-backs decline is that our expected run differential will be about 45 runs worse than it was last year. Couple that with the one-run regression and, hey presto, 11-game drop. The systems do disagree about the cause of the change in Arizona run differential. MARCEL thinks our pitching will be worse, CAIRO blames the offense, and PECOTA more or less tags them both equally. It's be easy to pick apart the outliers, e.g CAIRO and MARCEL, but let's go with PECOTA - its details are easily available even to BP non-subscribers

Here are the 2011 OPS and PECOTA 2012 OPS projections for the top ten Arizona players by PAs in 2011, who are still with the team this year, plus Kubel. For him and Hill, the numbers include both the non-D-backs playing time last year

Player 2011 OPS 2012 OPS Change
Justin Upton .899 .831 -68
Chris Young .751 .750 -1
Ryan Roberts .768 .723 -45
Miguel Montero .820 .774 -46
Gerardo Parra .784 .733 -51
Willie Bloomquist .699 .651 -48
Stephen Drew .713 .743 +30
Paul Goldschmidt .808 .798 -10
Aaron Hill .655 .730 +75
Henry Blanco .870 .657 -213
Jason Kubel .766 .793 +27

The projected numbers are for a decline more or less across the offensive board, with Hill the only one expected to show an increase of more than 30 points - on the other hand, five regulars are predicted to drop by more than that amount. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest there is Upton, whom PECOTA expects a line of .274/.351/.480, compared to this year's .289/.369/.529. Certainly, if J-Up regresses to a number closest to his 2008 figure, as a 20-year old, that will be a significant hit to Arizona's changes. I'm hoping for a good deal more than that, and suspect most D-backs fans will think so to.

Let's do the same, with ERA, for the 12 expected pitchers. As before, 2011 figures are for the entire season, regardless of location over that period.

Pitcher 2011 ERA 2012 ERA Change
Ian Kennedy 2.88 3.44 +0.56
Daniel Hudson 3.49 3.42 -0.07
Trevor Cahill 4.16 4.03 -0.13
Joe Saunders 3.69 4.56 +0.87
Josh Collmenter 3.38 4.10 +0.72
J.J. Putz 2.17 2.89 +0.72
David Hernandez 3.38 4.19 +0.81
Takashi Saito 2.03 2.72 +0.69
Joe Paterson 2.91 4.11 +1.20
Craig Breslow 3.79 3.70 -0.09
Bryan Shaw 2.54 4.66 +2.12
Brad Ziegler 2.16 3.80 +1.64

This is even more dramatic. Nine of the 12 are expected to be half a run worse or more this year. For key components of last year's bullpen, like Hernandez, Paterson and impressive debutant Shaw, it's uglier still. Part of this is due to youth, I suspect. In Hernandez's case, things are likely weighted by his poor numbers as a starter, where he has still thrown considerably more: 141 innings, with an ERA of 5.49 there, compared to 109 out of the bullpen (3.22 ERA). That does illustrate nicely the limitations of projection systems: you put in your data, crank the handle, and out comes a number, which won't take into account things like usage patterns.

So there's your answer. While the specifics may vary from place to place, the Diamondbacks are not expected to repeat, because people and systems do not expect most of our players to produce as well as they did in 2011. That will translate into fewer runs scored, more runs allowed and significantly fewer wins for Arizona. The good thing is, there are 162 games coming up which will prove the validity or otherwise of these predictions, and it's how our players perform in those which will decide the outcome and the destination of the 2012 West - rather than anyone's opinion, be that a person or system.

And after all, those pre-season predictions proved spot-on last year, didn't they?

SISKO: Every time I throw this ball, a hundred different things can happen in a game. He might swing and miss, he might hit it. The point is, you never know. You try to anticipate, set a strategy for all the possibilities as best you can, but in the end it comes down to throwing one pitch after another and seeing what happens. With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape.
BATSMAN: And you have no idea what that shape is until it is completed.
SISKO: That's right. In fact, the game wouldn't be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.
-- Deep Space Nine: Emissary