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Will the 2015 Diamondbacks break Tony La Russa's heart?

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This year, the Arizona Diamondbacks had the worst record in baseball. Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa does not expect that to last.

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Norm Hall
"I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don't have a winning record next year."
-- Tony La Russa

Getting to that winning record would require the team to improve by 18 games over this season's final mark of 64-98, the second worst in franchise history. At first glance, that's a tall order. Only two teams in 2014 showed an improvement of that order: the Houston Astros improved by 19 games, and the Anaheim Angels by 20. That's about par for the course: two teams also showed such a gain in 2013 (the Red Sox and Indians). Given such teams are inevitably below .500 to start with - the last team to improve so much from above .500 were the 2004 Cardinals, that makes the odds of Arizona being one of next year's crop, about two in 15.

However, starting from such a low-water mark, probably help the Diamondbacks. Back in September, I dug into what happened the next season, to teams who had win totals in the sixties. Of the 19 such teams since 2010, 17 improved the following year, by between three and 29 games, with an average improvement across them all of about ten games. This regression towards .500 is one of six indicators Bill James thought helped predict whether a team would improve or not the following season. Let's see where the Diamondbacks stand in those at the end of 2014, and whether they suggest a bounceback year.

1. The Johnson effect. Named after journalist Bryan Johnson, who was credited with the discovery by James, this says "When a team wins significantly fewer games than could be expected in view of its runs scored and runs allowed, that team will tend to improve in the following season." Based on our runs scored (615) and allowed (742), the Diamondbacks "should" have gone 67-95. Their actual tally was three fewer, that difference ranking them equal 24th in the majors. Conclusion: moderate yes.

2. The Plexiglass principle. According to James, this is the idea "that all things in baseball have a powerful tendency to return to the form which they previously held." Teams that demonstrate a sharp increase in form, tend to decline the following year, and vice versa. In terms of overall change, the Diamondbacks 17-game drop ranked them equal fifth, level with the Braves, and behind the changes experienced by the Red Sox (-26), Astros (+19), Angels (+20), and Rangers (-24). Conclusion: moderate yes.

3. The law of competitive balance. Regression to the mean, basically. Teams below .500 will tend to get better, teams above .500 will tend to get worse. That's exactly what we saw with the 19 teams analyzed above, with only one getting worse the next year. The D-backs finished seventeen games away from .500, tied with the Angels (in the other direction, naturally) for the biggest gap in the majors. Conclusion: strong yes.

4. Youth will have its day. Young teams tend to get better; old teams tend to get worse. Baseball-Reference.com lists an average age for a team's hitters and pitchers, weighted by playing time (AB and IP respectively). For batters, the median age was 28.45 years, while the Diamondbacks came in 27.6 years, tied for 24th spot. On the mound, the median was 28.4 years, with Arizona's figure of 28.0 ranking them equal 22nd. Conclusion: moderate yes.

5. Minor-league performance. James particularly focused on Triple-A performance, and the Diamondbacks did well there, with the Reno Aces 81-63 figure tied with the Las Vegas 51's for the best record in the Pacific Coast League. But the Double-A Mobile Baybears were even better, at 79-58, and only one of our eight affiliates finished without a winning record, the system overall having a .564 winning percentage, which would equate to 91 wins over a full major-league season. Conclusion: strong yes.

6. Late-season performance. In terms of your future hopes, it's better, according to James, to start the season off poorly and finish strong, than to go the other direction. Teams that win more in the second half of the season tend to carry that forward and do better overall the next year. That doesn't seem to help the Diamondbacks much, as we were 33-48 at the half-way point, and declined marginally thereafter, going 31-50 over the second half of the season. Conclusion: weak no.

All told, five of the six indicator point toward a Diamondback improvement in 2014, and I'm actually fairly confident there will be one. However, the question is, will it be large enough to give us our first winning record since 2011? I'm a lot less certain of that, given the current roster. I can see where we can pick up some of that. Last season, Paul Goldschmidt, Ender Inciarte, A.J. Pollock, Chris Owings and David Peralta combined for 481 games and 15.7 bWAR. If we pro-rate that and give them each 150 games at the same level, they'd be worth 24.5 bWAR, so close to nine wins more. Of course, how Cody Ross and Mark Trumbo fit into that picture is another question.

There's certainly scope for equal, if not even more improvement on the pitching side, where Arizona totaled only 2.9 bWAR in 2014, with the sole player worth more than one win being Josh Collmenter. Better output from Trevor Cahill and Wade Miley, as well as whoever ends up occupying the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation will be key. If Cahill and Miley can be worth two wins apiece, that's approaching five WAR improvement from them alone, and the bullpen, who were overall close to replacement level, will also need to be better.

So, La Russa is not perhaps as entirely shooting for the stars as it may appear. Reaching .500 will take a lot of hard work and no small amount of good fortune (particularly on the health front), but it's not impossible. Personally, I'd be more than satisfied with 82 wins in 2015, as long as it is accompanied by a sense of a credible future plan in place for the franchise going forward.

We may know fairly quickly once the season starts in April 2015. Three weeks into this season, when the D-backs were 4-14, I looked at what happened subsequently to other teams that has similarly wretched starts, and their average final mark turned out to be 65-97, only one game off what the D-backs actually recorded. If the same happens to Arizona over the first few weeks of April, someone should probably send a box of tissues to Chase Field for Tony La Russa.