How to Build for the Future (and 2015)

Ralph Freso

[Editor's note. This was originally posted a couple of days ago, but I wanted to wait until after the Towers dust had settled before promoting it. Though, of course, the subsequent dismissal of KT as GM makes the topic of building for the future all the more relevant now!]

As the Diamondbacks prepare for finale of a four game series with the Padres, fans of the team are largely uninterested. After all, the D-backs lost any realistic shot at contending with a dismal April, and the longest of long-shots vanished when Paul Goldschmidt went down with an injury. The return of Daniel Hudson may have been the last thing to look forward to.

Nor is there an attitude of "wait till next year." While that is the general response of sports fans to a bad season, the problems facing the Diamondbacks seem so profound, so deep, that it will take multiple years to fix them. Better sustained success, the reasoning goes, than any attempt to contend in 2015. But this overlooks a number of things.

1. What is a contender?

The very notion of what it means to be a contending team is in the process of changing. Not so very long ago, four teams would contest the postseason, and they would all be teams that were capable of winning the World Series. Because of the nature of the game, teams that were capable of winning it all often spent October watching other teams play. In 1993, the final year of the two division system, a 94 win Expos team and a 103 win Giants team were shut out of the postseason. Nor was this unusual; discounting the 1981 strike season, you have to go all the way back to 1972 to find a year without a 90 win team watching the playoffs.

The addition of two more teams to the postseason in 1995 changed the landscape of what it meant to contend. No longer was winning the division necessary, and teams with fewer than 90 wins regularly reached the playoffs. The weakness of some divisions meant that no longer was just any team that made the playoffs a contender, while Wild Card teams regularly reached or won the World Series. The addition of a second wild card has further muddied the waters, especially with the one-off format adding to the luck factor. But the real reason why we don't really know what a contender is lies in the multitude of pitching injuries and the offensive futility throughout baseball. Contenders used to be teams with a great pitching staff; now injuries can lay low the greatest of staffs. The fragility of the UCL could be the thing that brings equality to baseball.

2. Offense is more important than pitching.

This seems foolish, and it certainly runs against conventional wisdom. But remember that the conventional wisdom was formed in an era of expanded offense and video game statistics--the steroid era. After scoring peaked at over 5 runs per game (per team) in 2000, it has dropped significantly. And it continues to drop. Last year, 12 teams averaged below 4 runs per game, the lowest since the latest wave of expansion. At present, 14 teams are averaging below 4 runs, and the Kansas City Royals are a bad week away from half the league being below that point. When offenses were killing the baseball, having a pitching staff that was dominant was your ticket to success, and even having two future HOF pitchers and a bunch of also-rans was sufficient to win a World Series.

To put numbers to it, from 1995-2005, only 2 of 22 World Series teams (the 2000 Yankees and the 2003 Marlins) were not in the top 10 teams for ERA+ over the course of the season. Most World Series teams were top-5. Since 2006, 5 of 16 World Series participants finished outside the top-10, and when the 8th and 9th ranked Red Sox and Cardinals faced off, it was the first time since 2008 that both World Series teams boasted top 10 ERA+ pitching staffs. Looking at OPS+, a different picture emerges. From 1995 to 2005, of the 22 World Series participants, only 11 finished in the top 10 in OPS+, and only twice (in 2002 and 2004) did both participants.

But from 2006 to the present (with only 16 participants) 11 finished in the top 10 in OPS+, including every team to reach the World Series since 2010. The reasoning here is simple. At the height of the steroid era, everybody was hitting, so to be great, you had to be decent at hitting and great at pitching. Now, with everyone having decent pitching, the key to success is to be decent at pitching and great at hitting.

3. Bats are more volatile than arms, barring injury.

Great pitchers are great. For the most part, the only thing that stops them (before age catches up) is injury. While great pitchers do have a bad game, it only hurts their team for one game. But a key hitter slumping hurts the team for however long the slump lasts. This, and not the pitching staff, is the reason why the Red Sox have gone from the penthouse to the outhouse (and the same holds true for the Rangers, as well.) Last year, the Red Sox scored over 5 runs per game, top in MLB. This year, they are below 4, in 23rd. The Rangers have dropped from 8th to 20th. And the Diamondbacks, for all the blame we tend to assign the pitching staff, have dropped from 14th to 27th.

Similar drops can be observed in OPS+ as well. Injuries are somewhat to blame (at least for the Rangers and the Diamondbacks) but a failure to hit can take a team from postseason plans to vacation plans. What this means is that reliance on offense to power a team (in this era without sure-fire 50 home run players) will not lead to consistent success.

4. The key in pitchers is not so much quality as quantity.

Investing heavily in a top-tier starter could add, barring injury, 5-10 wins over the course of a season. That is a big help in getting to the postseason. But what happens once you get there? Who is behind that top-tier starter?

Outside of Game 1 in 2012, the Tigers vaunted rotation did well. But one bad Justin Verlander outing was enough to turn the series the Giants way, and the Giants' starters (who, while not on the level of Verlander, Sanchez, and Scherzer, were still very good) dominated the Tigers' bats. In 2010, while Cliff Lee should have been better than Tim Lincecum, he wasn't in Game 1, and it was the Tommy Hunter-Madison Bumgarner matchup in Game 4 that really set up the Giants for the win. While Cliff Lee was great in 2009, it was a bad outing from Cole Hamels and another from an over-the-hill Pedro Martinez that turned the series to the Yankees.

The teams that have success in October are those that have a lot of home grown pitchers who aren't going to be the ace anywhere, but would make a good #2 or #3 in any organization (the Giants and Cardinals definitely fall into this group.) No one would have tabbed Barry Zito as a key player in the postseason. But it was the ability of the Giants to go deep into the pitching staff and have a pitcher like Zito that made the difference between winning the World Series and watching someone else do it.

Considering these factors, how should the D-backs plan for the future?

Is 2015 a foregone conclusion, when it comes to competing? How should the D-backs approach free agency? Here are my thoughts on the matter.

1. Don't pursue pitching too heavily.

The failures of the current staff could lead to an over-reaction, where the D-backs try to buy a pitching staff (although they are probably well out of the market, anyway.) This worked in 2001. It hasn't worked in the last few years. The last four World Series winners had pitching staffs composed of home grown talent and mid-level free agents. They were successful because they hadn't overspent to get the top pitching target, although the Red Sox could probably have afforded doing so. Instead, they had quantity, and all it took was the time for home grown talent (Lester and Bucholtz) to develop into top-level starting pitching. The D-backs have a huge amount of pitching talent, but it probably won't be ready next year. The temptation is to get more. That isn't necessary.

2. Do add offense, if possible.

This is what the D-backs tried to do last year, and completely failed at it. Much virtual ink has been spilled on this site of the failure of the Trumbo deal. It's probably safe to say Trumbo has been worse than the most pessimistic prognosticator would have said. The issue is, what sort of offense? Home runs are decreasing, and thereby becoming increasing in expense and value. There's also the argument that in a ballpark like Chase, with a vast outfield, players that have the ability to turn doubles into triples (like David Peralta has done many times) are more valuable than players that can hit it over the fence. How many fly balls do we see settle into the glove of the center fielder that would be home runs in almost any other park? Don't chase home runs.

On the other hand, don't chase contact hitters. A fast infield increases the potential for double plays, something that we've seen with Martin Prado and Aaron Hill. No, the kind of offense this team needs is the type that hits line drives and has speed. The thing is, the Diamondbacks already have a lot of players that can do that. A. J. Pollock, the aforementioned Peralta, and some guy named Goldschmidt have shown the ability to do this on a regular basis.

But there are areas of potential improvement. At least one outfield spot, one middle infield spot, and the third base position need to have players like this. The players may already be with the organization, and 2015 may be the year to figure this out. The thing is, just as with pitching, quantity is important. Because bats are more volatile than arms (barring injury, again) it is ill advised to depend on one (or even three) bats for the offensive production. Goldy is one of the greatest players in MLB today. He couldn't, and won't ever be able to, carry the entire team offensively.

3. This means the D-backs need to do two things.

First, they need to identify the players that are going to be key going forward. I think at least eight starting pitchers and five offensive players need to be the core group around which everything else is constructed. Obviously, not all of those pitchers will be in the major leagues. But the importance of pitching depth cannot be overemphasized. Next, they should see if there are players currently in the organization that can fit in with the plan going forward, and see how they do in 2015.

Does this mean that there's no way to contend in 2015?

Absolutely not. Imagine that Ender Inciarte becomes an above-average leadoff hitter in terms of OBP, A. J. Pollock picks up where he left off last year, Goldy does his thing, Peralta continues his development, Owings picks up where he left off, and Jake Lamb and Didi Gregorius come through on their promise. Is this a dream scenario? Absolutely. But that if half of those things happen, the offense would be able to score runs and contend. Chances are, one or more of these players will demonstrate that they are unable to do the job, and will need to be replaced.

But they are all (with the exception of Goldy) a type of player that is replaceable, and they are also all above-average defensively, meaning that when they go through slumps, they will still provide some value. The pitching staff is more difficult to project. It seems to lack leadership. But what it does have is enough arms to provide value throughout. The encouraging signs (like Collmenter learning how to pitch through the order multiple times) have been there, even in this darkest of seasons. Getting Patrick Corbin back at some point next year will provide a boost.

Another thought comes from the realm of SABRmetrics. The top teams need 27 offensive WAR in order to be competitive, and I'd add that 15 pitching WAR is needing on top of that. Last year, the D-backs had 10.7 pitching fWAR and 22.2 offensive fWAR. How can the magic numbers be arrived at?

On the offensive side, it isn't that hard. Projecting this year's WAR numbers for the key hitters mentioned above over ~150 games provides 5.8 fWAR for Goldy, 7 for AJ, 3.3 for Inciarte, 3.6 for Owings, 3 for Peralta. That's 22.7 right there. If Miggy, Lamb, and Didi can be worth 2 fWAR each, that puts the offense up to 28.7. Of course, someone is going to flop, but it's also possible that someone will outperform those numbers, as they don't seem to be particularly high, except for Pollock's (and Goldy's may be a bit low.)

The pitching staff is the problem. With Collmenter and Miley at 1.5 fWAR each the leaders, arriving at 15 next year will be a bit difficult. But if they replicate those numbers, Corbin comes through with 2 fWAR after his return, Chase Anderson develops into what Collmenter and Miley have been this year, and Archie Bradley/Aaron Blair/Vidal Nuno/whoever can come through with another 2, we arrive at ~8.5 fWAR from the starting rotation. While that probably isn't going to be sufficient, if any one of these pitchers comes through with a big season, and the bullpen is good for another 3 or so, getting to 15 pitching WAR is possible.

In order for the D-backs to be successful, the pitching staff needs to improve to allowing around 4.25 runs per game. And the offense needs to score more than that. I'm confident that there are pieces in place that, with time to develop, will be able to do these things. So, yes, this isn't a lot, and it won't make some people happy, but mostly standing pat, cutting off the dead wood, and giving the young players playing time is the only thing that will make the D-backs successful in the future. That it might also make them successful in 2015 is a nice bonus.