If there was anything we knew about the Arizona Diamondbacks' 2015 season, it was that it would be a season of experimentation and change. Pitching development was, and still is, expected to take center stage throughout the majority of the season. The emergence of Jake Lamb at third base and the need to find playing time for Yasmany Tomás was another story likely to generate a great deal of discussion. One area that seemed unlikely to undergo much discussion in the early part of the season though, was the state of the middle infield. Coming out of Spring Training, Chip Hale pronounced Aaron Hill a bench bat. Chris Owings was inserted as the starting second baseman, and Nick Ahmed was handed the starting short stop job. Cliff Pennington remained on the roster as a utility infielder. All of this seemed to make sense, and was a direct result of evaluations of the players over the last 18 months and in Spring Training. It's funny how fast things can change though.
Putting it mildly, the Diamondbacks' middle infield has been an offensive black hole, the likes of which only Stephen Hawking could get excited about. Combined with the entirely predictable offensive woes of Tuffy Gosewisch out of the catcher's spot, and the fact that the Diamondbacks play in the NL, requiring the pitcher to hit, the bottom half of the Arizona lineup has been, to put things nicely, horrible.
On May 1st, the trio of Ahmed, Hill, and Owings looked like this:
Plate Appearances: 189
Home Runs: 1
Strike outs: 52
This amounted to a triple-slash of: .187/ .238/ .242
There are so many ways to rank this dismal level of performance that it isn't even worth listing them. Plainly, the offensive output of the trio was so bad that the questions started flying. Did the Diamondbacks make the right decisions? Should they call up the still-developing Brandon Drury? How long before they were forced to make a trade? What value, if any, did these players have?
The turn of the calendar from April to May did not fix the trio, but here on May 13th, the picture is already changing - and for the better. So, as the Diamondbacks continue to use 2015 as a great big lab experiment, what can (and should) we expect from the middle infield moving forward? Who should be getting at-bats, and who should be sitting? Is Brandon Drury's arrival imminent, or can the team afford to let him continue working in AA-Mobile?
Let's take a closer look at each of the three and see what emerges.
"We're going to try to be as patient as we can. His defense has obviously saved us games if you look at the numbers." - Chip Hale
Service Time: Rookie
Triple-slash: .150/ .244/ .163
Pros: Nick Ahmed brings a singular talent to the game that simply cannot be ignored - his defense. Ahmed has been considered by many to be a generational talent with the glove. During the time he spent in Atlanta's minor league system, he was favorably compared to fellow organizational short stop, Andrelton Simmons.
"Omar Vizquel was the best (shortstop) I've seen in person. Nick is, if not as good, very close. And there was no one better than Omar." - Phil Nevin
"If Nick Ahmed made an error, you assumed he had the flu." - Mark Grace
In addition, Diamondbacks coach Andy Green, manager, Chip Hale, and former GM, Kevin Towers have all called him the best defensive talent they have ever seen. Truly special talents like this are called generational for a reason. The Diamondbacks have never had this level of defense at short stop, not even in the days of Stephen Drew. With incredible range in the field, a strong arm for a short stop, and possibly the quickest ball-transfer in all of baseball, Ahmed's defense could be worth 3-4 WAR all by itself.
Cons: When The Diamondbacks made Nick Ahmed their starting short stop, they knew he was going to have a hard time at the plate. There were no real expectations of him to be a force at the plate, only to hit at some sort of subsistence-level. Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, Ahmed has struggled to reach even that paltry level of offensive production. Even with his exceptional glove work, Ahmed is currently producing at a pace that will create negative value. As much as his glove may be transcendent, the Diamondbacks cannot survive a full season if they have three offensive holes at the bottom of the lineup, and he currently is the biggest drag on that portion of the order.
Outlook: Some of Ahmed's difficulties are due to his inflated strikeout rate, something that will need to come down if he has any chance at righting the ship. Over the last 10 games, he has only whiffed at a 16.7% rate, so there are signs of improvement. Some of his troubles come from hitting the ball with so much top-spin that he gets no carry out of even his medium and hard hit balls, which account for 79.3% of the balls he hits. Some of Ahmed's struggles also appear to be the result of plain, ordinary bad luck. Even blind squirrel hitters tend to have a BABIP somewhere in the .250-.260 range. Ahmed's BABIP did not get over a mere .200 until after last night's 2-hit game against the Washington Nationals. With the average BABIP hovering around .300, it seems likely that Ahmed is due for some regression to the mean in that department. In September of 2014, Ahmed had roughly the same number of at-bats. While his OBP was slightly lower, his batting average was 50 points higher and his offensive WAR was neutral at 0.0. That's the sort of minimum level of performance that keeps Ahmed in the starting lineup.
"It's such a short sample, man. I've been feeling good. I know eventually your swing comes around." - Aaron Hill
Service Time: 9 years
Triple-slash: .282/ .333/ .449
Pros: No bones about it, Aaron Hill has, to this point in the season, been far and away the most productive bat on the middle infield. It is not even close. Modesty aside with regard to Hill's comments on his current hot streak, his performance has placed his production as markedly above league average. Aaron Hill is also a gritty (yes, we can still use that term in a positive way) veteran. The Diamondbacks have the second youngest average age among position players in the NL. Jake Lamb, Yasmany Tomás, and Nick Ahmed are all in their rookie seasons. Chris Owing (because of an injury derailed 2014) and Tuffy Gosewisch are in their first seasons of full-time work. Ender Inciarte is looking like a veteran with his whopping 0.157 years of service time. David Peralta stands at 0.120. This is a very young, inexperienced team. Hill has seen the entire range of the game, from hot players to cold ones, good teams to bad ones. He has played in pennant races and the playoffs. He has played on the worst team in baseball. He has been a MVP-caliber player, and a sub-replacement level one. He has played through injuries, and lost time to injuries that have ended some careers. He's been there and done that. For young players, he provides a wealth of knowledge and experience to learn from.
Cons: Aaron Hill may be one of the streakiest players in the game. When he goes on a streak, one way or the other, it can last months. He has had five seasons (including this one) where he has performed above league average in OPS+. He has had six season where he was well below average. A healthy Aaron Hill showed every day of his age in in 2014, hitting .244 with an OPS of .654, while showing decreased range at second base. He was clearly a player in decline. As evidenced from the middle infield's March/April numbers, 2015 did not exactly start off kind for Hill either. Before he got hot, starting on May 6th in Colorado, Hill was hitting .196/ .237/ .286. Since then, he is hitting .500/ .560/ .864. That sort of hyper-inflated production has done wonders to his season numbers. Neither extreme of performance is indicative of the player Hill is now, though the poor numbers are much closer to the reality than the good ones.
Defensively, Aaron Hill is splitting his time between second and third. He is making the plays he is expected to, but he continues to show a decreased overall range at second, while his arm is well below average for playing third, making a potent bat all the more important to his overall value.
Outlook: Thanks to a 3-year/ $35 million extension signed in February of 2013, Aaron Hill is owed a hefty pile of money between now and next season. 2016 will mark his age 34 season, a mark decidedly advanced on the wrong side of the aging curve for second basemen. Once Lamb and Tomás are both healthy, and especially if they are joined by Brandon Drury at some point, there simply is no future for Hill at third base. Entering the season, Diamondbacks' Chief of Baseball Operations, Tony LaRussa did not mince words. The team still had one more roster goal to facilitate, moving Aaron Hill. Hill's offensive resurgence could indeed be Aaron Hill being Aaron Hill, the veteran having another "good streak season". It is almost impossible to ignore his combined age and 2014 results though. It is just as likely that this run is as much a dead cat bounce as it is another year of "good" Aaron Hill. The small sample size is unlikely to be fooling any teams looking for help at second base, but his value is still unlikely to get any higher than it is now, even if he continues at his season average for another month. The contract is just too hefty.
"I feel like my swing has been there, just a little inconsistent at times." - Chris Owings
Service Time: 1 year
Triple-slash: .247/ .278/ .403
Pros: The tool that brought Chris Owings to the big leagues is his bat. In 2012 he batted .290/ .323/ .452 across A+ and AA. At a mere 21 years of age, Owings hit .359/ .482/ .841 for AAA Reno in 2014. In 2014, Chris Owings opened the season as the Diamondbacks' starting short stop, getting the nod over defensively gifted incumbent, Didi Gregorius. The league average age in 2014 was 28.2, Chris Owings was 23. With enough range to play slightly above average at short stop, he has range and arm to spare for playing on the right side of the infield. He has hit at every level, adjusting to everything thrown at him. Before losing the 2014 season to injury, Chris Owings was looking like a front-runner for ROY consideration. Chris Owings brings foot speed and aggressiveness that puts a great deal of pressure on opposing defenses and pitchers.
Cons: There is a hole in Chris Owings game, and it is a big one. Of players with 400+ plate appearances between 2014 and 2015, Chris Owings ranks 242 out of 249 in total walks drawn with a mere 20. In the minor leagues, Owings' bat control allowed him to go outside the strike zone and hit for average. That hitting philosophy is being hard-tested at the MLB level. Owings' 3.5% walk rate is about half the league average, and his propensity for swinging outside the zone to chase a hit is being reflected in a strikeout rate that is generally reserved for power sluggers. Returning from injury, Owings was forced to make alterations to his swing. In the third week of April, it seemed Owings was starting to come around, going 6-for-13 in a three-game stretch from the 17th to the 19th. But then he started to slip a little bit, then a little bit more. Going into Colorado at the beginning of May, Owings was hitting .205/ .233/ .289. For Owings to be successful, he needs to up that average by 50 points or more, or he needs to figure out how to take walks, as his OBP at that point was even lower than that of Nick Ahmed's.
While clearly better than Hill defensively at second, he is nowhere near the same level of defender at short as Ahmed. If offensive numbers are similar, this gives Ahmed the nod at second and forces Owings to out-bat Hill at second to earn a place on the roster.
Outlook: Owings has a very long history of success despite his approach to hitting. For the first 72 games of 2014, before heading to the DL for a shoulder injury that would require surgery, Owings was hitting .277/ .313/ .458, with six home runs and five triples despite a paltry 4.7% walk rate. While not performing at quite the rate Aaron Hill is right now, it was very close. Adding Owings' dynamic play on the bases with seven stolen baes against zero caught stealing, and above average defense, Owings comes out the superior all-around player. At age 23, there is still plenty of room for growth, as Owings won't hit his physical peak for another four or five years. Boosted largely by a three-hit performance last night, Owings is hitting .346/ .370/ .654 over the last seven games. Pitchers have been abusing Owings low and away all season. If he adapts to that strategy, there remains some hope that he can continue to remain overly aggressive at the plate and join Alex Gonzalez and Alex Gonzalez, serving as an outlier of a no-walk hitting success.
The Bard's Take
Despite having such a tremendous defensive talent, the Diamondbacks cannot survive Nick Ahmed's bat without significantly improved production from both second base and catcher. Aaron Hill is hitting well, but is aging out of the position and has shown every reason to believe the offensive output is unsustainable. Furthermore, Hill clearly has no future with this team that is in a youth-driven rebuild mode. Chris Owings has struggled to return to pre-injury form and has the sort of weakness that could prevent him from ever doing so. However, he is so young and talented that it is hard to go all-in against him. If he is able to return to form, he has the skills to play either middle infield position.
So, who should start, and who should sit? Should Ahmed be sent back to Reno? Should Brandon Drury be promoted?
The answer to that final one is a resounding, no. Brandon Drury got off to a dismal start in Mobile this year. While he has come on of late, his season numbers are still well-below what he was able to produce last year. While the Diamondbacks still do not know what they have at the MLB level, there is no reason to further muddy the picture by promoting Drury before he returns to and sustains dominant form.
As for the rest, the knee-jerk reaction would seem to be to start Hill at second every day and Owings at short stop, forcing Ahmed into the role of late-inning defensive replacement, or back to Reno. Closer inspection, however; would seem to suggest otherwise. Despite all the headaches it might be causing fans and game scorers to keep track of who is where, Hale has managed to get all three players the equivalent of starting player plate appearances. Owings leads the way with 115, while Ahmed and Hill have 91 and 84 respectively. For a developing talent like Owings or Ahmed, there is little worse for development than to spend too much time sitting. Since Hill clearly has no future with the team, it would seem difficult to sacrifice too many developmental AB to an aging veteran with one foot out the door. By the same token, for Hill to maintain whatever value he has as a piece to be moved later, he needs to continue getting playing time - and performing. While Hill is scorching hot right now, and Owings once again appears to possibly be coming around, Ahmed is slowly working his way towards a subsistence-level .300 OBP. Unfortunately, all three also bring questions as to whether or not these are signs of true improvement, or simply the result of the streakiness that can be the game of baseball.
This means, all three players have reasons to be put out on the field as starters. While Nick Ahmed's glove is not currently outweighing his bat, it is not going to get better sitting on the bench. Then there is another wrinkle. The problem with Nick Ahmed's bat is that the team could not survive it so long as both second base and catcher continued to struggle just as poorly. Hill and Owings are showing improvement at second base though. Tuffy Gosewisch is starting to come around a bit more, and may soon be joined by Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate, with the hope of increasing offensive production there. With improved offense at second and catcher, the pressure on Ahmed to reach the .300 OBP level of minimum performance is significantly lessened. He still needs to get there, but the team can suddenly be more patient with that development, continuing to run him out there so long as he continues to make strides in the right direction.
This is a rebuilding year. The team needs to spend 2015 closely scrutinizing what they do and do not have, so that they may make the best decisions with how to move forward with the big opportunities they will have in free agency come December. Among other things, they need to learn what they have in Ahmed and Owings, and they need to be certain. This means that with Owings, even if he continues to walk at merely half (or even less than) the league average, the team needs to see if he can still hit enough to offset that deficiency, or if his hitting philosophy is going to get too exposed to make him an everyday player. This also means that the team needs to see if Ahmed, despite his horrific start, can after 250-300 AB (about 2.5 times what he has now) get his OBP up to where it needs to be. If Owings can hit, and Ahmed can get on base, the middle infield could be one of the very best defensively in all of baseball, and put together 5 WAR in a season. If one of them fails to make the cut though, then the way is opened for Brandon Drury to make an appearance late in the season.
So what should Chip Hale and the Diamondbacks do with their three middle infielders? In order to maximize the value of the time spent on the field and on the roster, they should stay the course, and continue doing exactly what they have been doing. All three players are receiving enough time that neither development nor value is being detrimentally impacted. Owings and Ahmed are getting the AB necessary to either become full-time major league starters, or to prove that they are something less, possibly utility players. Aaron Hill is getting enough playing time that his offensive contributions are helping to balance out infield hitting woes, and his value continues to hold steady for when the Diamondbacks final decide to pull the trigger on moving him. This seems the perfect balance of evaluating the future while extracting value from a veteran contract.