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The D-backs who got away: An alternate 2016 pitching staff

Former Arizona Diamondback Max Scherzer won the Cy Young this year. Oh, what might have been...

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This is just a bit of fun, more in the nature of a thought experiment than anything else. But in the wake of both Scherzer’s Cy Young victory, and also my look at free-agent relievers, I wondered what sort of pitching staff we could put together, consisting only of pitchers the Diamondbacks let go?

The rules

I’m going based on 2016 performance: We need a total of close to 162 starts, and getting there is probably going to require more than five starters. We can then figure out how many innings that would give us. I’m not going to get into trying to convert innings for an AL starter into NL ones. The balance of the 1,450 innings will need to be worked by the relievers, again quite probably needing more than seven of these. I’ve also tried to keep the salaries roughly at the same as Arizona actually spent, but these are not a particular limiting factor, just a guideline. The only criteria for inclusion is that the pitchers were at one point under the control of the D-backs, and were traded or allowed to leave as free agents. This may not be “fair” - turns out, two of these pitchers were actually traded for each other! - but again, this is just for my curiosity.

Let’s start with the starters:

The rotation

  1. Max Scherzer (34 GS, 228.1 IP, 5.6 fWAR, $22.1m)
  2. Jeremy Hellickson (32 GS, 189.0 IP, 3.2 fWAR, $7.0m)
  3. Trevor Bauer (28 GS, 173.2 IP, 2.6 fWAR, $1.7m)
  4. Ian Kennedy (33 GS, 195.2 IP, 1.7 fWAR, $7.5m)
  5. Chase Anderson (30 GS, 151.2 IP, 0.6 fWAR, $0.5m)
  6. Tyler Skaggs (10 GS, 49.2 IP, 0.7 fWAR, $0.5m)

[I’m not normally keen on fWAR for evaluating actual pitcher performance, but Fangraphs allows far easier access to team tallies than B-R, so I’ll bite the bullet this time]

The front five total 157 starts, so we’ll top that up by adding half of Skaggs’ output for the season. The cost for the theoretical rotation above is around $39 million. The cost for Arizona’s rotation heavily depends on how you count Greinke, but putting him in at $27 million i.e. excluding the deferred amount, and including the signing bonus, the cost of our five actual Opening Day starters (Greinke, Miller, Corbin, De La Rosa and Ray) is a very comparable $36.7 million.

However, the “ones who got away” performed rather better. The five and a half men listed, give us 162 starts covering about 965 innings at 14.0 fWAR. In reality, the 2016 Diamondbacks’ actual rotation covered 884 innings at 8.0 fWAR, so were worth six wins less. Most of this was found at the top of the hypothetical rotation, with a particularly steep drop after #4. I could have squeezed out another win by going with Wade Miley (30 GS, 166 IP, 1.5 fWAR) instead of Anderson, but at $6.2 million, he would have pushed our rotation cost to $45 million, significantly more than we spent.

Kennedy, incidentally, was the poster boy for the difference in WAR, being worth more than twice as much (4.1) by bWAR. That’s because his ERA (the core of bWAR) undercut his FIP (the metric used for fWAR) by close to a run. As noted, part of those innings is perhaps due to American League-ness, but given Scherzer threw over 30 frames more than any of the AL pitchers in the rotation, it doesn’t seem too much of a factor. So it leaves us with 485 innings of relief work to cover.

The bullpen

  • Addison Reed (77.2 IP, 2.6 fWAR, $5.3m)
  • Will Harris (64.0 IP, 1.8 fWAR, $0.5m)
  • Zach Duke (61.0 IP, 1.3 fWAR, $5.0m)
  • A.J. Schugel (52.0 IP, 0.6 fWAR, $0.5m)
  • Chaz Roe (29.0 IP, 0.5 fWAR, $0.7m)
  • Bryan Shaw (66.2 IP, 0.4 fWAR, $2.8m)
  • Blaine Boyer (66.0 IP, 0.4 fWAR, $0.9m)
  • Vidal Nuno (55.1 IP, 0.1 fWAR $0.5m)

I now feel justified in spending a little more on the rotation, because this set of eight players comes in at $16.2 million, slightly below the Opening Day cost of our actual bullpen. For that, Ziegler ($5.5m), Clippard ($6.1m), Delgado ($1.3m) and Collmenter ($1.8m) add up to $14.7m, and adding on four minimum-league players to even up the numbers, brings the real cost of the 2016 D-backs bullpen to $16.7 million.

The eight men above threw a total of 471.2 innings, which is close enough to the target of 485 that I’m calling it. Their total value? 7.7 fWAR. That’s an awful lot better than the 0.5 fWAR actually posted overall by Arizona’s corps of relievers. What I find particularly disturbing is how many of the names above were more or less given away by the Diamondbacks. Harris, Roe and Schugel were taken on waivers; Boyer was cut with two years team control left; Nuno and Shaw were virtually throw-ins to trades involving bigger names. But virtually all of them performed better than anyone who actually pitched in relief for the D-backs this season.

Combining starter and relievers, the pitching staff above would have cost about the same as the 2016 Diamondbacks did, threw roughly the same number of innings, but would be worth about thirteen wins more. Indeed, at 21.7 fWAR, it would have been a better pitching staff than the World Series champion Cubs. Of course, hindsight is absolutely 20/20, There’s no way we could realistically have predicted that Boyer would be a useful piece for 2016: that was five years, seven different organizations and a mission with Adam LaRoche to rescue sex slaves, after he was granted free agency by Arizona.

But if you try to come up with a list of pitchers picked up by the Diamondbacks who’ve outperformed expectations in the same way, it seems a great deal shorter. Hopefully, the new front-office can do rather better in this area than the last couple of administrations, for as we documented previously, pitching has been the biggest problem for this franchise, ever since that fateful Opening Day in 2009, when Brandon Webb took the mound for his final major-league appearance.