In 2015, the Diamondbacks were generally a very fun team to watch. Sure, fans griped about Jeremy Hellickson starting every fifth day, with how slow he was to the plate and how bad he generally pitched. But there were plenty of reasons to be excited. Paul Goldschmidt continued to be a star, A.J. Pollock established himself as a star, and not only did the team win more than most people (Tony La Russa and his broken heart excepted) thought they would, they looked like they were having fun in doing so. They played excellent defense, ran the bases well, and strung hits together at opportune times. With offseason improvements to the pitching staff and the second base position (the two glaring weaknesses in 2015) expectations were high for 2016. The injury to Pollock certainly hasn't helped, but certainly there are other reasons why the Diamondbacks have disappointed.
First, let's compare the rosters between last year and this year. 31 players appeared in at least 20 games for the Diamondbacks last year. Of those 31, 14 are either out injured (Pollock) or no longer with the team. Three of the nine players who appeared in over 100 games last year will likely not appear at all this year. Pollock is on the DL, and Ender Inciarte and Aaron Hill were traded to the Braves and Brewers, respectively. The 2015 Diamondbacks were a young team, and, at least on the position player side, they got younger. The oldest regular position player in 2016, Welington Castillo, is 29, and joined the team less than one year ago. Of the eight players with over 150 plate appearances, none are above 30, and four are 25 or younger. While this is something to be desired for a team that is rebuilding, the Diamondbacks were not supposed to be rebuilding, but contending.
On the pitching side, the Diamondbacks appeared to improve substantially, with Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller replacing the aforementioned Hellickson and Chase Anderson in the starting rotation. So far, by ERA+, Greinke has posted worse numbers than Anderson and Miller worse than Hellickson. There is hope here. Greinke has looked like the pitcher the Diamondbacks signed in his last few appearances. Miller was given a DL stint, and hopefully has used the time to work through his struggles.
Next, look at the defense. While the loss of Pollock certainly hurts, it doesn't begin to fully explain what has happened here. The 2015 Diamondbacks were certainly one of the top defensive teams in baseball, rated third by Fangraphs and first by Baseball-Reference. This year, those places have dropped to twelfth and seventh. Fangraphs rated the Diamondbacks baserunning the third best in baseball; this year, it has dropped to twelfth. Digging past general rankings, though, paints a far worse picture. The Diamondbacks defensive efficiency (which is a measure of percentage of balls in play converted into outs) is third-worst in all of baseball, having dropped from .693 in 2015 to .668 so far in 2016. In other words, almost one-third of balls put in play result in a baserunner. League average last year was .691; this year it is .689. In other words, the Diamondbacks went from being above-average at turning balls in play into outs to well below-average. They are the fifth-worst in baseball at grounding into double plays, despite being arguably the fastest team in baseball. (Their speed rating at Fangraphs, which is a measure of extra base hits that are not home runs, is second only to the Green Monster assisted Red Sox.)
Not only is there plenty of talent on the team, that talent isn't doing poorly. While the pitching has underperformed, the Diamondbacks rank in the top half for WAA at every position except the two corner outfield spots. While the loss of Pollock certainly has hurt the team, this shows it hasn't as much as some would have you believe. Yes, Pollock was the second-best center fielder in baseball last year. But despite the positioned being manned almost entirely by middle infielders (and once by a backup catcher!) the Diamondbacks have posted 0.6 WAA in Center Field this season. There's still a steep drop-off, but not as steep as the drop from Ender Inciarte and David Peralta to Yasmany Tomas and Brandon Drury. With Peralta and Inciarte getting the bulk of the playing time, the Diamondbacks had the best left field in baseball last year. This year, with Yasmany Tomas, it's down to 24th.
That said, though, Tomas was on the team last year, getting at bats primarily at third base and right field, and the Diamondbacks were playing better baseball. Jake Lamb has helped turn third base from a weakness into a strength, and Jean Segura has been largely responsible for the Diamondbacks having the fourth-best second base in the NL by WAA, after they were last at that position in 2015. The catching duo of Castillo and the surprising Chris Herrmann is one of the best in baseball from an offensive standpoint, and while they aren't perfect defensively, they don't make big mistakes, either. Rumors of the demise of Paul Goldschmidt were overblown; the Diamondbacks rank in a tie with the Tigers for first in all of baseball by WAA at that position. The pieces are in place, offensively, yet the offense struggles for long stretches. The pitching staff has the pieces to be one of the top rotations in baseball, but simply hasn't performed. Why?
It seems unfair to point too many fingers at Chip Hale, as he oversaw the team last year as well as the team this year. Also, many of the same coaches remain in place, including Dave McKay, recognized as one of the top baserunning coaches. Dave Magadan seems to be getting good results as the hitting coach. And while it would be easy to lay the blame for the underperforming pitchers on Mike Butcher, if that is done, he also has to receive credit for the marked strides taken by Rubby De La Rosa and Archie Bradley. Certainly, there are things to criticize about each of them, but it would be quite a leap to place the poor performance of the team solely upon any of them.
Instead, it may be time to look at the makeup of the team, and question where the on-field leadership is. There are no veterans among the regular players, and the veteran of the pitching staff, Zack Greinke, seems more the type to lead by example than by words. The same could be said of Paul Goldschmidt. He is surely a good example to the team with the way he plays, but seems hardly the person to take a teammate to task for making mistakes, nor is he the cheerleader type. David Peralta is more the emotional leader of the team, and he was sorely missed. It is to be hoped that his return will spark the team, but through one series it didn't seem to help much.
Last year, despite the consistent underperformance of Aaron Hill (although he did improve in the second half) the Diamondbacks posted a winning record (38-35) when Hill was in the starting lineup. Hill was undoubtedly not a better player than Jake Lamb, and you'd be hard pressed to argue he was a better all-around player than Chris Owings for much of the year. He wasn't very good offensively or defensively. But he did provide some veteran leadership. While the team was young, there were veteran offensive players like Hill, Cliff Pennington, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia that players could talk to. This year, the role of veteran leadership falls on Rickie Weeks, who may be perfectly capable, but at the same time is fighting to stay on the team.
When you add to this the fact that Chip Hale is in his second year as manager, Tony La Russa has just over two years of executive experience, and Dave Stewart has very little recent front office experience, you wind up with a team that simply doesn't have a lot of veteran leadership in any role. True, De Jon Watson has a great deal of experience, but it is unclear exactly what level of input he has in a front office that seems to be run primarily by La Russa. Officially, "along with General Manager Dave Stewart, he advises Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa on all key decisions" (from the Diamondbacks website). Inexperience, at least in the current role, is more the rule than the exception on the franchise.
What has happened this year is really a perfect storm. Clubhouse leaders such as Cliff Pennington and Ender Inciarte were traded away, key players such as A.J. Pollock are injured, emotional leader David Peralta spent a lot of time on the DL, and Zack Greinke struggled to set the tone in the early going as he adjusted to a new setting. Shelby Miller's struggles have been blamed by the front office on pressure, and relieving the pressure on a younger player like Miller should be partially the responsibility of veteran leadership both among the players and among the staff. Greinke's early struggles served only to compound the problem. There is simply no one problem here, no quick fix.
The good news is that the talent level on the team remains decent, if a bit thin. Certainly, the team, as currently constructed, will not be able to compete with an injury to a key figure, such as the injury to Pollock this year. But this year is providing an opportunity for players to become comfortable in a leadership role. Someone in the clubhouse needs to take charge and be the veteran presence on the team, and Chip Hale (assuming things don't go so far south that he is removed) will benefit as a manager from experiencing a year in which so little has gone right. It will still be necessary for the depth on the roster to improve, but the Diamondbacks should be able to gain some benefit from a very disappointing 2016 in 2017 and beyond. Now if only Ken Kendrick will open up the pocketbook and get some more players to take care of the depth issue.