Certain seasons in Diamondbacks history have come to symbolize the absolute worse that baseball can offer. Of these, 2004 is certainly the most extreme, with 2014 not far behind. One bit of comfort to some has been that at least things aren’t as bad as 2014. Seeing this feeling expressed frequently made me think: is it really substantially better than 2014? Certainly it doesn’t feel any better, but that could simply be expecting so much more than 2014, and finding a vast chasm fixed between expectations and reality. What, exactly, is the difference between the 2014 Diamondbacks and the 2016 Diamondbacks?
In a remarkable bit of symmetry, the 2014 Diamondbacks finished a home stand (albeit only a three game set) and headed into San Francisco for their final series before the All Star break, just as they are doing this year. At that point, they had played 93 games; currently in 2016, 87 games have been played. The record stood at 39-54, worse than the 2016 Diamondbacks, but not by much. Also, the 2014 Diamondbacks were “only” 13 games back, compared to the 16 games in arrears of the 2016 Diamondbacks. While it is true that six fewer games will have been played, the fact that the Diamondbacks would have to win the series in San Francisco in order to reach the All Star break with the same number of wins as in 2014 illustrates how bad 2016 has been. If the Diamondbacks are swept in San Francisco, the winning percentage at the break will be .422, a mere five point improvement on the .417 winning percentage at the break in 2014.
But while the 2014 Diamondbacks weren’t substantially worse than the 2016 Diamondbacks at the break, the routes the teams took to get to that point diverge sharply. The 2014 Diamondbacks featured a woeful offense; at the break, they were averaging 3.92 runs per game, and of course that figure would get substantially worse with the loss of Paul Goldschmidt for the final two months of the season. By fWAR, the Diamondbacks were 13th in the National League for both batting and pitching. The pitching wasn’t very good in the first half of 2014, but the 4.66 runs per game the pitching staff allowed still ranks substantially better than the 5.08 runs per game the 2016 team has allowed to date. Looking at the surface, the 2014 Diamondbacks were bad across the board, while the 2016 Diamondbacks have featured a very good offense and a very bad pitching staff. In addition, the 2016 Diamondbacks have a number of offensive stars; Goldschmidt being joined by Jake Lamb, Jean Segura, and the catching duo of Welington Castillo and Chris Herrmann. (Interestingly enough, it seems likely, if not probable, that the 2014 NL All Stars will feature more Diamondbacks than the 2016 team will, as Goldy and Miguel Montero were both on that team, Montero as a replacement for Yadier Molina.)
Look deeper, though, and the picture starts to change. The Diamondbacks have scored 10 or more runs eight times; take out those games, and the Diamondbacks are suddenly averaging under four runs per game; in fact, the 3.95 runs per game is only three-hundredths of a run better than the 2014 team. At the other extreme, the Diamondbacks have been held to two runs or fewer in 17 games, and are 1-16 in those contests. (This means that in almost 20% of their games, the offense has not scored enough to give a good chance at winning, even with a good pitching performance. While the National League averages scoring two runs or fewer in 30% of their games, the NL as a whole has a .145 winning percentage in these contests, versus .059 for the Diamondbacks. Even the 2014 team had a .088 winning percentage when scoring two runs or fewer.) The Diamondbacks have picked up 20 comeback wins (although none from further behind than four runs) which is slightly above average for the league, but their 29 blown leads are 10 above NL average. The 2014 Diamondbacks blew a lead 41 times, or in 25% of their games. That isn’t good. But those 29 blown leads so far by the 2016 Diamondbacks works out to 33% of their games, compared to NL average of 23%. That works out to sixteen additional losses over the course of a season. What boggles the mind is that the Diamondbacks have a very good .879 winning percentage when leading entering the seventh inning. However, they have a losing record when leading entering the second, third, and fourth innings. Basically, an early lead results in a loss more often than in a win. By contrast, the Diamondbacks actually have a winning record when tied entering the third and fourth innings. Once the lead is lost, though, the Diamondbacks do not seem able to fight back.
People will inevitably point out the injuries as the cause for the struggles in 2016. However, 2014 has an equal argument on that front. Losing opening day starter Patrick Corbin before the season started was only the beginning. Bronson Arroyo was done in June. David Hernandez, Matt Reynolds, and Daniel Hudson all missed almost the entire season. Cody Ross was still feeling the effects of his gruesome injury in 2013, and struggled. Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock, Chris Owings, Cliff Pennington, Eric Chavez, and Ender Inciarte all missed time. And then there was the injury to Goldschmidt. While there have certainly been injuries this year, it’s hard to argue that the situation is worse. Sure, Pollock and Peralta missing substantial time has certainly hurt the team both offensively and defensively. Certainly, the injuries in 2014 opened a path for players like Inciarte and Peralta to shine. But the 2014 team saw substantial time lost at two (or three, since Hudson, without the second TJ, would have probably returned to the rotation at some point in 2014) rotation spots, first base, shortstop, and two outfield spots. The 2016 team has lost one starting pitcher for a substantial period of time and two outfield positions—both the starting outfielders and the depth.
Finally, the decision was made in 2014 to trade away movable pieces and get what could be gotten for them. So Brandon McCarthy, Martin Prado, Gerardo Parra, and lesser pieces such as Tony Campana and Joe Thatcher were all sent away. Without the decision to move these players (which resulted in Alfredo Marte making 19 starts in August and September, as well as Andy Marte and Jordan Pacheco making some starts at third base before Jake Lamb was called up) there is practically no way the team loses 98 games, even with the injury to Goldy. Let’s not forget that the starting rotation for the last two months of the season featured Vidal Nuno and Trevor Cahill. At the end of July, the record was 48-61 (a 71-win pace) and the Diamondbacks were in fourth place, fourteen games back.
Despite the moves made to make the Diamondbacks a contender, the team finds itself in much the same position as in 2014. The final record will almost certainly look better; the front office will not sell, and hopefully no more significant injuries will happen. But at this point of the season, the differences are not significant. It is time for the decision-makers in the front office to look carefully at the results and decide whether or not moving forward with the same personnel is the best idea. Kirk Gibson was fired with three games left in the 2014 season, despite the bad luck of having to deal with the injuries and the front office trading away major pieces. Chip Hale will not have to deal with the latter problem. His roster, even with the injuries, has more talent, especially on the pitching staff. Whether or not he is retained for 2017 needs to be carefully considered, as does the future of Mike Butcher, who is most likely not going to be retained for next season. The struggles in 2014 led to sweeping changes. Whether or not the struggles this season will remains to be seen.