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The 2011 Diamondbacks: A case study in improvement

What can the past tell us about the possible future?

San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks

"I think we’ve got good character and good talent, and if they have a good attitude about, ‘Let’s learn from this,’ then it can be dramatically better."

— Tony LaRussa

If the Diamondbacks are going to compete next year, they will need to be dramatically better. It looks like the 2016 team are going to end with a win total in the high sixties, meaning they will need to win at least 20 more games next season, in order to be in post-season contention. This certainly won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. Indeed, in the relatively short (less than two decades) history of the franchise, we’ve personally experienced bigger improvements three times. In 1999, the team was 35 games better; in 2005, their win total was 26 games higher; and in 2011 the D-backs improved by 29 games.

The first two of these both have significant differences from the current situation. In 1999, the surge was funded by an Opening Day payroll more than double that the previous season. And in 2005, the team was coming off the worst record by a National League club in the past fifty years; it’s a lot easier to improve from that. But neither was the case in 2011. That year, Arizona’s Opening Day payroll had actually declined by about $7 million, from $60.7m to $53.6m. Their record the previous year was also 65-97, which is likely close to where the 2016 team is going to finish. There’s an additional point of equivalency: the main deficiency on the 2010 D-backs was their pitching, That team had a collective ERA of 4.81, ranking them 15th in the National League.

So, let’s delve deeper into how the cellar-dwelling 2010 Diamondbacks turned into the National League West winning 2011 Diamondbacks, and see if this can provide any signposts for a route this year’s model can follow, to engineer a similar turn-around. [Note: all WAR figures used below refer to bWAR]

Hitting vs. Pitching

Given the much lower level at which the pitching was operating, you might think the bulk of the 2011 improvement came on the mound. That isn’t quite the case. Surprisingly, the hitting improved significantly, going from a total of 17.5 WAR to 27.0 WAR. That lifted them from tenth in the league to second. The pitching did improve - just not by as much, from 0.1 WAR to 8.0. That was still only good enough for 11th in the league. This goes to show that it isn’t necessary to have great or even good pitching, if you do have a very good offense.

This is comforting for the 2016 D-backs. While there’s scope for improvement from most of the current pitchers, it would be foolishly optimistic to rely on wholesale improvement across the board. Fixing Shelby Miller becomes almost essential here: if (and I accept, that’s a huge "if") he can return to his 2015 form, and Robbie Ray can produce an ERA commensurate with his strikeout rate, those boosts alone could be worth seven or eight WAR, without anything else. Solidifying the bullpen could be another relatively cheap way for the team to pick up additional wins.

At the plate, it’s interesting to note that currently, the 2016 hitters are also ranked tenth in the National League, the same spot as in 2010. The most obvious area for improvement is the outfield. A healthy A.J. Pollock should certainly be a boost, but the team also need better production from the corner spots. That could either be from the current incumbents playing better, or finding replacements, internal or external, who can do a better job. Shortstop and third-base are the other positions where the team has received below average WAR. Fingers crossed, good health and experience will allow them to help out more.

Existing players vs. new additions

This was something shoewizard suggested looking at. How much of a team’s improvement resulted from "in house" players i.e. those who were there the previous season stepping up their game, and how much was due to new blood, performing better than those they replaced?

Hitters

Let’s start with the players who were both part of the 2010 and 2011 D-backs.

Name 2010 PA 2010 WAR 2011 PA 2011 WAR
Brandon Allen* 56 0.2 37 0.1
Stephen Drew* 633 4.0 354 1.9
Cole Gillespie 113 -0.7 7 0.1
Kelly Johnson* 671 4.2 481 0.7
Miguel Montero* 331 1.2 553 4.1
Gerardo Parra* 393 0.5 493 3.0
Ryan Roberts 71 -0.1 555 2.4
Justin Upton 571 1.5 674 6.1
Chris Young 664 5.4 659 5.0
TOTAL 3503 16.2 3813 23.4

You can see this is where the bulk of the improvement came from. In particular, the stronger production of Montero, Parra, Roberts and Upton were worth a total of 12.5 wins more, and more than countered the down-turns of Drew and Johnson. They did get about 9% more playing time, resulting from Tatman being an everyday player, even though Drew was lost to injury in 2011 after July 20, breaking his ankle while sliding into home-plate.

Next, here are the players who played only one season or the other, with their contributions in terms of PA and WAR.

Name 2010 PA 2010 WAR Name 2011 PA 2011 WAR
Tony Abreu# 201 -1.3 Henry Blanco 112 0.8
Ryan Church* 55 0.4 Willie Bloomquist 381 0.1
Bobby Crosby 14 -0.2 Geoff Blum# 55 0.1
John Hester 106 -0.5 Russell Branyan* 69 -0.1
Conor Jackson 172 0.2 Sean Burroughs* 115 -0.2
Adam LaRoche* 615 1.1 Collin Cowgill 100 0.8
Augie Ojeda# 92 -0.3 Paul Goldschmidt 177 0.4
Mark Reynolds 596 0.4 Robby Hammock 2 -0.1
Rusty Ryal 222 -0.4 Aaron Hill 142 1.6
Konrad Schmidt 9 -0.1 John McDonald 63 0.2
Chris Snyder 234 0.5 Juan Miranda* 202 -0.4
Melvin Mora 135 -1.1
Xavier Nady 223 -0.3
Lyle Overbay* 49 0.1
Wily Mo Pena 46 0.0
Cody Ransom 37 -0.2
Josh Wilson 10 0.1
TOTAL 2316 -0.2 1918 1.8

No shortage of churn, certainly. But it didn’t move the needle very much, adding perhaps a couple of wins. This is because, for every positive contribution from Blanco or Cowgill, there was a Mora or Miranda, playing below replacement level. The late-season trade where we swapped Johnson for Hill, had almost as much impact as every other move combined.

Pitchers

The situation is completely reversed on the pitching side, however. Here are the pitchers who played both in 2010 and 2011.

Name 2010 IP 2010 WAR 2011 IP 2011 WAR
Sam Demel 37.0 -0.8 25.7 -0.2
Barry Enright 99.0 1.5 37.7 -1.0
J.C. Gutierrez 56.7 -0.5 18.3 -0.6
Aaron Heilman 72.0 -0.1 35.3 -1.1
Daniel Hudson 79.7 3.8 222.0 1.5
Ian Kennedy 194.0 2.9 222.0 4.8
Zach Kroenke* 6.7 -0.1 4.0 -0.2
Joe Saunders* 82.7 -0.1 212.0 1.5
Esmerling Vasquez 53.7 -0.3 30.3 -0.3
Total 681.5 6.3 807.3 4.4

Kennedy was the only starter to complete both seasons: Hudson and Saunders both arrived at the trade deadline in 2010, and worked full seasons the following year. But not one returning member of the 2010 bullpen put up a positive value in 2011, and as a result, the overall impact of the returning players was worse that year.

Finally, here are the changes in personnel made between 2010 and 2011, and the resulting production.

Name 2010 IP 2010 WAR Name 2011 IP 2011 WAR
Kris Benson 14.0 -0.1 Yhency Brazoban 6.0 -0.1
Blaine Boyer 57.0 -0.2 Alberto Castillo* 11.7 0.3
Billy Buckner 13.0 -0.7 Josh Collmenter 154.3 1.9
D.J. Carrasco 22.7 -0.3 Ryan Cook 7.7 -0.2
Mike Hampton* 4.3 0.3 Zach Duke* 76.7 -0.3
Dan Haren 141.0 0.6 Armando Galarraga 42.7 -1.2
Bob Howry 14.3 -0.8 David Hernandez 69.3 0.6
Edwin Jackson 134.3 0.1 Jason Marquis 11.3 -0.8
Rodrigo Lopez 200.0 -0.7 Kam Mickolio 6.7 -0.2
Kevin Mulvey 3.0 0.0 Wade Miley* 40.0 0.0
Jordan Norberto* 20.0 -0.2 Micah Owings 63.0 0.3
Chad Qualls 38.0 -2.2 Jarrod Parker 5.7 0.4
Saul Rivera 3.7 -0.3 Joe Paterson* 34.0 0.6
Rafael Rodriguez 2.7 0.0 J.J. Putz 58.0 1.6
Carlos Rosa 20.0 0.1 Bryan Shaw 28.3 0.4
Leo Rosales 16.3 -0.4 Brad Ziegler 20.7 0.2
Daniel Stange 4.0 -0.2
Cesar Valdez 20.0 -0.7
Dontrelle Willis* 22.3 -0.3
Total 750.6 -6.0 636.1 3.5

This is where the bulk of improvement came from, but you can see that, with the exception of Collmenter, most of the pitchers added for 2011 weren’t very good. However, the cleaning of house from the 2010 season - simply getting the likes of Qualls, Howry, Valdez and Lopez away from Arizona - was a significant boost, in terms of reducing the amount of suck for the following year. It will be very interesting to see if the team adopts a similarly ruthless approach with regard to the pitchers below replacement level on the 2016 roster. For right now, there are a lot of them, including high-profile names like Patrick Corbin, Daniel Hudson and Shelby Miller. It may depend on how salvageable the team considers them.

Conclusions

Make no mistake, it won't be easy if the Diamondbacks are to reproduce the feat of their predecessors in 2010. It's going to require no shortage of good luck and wise moves - two things largely notable by their absence this season. The team does have an advantage, in that plugging a healthy Pollock back in next year should have an immediate and significant impact. But that won't be nearly enough. The team likely needs as many as possible of the following additional improvements:

  • Shelby Miller to become the guy for whom we traded.
  • Zack Greinke to pitch consistently in a manner befitting a player being paid $1 million per start.
  • The construction of a solid and reliable bullpen.
  • Yasmany Tomas's defense to reach mediocre.
  • Jake Lamb to handle lefties at better than a .157 clip.
  • Chris Owings to start taking walks.
  • David Peralta and Nick Ahmed to return, healthy and productive.
  • The good players e.g. Goldy, Segura, etc. to keep being good.

With the exception of the bullpen, where Dave Stewart (or whoever replaces him) is going to have his work cut out over the winter, this is very much an in-house production. As we saw in 2011, you don't need to make a big splash in free agency or trades, if the players currently available step up their game - which brings us back to Tony La Russa's comment at the top of this piece. However, the enormous question-mark which is Shelby Miller looms large over the team. He represents among the biggest potential areas for improvement in 2017. But the D-backs' apparent inability to "fix" him this year doesn't exactly fill me with confidence they can do so for next year.