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The Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016 - #2: Pitching implosion

There not much doubt about the main reason for 2016’s underwhelming season for the D-backs. It all began on the mound.

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MLB: New York Mets at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2015-16 off-season, the focus of Dave Stewart was once again on improving the pitching staff. I say, “once again,” because that had been the case in the 2014-15 off-season as well. Back in November 2014, he said, “By the time we start the season I'd really like to try to improve our starting rotation." That was understandable, since in 2014, Arizona had the second-worst rotational ERA in the NL. The following season saw only marginal improvement, moving up from 14th to 11th, mostly thanks to decent performances from Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin. So, over the course of 48 hours in the last month of 2015, Stewart decided to go big or go home.

On December 8, he swept in and stole Zack Greinke out from under the noses of the Dodgers and Giants, signing him to far and away the largest contract in D-backs history, a six-year deal worth $206.5 million. The following day, he put together a blockbuster package with the Braves for All-Star Shelby Miller, dealing Ender Inciarte, plus pitching prospect Aaron Blair and #1 overall pick in the draft just six months previously, Dansby Swanson, to Atlanta. The Diamondbacks made it clear they were trying to climb through their window of opportunity, and when they went 24-8 in spring training, seemed poised to challenge in the NL West.

Then the actual games started, and it all went horribly wrong.

For in 2016, the Diamondbacks became the first National League team since the Cincinnati Reds in 2005 to allow 200+ home-runs in a season and have an ERA above five. Indeed, the D-backs 5.09 ERA was not just the worst in the majors this year, only two NL teams since 2006 had managed to surpass it. Here are the stats for the teams posting the 10 highest ERA figures over that time.

Worst NL ERAs, 2006-16

1 COL 2012 5.22 64-98 1422.0 1637 890 824 198 566 1144 1.549 .827
2 PIT 2008 5.10 67-95 1455.0 1631 884 824 176 657 963 1.573 .816
3 ARI 2016 5.09 69-93 1451.1 1563 890 821 202 603 1318 1.492 .801
4 COL 2015 5.04 68-94 1426.1 1579 844 799 183 579 1112 1.513 .814
5 WSN 2006 5.03 71-91 1436.1 1535 872 803 193 584 960 1.475 .796
6 WSN 2009 5.02 59-103 1424.1 1533 874 794 173 629 911 1.518 .802
7 PIT 2010 5.00 57-105 1411.2 1567 866 785 167 538 1026 1.491 .798
8 FLA 2007 4.96 71-91 1443.2 1617 891 795 176 661 1142 1.578 .806
9 CIN 2007 4.95 72-90 1449.2 1605 853 798 198 482 1068 1.440 .800
10 PIT 2007 4.94 68-94 1447.2 1627 846 795 174 518 997 1.482 .799

The problems began at the front of the rotation, where Greinke, Miller and Corbin all fell far short of expectations, even allowing for some regression. In 2015, the trio had combined for 14.2 bWAR, but in 2016, were worth just a paltry 0.7 bWAR. In the early going, Greinke was barely average, Corbin worse, and Miller... Well, Shelby seemed to lose entirely the ability to pitch, developing a follow-through which banged his knuckles on the ground. That resulted in a spell on the disabled list, which failed to cure the problem. At the break, with a 2-9 record and an ERA of 7.14, instead of going to the All-Star Game as in 2015, Miller was ignominiously optioned to the minor-leagues.

Things somehow still managed to get worse in the second half. Our starters after the break went 18-31 with a 5.53 ERA, including most of a particularly dismal spell (July 6-August 7), where they had just four wins in 25 attempts. Corbin ended up leaving the rotation entirely, after allowing eight runs in less than two innings against the Red Sox at Fenway on August 12. Greinke had a good spell, but then ended up spending six weeks on the disabled list, and threw his fewest number of innings since 2007. Miller did finally return from the minors, and was pretty good in his final two starts, but it seems somewhat premature to be penciling him in for Cy Young votes this year.

But it wasn’t just the rotation. Our relievers’ ERA was little better: at 4.94, it ranked 27th among the 30 major-league teams, and the second-half fall-off was even more dramatic there. This was partly due to the departure through trade of the most reliable bullpen arm, in Brad Ziegler, who took his 2.82 ERA to Boston, while Tyler Clippard’s 4.30 would also have been a distinct improvement over most of our second-half relievers. For after the break, Arizona’s bullpen ERA was 5.45, almost a full run higher than it had been in the first-half. Since 2009, only one major-league bullpen has done worse after the break; this year’s Phillies had a 5.84 ERA. Ah, “well done”?

All told, there’s almost no way to exaggerate how bad Arizona’s pitching was. Fans of a certain age may remember how bad the 2004 team was. It lost 111 games and had an Opening Day rotation which included Elmer Dessens, Casey Daigle and Steve Sparks. It also played in a more offensively-minded period. But their team ERA was only 4.98, eleven points better than this year’s model. The D-backs now find themselves at the bottom of the pile, and things must surely be better in 2017, albeit only because they can’t really get any worse. Admittedly, the team’s big acquisition in this area was... Fernando Rodney, and it seems he’ll fit right in, going by his splits last year (first half ERA = 1.04; second half ERA = 6.16).

Given how well the splashy moves before 2016 worked i.e. not at all, and how miserably the team failed to live up to anyone’s expectations - from fans to owners and everyone in between - I’m not averse to a good deal less flamboyance this winter. If there was a silver lining to this disastrous collective meltdown, it was that it surely hastened the cleaning of house carried out by Ken Kendrick and Derrick Hall, because there was absolutely no way to sugar-coat the awfulness on display. But we’ll get to that in tomorrow’s finale!