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Arizona Diamondbacks Hopes for 2017: #4, Turning up an ace

It has been a long time since the Diamondbacks have had a true “ace” pitcher. Might 2017 be that year?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Over the five seasons which have elapsed since the last time the D-backs finished with a winning record, 214 pitching seasons have taken place worth three bWAR or better. The Diamondbacks have had precisely one of them: Wade Miley’s 2012, which was worth 3.5 bWAR. Put another way: during those five years, 55 different players have enjoyed more three bWAR campaigns, than all Diamondbacks combined. Since Miley, our top pitchers each season have been as follows:

  • 2013 - Patrick Corbin, 2.8 bWAR
  • 2014 - Josh Collmenter, 2.4 bWAR
  • 2015 - Brad Ziegler, 2.1 bWAR
  • 2016 - Zack Greinke, 2.3 bWAR

Now, having an ace for your rotation is not an absolute necessity for success. The 2015 Kansas City Royals team which won the World Series, had no pitcher as good as Miley. Indeed, their only man worth more than 2.5 bWAR was another Wade, Davis, who came in at 3.4 bWAR. But they had the league’s best bullpen and the major league’s best defense - hardly areas of current strength for the Diamondbacks - and caught fire when it mattered most, with an 11-5 record in the playoffs. If Arizona is going to go anywhere, it’s going to start at the front of our pitching staff.

There’s a lot of potential, and our current pitchers have delivered ace-like years in the past: our current staff have combined for six 3 bWAR seasons since 2012. Shelby Miller has a couple under his belt (2013 and 2015), and last year was the first occasion during that time, Zack Greinke had not been worth at least three bWAR. Indeed, from 2008-2015, his average worth was over five wins a season. Especially given his budget-busting impact on payroll, getting him back on track is essential, almost regardless of whether the team succeeds or not. For if not, and new GM Mike Hazen decides a tear-down is in order, Greinke’s current contract is immovable if he isn’t pitching well.

Since this is an optimistic series of articles, let’s look at three reasons why Greinke potentially might do better in 2017:

  1. Settled in. There’s no doubt there must have been pressure on Greinke to be “the man” in 2016. And heavy is the head that wears the crown, perhaps especially for someone like Zack, who takes medication to help control social anxiety disorder. His first five starts as a D-backs were very disappointing, with a 6.16 ERA, but he then seemed to find his groove, going 8-1 with a 2.63 ERA, until his season was derailed by an oblique injury. When he returned in August, it seemed like a do-over, with his first half-dozen outings rough, before finishing strong, with three quality starts against divisional opponents. Without the intense focus under which he operated in 2016, things should be easier for Greinke this year.
  2. Better battery-mates. One of the obvious differences for Greinke between 2015 and 2016 was the man to which he was throwing. In 2015, he was working with Yasmani Grandal, ranked in the top three for pitch framing both that season and the one which followed. In 2016, it was mostly Welington Castillo - while Beef came in significantly improved on his bottom-5 position the previous year, he was still in the lowest third. Apart from a couple of puff pieces during spring training, there was an odd silence last year about the Greinke-Castillo relationship. This year, we could see Jeff Mathis as personal catcher for Zack, for reasons explained by Zack Criser on Beyond the Box Score.
  3. Improved defense. Every single D-back who pitched more than 70 innings last year, had a FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) which was better than their actual ERA. That indicates what an issue defense, particularly in the outfield, was for Arizona. The overall gap - the D-backs FIP was 0.59 below our team ERA - was the highest in the majors. This is a result of balls in play turning into hits far more often than average, something which is partly due to park factors, but largely down to defense. Zack actually suffered less than many, but the change becomes clear if you break down Greinke’s results, including batting average on balls in play, by type of contact, i.e. ground ball, fly ball or line drive.

Greinke results by hit type, 2015 vs 2016

Split 2015 BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip 2016 BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
Split 2015 BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip 2016 BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
Ground Balls .171 .171 .189 .359 .171 .217 .217 .231 .448 .217
Fly Balls .071 .070 .200 .270 .029 .172 .167 .566 .732 .063
Line Drives .556 .556 .846 1.401 .532 .687 .687 1.142 1.828 .664

It’s a startling difference. The BABIP on ground balls for Greinke was 27% higher this season; on line-drives, 25% higher; and on fly-balls, more than double. The sooner we get A.J. Pollock roaming center-field in Arizona again, the better.

Of course, against that, Greinke will be a year older, and he’s certainly not on the upside of the aging curve any more. But there were lengthy stretches - months, indeed - in 2016 where he showed he hadn’t fallen off a cliff. Getting anything like pre-2016 Greinke this year, would be a big step forward for the Diamondbacks, no matter which way the future path might take the team.