The back of the rotation? SnakePit concern level 3.59 out of five.
Given the Arizona Diamondbacks had the highest ERA in the entire major-leagues last year, it’s perhaps surprising that there will likely be only one new face in the starting rotation for 2017. But there’s a sense that the 2016 campaign can be summed up in one word: underachievement. The team is hoping for better results, from just about every pitcher carried forward from last year, and there’s reason to hope that might indeed be the case. If we look at Fielding Independent ERA (FIP), no team outperformed their actual ERA by more than the D-backs - though admittedly, even by FIP, the team still ranked no better than 26th in the majors.
The main reason for the gap appears to be last year’s poor defense for the D-backs, particularly in the outfield area, where their UZR was -25.6, the worst in the National League. Having A.J. Pollock roaming center, rather than a combo of plucky converted infielders and veterans released by other teams, should help, just a little. But let’s go through the candidates for the rotation and see what we’ve got.
Zack Greinke: 2016 ERA+ 101; career ERA+ 120
Greinke will, no doubt, get the ball on Opening Day, and we’ll be hoping for better than last year, when the Rockies put him through the wood-chipper. Optimism here is largely based on the middle of Zack’s season. There was a 12-game run from April 30, through to his injured oblique on June 28, when he was 8-1 with a 2.63 ERA. That’s the level of performance the team expected, when they gave him a six-year, $206.5 million contract. Of course, he’s now a year older, having turned 33 in October, and the fastball lost a few clicks in 2016 (91.3 mph, compared to 91.8 in 2015). It’s likely he’ll need to pitch smarter, not harder, but if anyone can do that, it’d be Greinke.
Robbie Ray: 2016 ERA+ 89; career ERA+ 91
Just as the D-backs had the biggest negative gap between team FIP and ERA, so Ray has the biggest negative gap at the individual level among qualifying pitchers. Those with his strikeout rate (11.3 per nine innings), just don’t post 4.90 ERAs. And that’s no literary exaggeration: the next highest ERA in baseball history, by a qualifying pitcher with a K-rate above 11, is more than a run better, at 3.74 (Max Scherzer in 2012). If Ray continues to fan people at the same rate in 2017, I’d be expecting an ERA more in line with that. Or indeed, significantly better, for two-thirds of all the other 11+ SO/9 pitchers posted an ERA below three. If that happens, Cy Young votes may follow.
Taijuan Walker: 2016 ERA+ 96; career ERA+ 93
Youth is on Walker’s side, since he’s only 24 - he was born the same week as Archie Bradley, so that gives you some idea, he’s still going to be a "work in progress." It’ll be interesting to see if he is reunited with Chris Iannetta as a battery, since there’s already a relationship there. Iannetta has caught more of Walker’s major-league starts than anyone bar Mike Zunino, and the resulting ERA (3.80) has been better than Walker’s career figure (4.18). The stuff is certainly there, but Walker needs to put it together on a consistent basis if he’s going to take it to the next level. Otherwise, the upside will remain a fleeting mirage, and we’ve enough of those already, thank you.
Shelby Miller: 2016 ERA+ 71; career ERA+ 105
If Ray has the highest upside, Miller has the biggest potential to bounce back - albeit mostly because he fell so far in 2016. He’s certainly talking a good mental game, saying "I’m really ready for this year, ready to redeem myself so much." We are too, Shelby, and the better results after his spell in the minors (a 3.98 ERA), culminating in 11 scoreless innings over his final two starts, are grounds for cautious optimism. But it’ll take a few more outings like those, before the mental scars on D-backs fans, left over from watching Miller bang his knuckles on the ground, have faded. If Dansby Swanson were to be kidnapped by North Korea, that would help, too.
Patrick Corbin: 2016 ERA+ 85, career ERA+ 99
The question for Corbin is, whether he’ll continue working out of the bullpen, or return to the rotation. While he did very well as a reliever, posting a 2.70 ERA and with 26 strikeouts in 23.1 innings, I would like to see him get the chance to show if he can produce that back in the rotation. We have seen what he can do, both before and after Tommy John: in 2015, he made 16 starts and posted a 115 ERA+, slightly better than his pre-TJ figure. Although Corbin would likely do well out of the ‘pen, his value will likely be greater as a starter. Whether that would be as a D-back or a trade chip is worth considering, since Corbin will be a free agent at the end of the 2018 season...
Archie Bradley: 2016 ERA+ 87, career ERA+ 84
If Corbin stays in the pen, Bradley is the most obvious fifth starter, and even if Corbin gets the nod, Bradley will be high on the depth chart. It’s not as if he has much to prove on the farm: last year, he had a 1.99 ERA in seven starts for Reno. But it might be better for the team to keep him as a regular starter there, even if he could well be more immediately valuable to the 2017 team in a Corbin-esque relief role. For it’s usually not long at all before a sixth starter is needed for some reason or another. Last year, Bradley didn’t make the Opening Day rotation either, but he still made his first start as early as April 18, and was a regular by the end of May. He’ll get his chances.
While it’s never wise to take health as read, it would be a bit of a surprise if anyone outside the six above made the rotation on Opening Day, save through injury. But over the course of the season, we’ll likely need quite a few more. In 2016, the D-backs used ten starting pitchers, and we haven’t had less than eight in any year since 2002. So let’s finish with a quick look (in alphabetical order) at a couple of names on the 40-man roster, who may not be there at the beginning of April, but might be seen at some point over the months which follow.
The 23-year-old Banda came to the D-backs, along with the now departed Mitch Haniger, at the trade deadline in 2014 for Gerardo Parra. He has now become the consensus top pitcher in our farm system, and was the only D-back to be rated in any of the top 100 prospects lists, coming in at #88 for Baseball America. He had a 2.88 ERA over 26 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last season, with a K:BB of 152:55, over exactly 150 innings of work, and was named the team’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Godley was the occasional starter of choice last year, taking over from Josh Collmenter in that role. He made nine starts over three different spells in the rotation, as well as 18 relief appearances. But the former were ugly, Godley wobbling to a 7.31 ERA, and his 2017 role is more likely to be as a long reliever, and he’ll have competition there from the likes of Jorge De La Rosa.
Traded with Miller Diaz from the Mets, in exchange for Addison Reed, Koch was a September call-up for the Diamondbacks last year. He made a good impression, with a 2.00 ERA over 18 innings of work, including two starts at the end of the year. His 2016 minor league numbers were nothing special (a 4.38 ERA over 21 starts between Mobile and Reno), but he had a 1.19 ERA in the Dominican Winter League, and a 13:1 K:BB ratio over 22.2 innings.