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Arizona Diamondbacks 2017 Preview: Starting Rotation

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After having the 2nd-worst rotation in the majors last year, the D-Backs expect to get back on track this year. Will they?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks-Media Day Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Diamondbacks have one of the most fascinating starting rotations in the league. Not necessarily the best, but definitely interesting. Here are two, plausible predictions you could make about the rotation:

A starting five led by 3 former all-stars and breakout candidate Robbie Ray goes from bottom-5 to top-5 in just one season.

or...

A starting five led by the most overpaid pitcher in baseball and the disappointing Robbie Ray remains in the bottom-5.

A logical argument can be made fairly easily for both sides, which is why I am filled with half excitement, half nervousness. Let’s take a look at each member of the Opening Day rotation to find out whether I should be feeling nervous or excited.

Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke Statistics

Statistic 2016 Career
Statistic 2016 Career
ERA 4.37 3.42
WHIP 1.27 1.19
FIP 4.12 3.37
K/9 7.6 8.07
WAR 2.2 48.1
Stats via Fangraphs

I remember being out to dinner when I looked down at my phone to see that Greinke had been signed, and I remember the giddiness that immediately filled me. The D-Backs are going for it this year! Suck it Dodgers! I also remember watching his Opening Day start, and the sinking feeling I got as he gave up 7 runs to the Rockies. It appears that the sinking feeling I had was pretty accurate, as Greinke would never become the ace we all expected upon his signing. However, much of the reason for Greinke’s inflated numbers was a few blow-up outings; as his Fangraphs summary points out, he gave up 7+ earned runs in 4 starts. If you take these outings out, Greinke’s ERA is down at 2.92, a bit below his career average. Sure, this number isn’t his 1.66 ERA which he put up with the Dodgers in 2015, but you would be crazy to expect a historic season like that every year. I expect Zack cuts down on the blowup outings, and ends up with an ERA between 2.65 and 3.00. As an added bonus, it would be nice if he had a couple more deep, dominant outings this season; he only got through the 8th inning twice last year, his lowest mark since 2011.

Taijuan Walker

Taijuan Walker Statistics

Statistic 2016 Career
Statistic 2016 Career
ERA 4.22 4.18
WHIP 1.24 1.21
FIP 4.99 4.3
K/9 7.97 8.12
WAR 0.6 3.4
Stats via Fangraphs

Taijuan Walker is the new guy to the D-Backs rotation, acquired in a trade with Seattle during late November. While he is rumored to have the potential to be very good, with a powerful mid-90s fastball and solid split-change, I just can’t get excited about him. To start the spring, Walker looked like an ace, with no runs allowed in his first three outings; however, his last three have been the polar opposite, with a 6.87 ERA over his last 13.1 innings. He reminds me a little bit of Archie Bradley; a lot of chatter about him as he came up through the farm system, early success in the majors, but an inability to find a third pitch keeping him from more success. If he gets the slider he has been working on this spring to a respectable point, I see him improving to a sub-4 ERA this year; if not, he remains right around league average.

Robbie Ray

Robbie Ray Statistics

Statistic 2016 Career
Statistic 2016 Career
ERA 4.90 4.65
WHIP 1.47 1.45
FIP 3.76 3.80
K/9 11.25 9.69
WAR 3.0 5.1

My lack of excitement for Walker is made up for with my anticipation to see how Ray performs. His 11.25 K/9 was second to only Jose Fernandez last year among qualified starting pitchers. How can that not excite you? Well, I can give you a few reasons. First, his struggles to get deep into games. This is the most common knock against Ray, and it is a valid one; he failed to make it through the sixth inning in 63% of his starts last season. A walk rate of 3.67 BB/9 - half a walk above league average - is also concerning, but it’s no iceberg dead ahead. I don’t see Ray dropping his ERA by 2-2.5 runs in a season and suddenly becoming an ace overnight, but I do think he ends up near where his FIP last year said she should be; a bit below that 3.75 mark, lower if the cards fall his way.

Shelby Miller

Shelby Miller Statistics

Statistic 2016 Career
Statistic 2016 Career
ERA 6.15 3.66
WHIP 1.67 1.30
FIP 4.87 3.98
K/9 6.24 7.36
WAR 0.5 7.4

The only way Shelby Miller could have done enough to have won the trade he was acquired in last off-season would be if he grew 7 inches and transformed into Randy Johnson. Shockingly, Miller did not transform into another human being, instead transforming himself from an All-Star to one of, if not the worst starting pitchers in all of baseball last season. Through the first two months of the year, the right-hander had struck out just one more batter than he had walked. He ended up spending some time on the DL after scraping his knuckles on the dirt during his follow-through, and earned a stint in AAA from early July to late August after continued ineffectiveness. Instead of continuing to bag on Miller, I will give you a couple reasons as to why I am optimistic:

  1. Miller carries an 11-inning scoreless streak into 2017 after ending the year with two 0-run outings. These two starts reflect the excellent pitcher Miller was in his three years before coming to the D-Backs.
  2. A massive mental hurdle had to be overcome last year. If you are the guy on the bad end of what some call one of the worst trades in MLB history, your confidence is going to be shaken. His head should be clear this season.
  3. How could he possibly be as bad as he was last year?

If you want some more optimism, check out this Fangraphs article written about him, detailing how he is becoming a strikeout pitcher this spring. I see him bouncing back in a big way, and making the All-Star team.

Patrick Corbin

Patrick Corbin Statistics

Statistic 2016 Career
Statistic 2016 Career
ERA 5.15 4.14
WHIP 1.56 1.32
FIP 4.84 3.92
K/9 7.57 7.66
WAR 0.5 6.6

Patrick Corbin looked promising heading into his 2016 campaign. After Tommy John surgery kept him out for the entire 2014 season and half of 2015, the lefty put up a 3.60 ERA in 16 starts to finish the 2015. Unfortunately, last season was a disaster, with Corbin’s ERA increasing every month, culminating in a 1.2 inning, 8 run outing on August 12. Corbin and his 5.58 ERA were then sent down to the bullpen where he was highly effective, finishing the year on a 13 inning scoreless streak. While I don’t see Corbin repeating his 2013 All-Star season in his return to the rotation, I would be shocked if he is as bad as he was last year. I see him ending up with an ERA in the high 3s.

Bonus Names

Archie Bradley- started 26 games last year with a 5.02 ERA, but failed to win a rotation spot this spring due to a 7.02 ERA in 6 appearances. Command has been the former top prospect’s problem, with 4.26 walks per 9 last season. He will begin the year as a long reliever; expect him to be the first guy brought into the rotation when an injury/ineffectiveness happens.

Braden Shipley- started 11 games last year with a 5.27 ERA, and, like Bradley, failed to win a rotation spot. The 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft will be given more time to develop as a starter down in AAA to start the year, though I’d be shocked if he is not called up at some point during the year.

Both Shipley and Bradley will ensure that too much of a drop-off doesn’t occur if one of the starting five goes down with an injury.

Overall, what should be expected?

It’s a safe assumption that the Diamondbacks rotation won’t be as bad as they were last season. The track records of the starting five are too good to repeat a season like last year’s; the average career ERA of this year’s starting rotation is 4.01, more than a run better than 2016’s 5.19. It’s also a safe assumption that the Diamondbacks rotation won’t be among the league’s best; far too many question marks exist, all of which would need to go the D-Backs’ way for them to be a top-5 rotation. They will end up somewhere around league average, probably between the 12th and 18th best in the majors. As we experienced last year though, baseball has a way of making crazy things happen. Hopefully this year, those crazy things are positive.