Yesterday was the first entirely Paul Goldschmidt-free game for the Arizona Diamondbacks this season. He had started 74 of the preceding 76 and come off the bench in the other two. But, it ended in a victory - and that seems to have become one of the memes for this season. Torey Lovullo constructs a line-up; fans on social media criticize it; said line-up kicks ass. There are reasons this team is off to the best start in franchise history, and I firmly believe Lovullo is one of them. Yet outside of Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb, no-one on the team is on pace for even 140 starts this season. Rotating regulars in and out has become one of Lovullo’s trademarks.
But what impact does it have on offense? There are easy stats available for team record in a player’s starts, but that is heavily impacted by pitching. So to find out, I took a look at the starting line-up of all 77 games played so far, and figured out what was the average number of runs scored, when each player was in the starting line-up [I included pitchers only where they had to bat, so excluded two games in Detroit where they were replaced by a DH]. Obviously, there are a lot more factors involved in how many runs are scored on any given day, than whether or not Player X is in the line-up. But I thought it might shed some light on how those “B-lineups” are doing.
D-backs runs per game
Interestingly, three of the players who have been present in some of the most productive 2017 Diamondbacks offenses, are all members of those much-criticized B-lineups: Jeremy Hazelbaker, Daniel Descalso and Chris Herrmann. Admittedly, in Hazelbaker’s case, we are only talking about little more than a handful of games, but each of Descalso and Herrmann have started more than one game in three to this point in the season. Descalso has seen most of his time in left-field, particularly since the departure of Tomas. Herrmann has also helped out there, along with his starts behind the mask.
However, at the other end, we do see that Rey Fuentes and Jeff Mathis. They are also both frequently criticized for their lack of offense, and there does appear to be some grounds to justify this. For both are indeed part of the team’s least productive line-ups: either man’s presence appears to weigh down production to the tune of about half a run below average. But A.J. Pollock, Brandon Drury and Goldschmidt are also below average: the three games Goldy hasn’t started this year, all resulted in the delivery of free tacos* the following day (* = between 4-6pm, with the purchase of a large drink, at participating locations). So we’ve withstood his absence well so far.
As noted, it’s not just who plays, but who we’re playing that matters. Goldschmidt’s absences have come against the Padres, Brewers and Phillies, teams you’d expect us to do well against. Lamb’s have been a little more split, coming against the Rockies and Dodgers, as well as the Padres, Mets and Phillies. Though in his case, handedness matters: The game against the Dodgers, for instance, was up against Clayton Kershaw. Sunday was the first time he has sat against a right-handed starter, but was likely necessary, because we haven’t faced any lefties at all since June 8 (and there are none coming up on the “Probable starters” calendar).
Beyond that, part of the reason may be we look at the bench’s overall stats, and are underwhelmed. But we forget that a significant chunk of those will come as pinch-hitters or other roles off the bench which are generally harder. In the NL this year, for instance, starters have an OPS of .755; pinch-hitters come in at .684, and all late-inning substitutes are more than a hundred points lower than the starters, down to .653. These will tend to depress a bench player’s value: they’re coming in cold, to pinch-hit for the pitcher in the ninth inning. Those are situations in which few players will excel.
No-one illustrates this theory better than Herrmann. As a starter this year, his numbers have been solid and in-line with his overall figure last year, with a .764 OPS. But off the bench, Herrmann has struggled badly: he’s just 2-for-24 with an OPS of .298. That’s virtually exactly what we saw last season, where he went 2-for-19 when not starting, with his OPS off the bench in 2016 being .296. This year, with fewer starts, it has had a more significant impact on his figures as a whole. But, on the other hand, both Hazelbaker and Descalso have excelled in the role (those the former is helped just a tad, by his .778 BABIP as a sub - he’s 8-for-23 with 13 K’s!).
Personally, my attitude now is best summed-up thus: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’m very well aware that Lovullo has access to more information than we do, both generally and player-specific. We do not know anything about either the process nor the data, and in the absence of such knowledge it seems amazingly arrogant to think that we “know better”. If the team was struggling, then there could be grounds for criticism. But this is a team with the third-best record in the majors as we approach the half-way point, which has wildly out-performed all hopes and expectations. I really think he deserves more slack than certain fans have given him. #ToreyKnowsBest