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SnakePit Round Table: Hell Week arrives

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Yeah, seven games against the reigning pennant holders start tomorrow...

By Sailko [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

No-one put their name in to be the guest contributor this week, but if you’re interested in taking part, the first person to pipe up in the comments (who hasn’t done it before!) will be emailed the questions for the week next Saturday. So make sure you have an email address on file before putting yourself forward... And with that, on with the show!

How have the D-backs won nine series in a row?

Wesley Baier: I was going through the D-backs team stat pages on baseball-reference and fangraphs.com, and a few things jumped out to me. One, our bullpen is absolutely ridiculous. The worst member of our bullpen (with any significant amount of playing time) is Brad Boxberger with a 163 ERA+. We have four relievers with ERA+ over 200 and two with ERA+ over 400. That’s insanely good. Our offense has largely been fueled by David Peralta, AJ Pollock, and Paul Goldschmidt. When Goldy was cold, it coincided with other players having hot streaks.

Michael: Excellent situational hitting, strong starting pitching, and a lockdown bullpen are the main catalysts behind this start. The team has been in every game this year save for that one game in Los Angeles against Kershaw where they fell behind 7-0 after 5 innings. The team goes out there believing they can win every game and have taken advantage of most of their opportunities. From a run prevention standpoint, the Dbacks have allowed the fewest runs in baseball with only 82 runs allowed in 26 games (3.15 R/G). When you only need to score 4 runs to win baseball games, which an average offense can put up, you’ll win a lot of games. The offense doesn’t have to be great all the time, but if they can come up big in certain situations they will win a lot of close games with their pitching.

Dan: We’re good, first and foremost. Better than any of the pre-season metrics predicted we’d be, but all the sectors of our game are solid, and we haven’t yet experienced a stretch where more than one element craps out at the same time. Our hitting craps out? Our bullpen and our starters seem to pick us up. Our starter goes south? The bats and the bullpen step up. Our bullpen melts down? Hasn’t happened very often thus far, but it will at some point, no doubt. It’s a long season. But so far, different elements of the team are picking up and shoring up the weaker elements on any given day, and that’s helping a lot. Also, just to put it out there, I truly believe that part of it is that, despite whatever expectations or projections, we really are just this good right now.

Makakilo: In the last week, the D-backs have played well. The bullpen improved from third to first in the Majors. Starting pitching improved from ninth to seventh. The outfield improved from fourth to third. Paul Goldschmidt continues to play excellently.

Excellent defense has helped make the D-back pitchers look great and only 4 teams in the Majors have allowed less unearned runs (an objective measure of defense).

Team chemistry, team culture, and team communication are outstanding. An excellent article from AZ Central talked about why, “It’s the intangibles and an invisible but undeniable force.”

Jim: I can’t say enough about the bullpen, who have been almost impeccably good when they need to be. Through 27 games, know how many times the bullpen has cost a starter a W? None at all. Know how many times they and the offense have saved them from a L? Six. We’re a day away from having an entire month without a blown save at any point in a game.

James: Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. The bullpen has been outstanding. The starting pitching, even on so-so days has been able to keep the team in the game. Timely hitting has also been key for the Diamondbacks. However, those timely hits were only made possible by the team’s pitching carrying the team to those points. This is a very complete team. Pitching and defense are leading the way, providing enough run prevention that once the bats do come through during a game, it has usually been enough.

Which starting pitcher concerns you most: Robbie Ray, Zack Greinke or Zack Godley?

Wesley I am probably least concerned with Godley, as his 3.28 FIP Is lower than his 3.81 ERA, and his peripherals in general suggest he’s been subject to bad luck in part. Grienke has the excuse of at least just starting to age, so that point me to Robbie Ray. On one hand, he does have a 4.43 FIP, but that’s still half a run lower than his current 5.13 ERA. I actually would predict Ray and Godley to eventually right the ship. Grienke has come a long way mentally from when he first broke into the big leagues, and I think he has the mentality and pitching repertoire to continue pitching effectively, even if he doesn’t throw as hard as he used to. After today’s game I am even more worried about Robby Ray, but I think he’ll be an asset still later in the season.

Michael: Greinke is probably the most concerning of the 3, but we’re talking DEFCON 5 level of concern. Greinke has struggled in 2 of his 3 road starts this year although in both games he was one mistake pitch away from getting out of trouble. In the case of Ray, this is not too different to how he started the season last year. When the weather heats up, his fastball (velo trending up) will too and he’ll be throwing 95+ regularly. When the heater is 95+, the breaking stuff will play up as well. In Godley’s case, the peripherals are pretty consistent with last year’s but a bit less lucky with BABIP rising from .280 to .329 and that’s affected his strand rate. All three pitchers will be fine and at the end of the season they will put up the numbers we expect them to.

Dan: Ask me again after Ray’s start which commences about four hours from now, but, honestly, I’m concerned for all of them, albeit in different ways. Godley I’ve already spoken about, perhaps prematurely, and been pilloried for, perhaps prematurely. Greinke is another matter, I think...not sure what’s up with him, and I am concerned. I know he has slow starts to seasons, but he hasn’t had a particularly clean start yet, and from what I’ve seen on the teevee, he hasn’t been looking rusty so much as he’s looked like something was deeply off. As for Ray, well. My hope is that he gets his head right sometime soon, because I think that’s what it boils down to with him at this point. Someone remarked around here recently to the effect that he needed to stop trying to strike out 10 or 15 batters per game, and I agree. I think that last year he got a whole lot better once he got more comfortable pitching to contact. I’d like to see that more from him, and I think/hope he’ll get there, but his seems like an easy fix, if not a simple one. So Greinke stands as my biggest area of concern.

Makakilo:

Zack Greinke: This season, he has allowed 3.3 runs per 9 innings by homers. My questions are, “Was it lucky swings?” and, “Can Greinke lower his allowed homers?” Nevertheless, he does not concern me most.

Zack Godley: He allowed 4 runs while leaving 9 runners on base in 5 innings against the Nationals. My question is, “Is excellent defense making replacement level starts (this start had a Bill-James-Game-Score of 30) look better than they are?” Nevertheless, his replacement level start does not concern me most.

Robbie Ray: This season, I am concerned with his high rate of walks (17 in 26.1 innings) and his high on-base-percent (.353). For comparison, Godley’s OBP is.328 and Greinke’s OBP is 287. My concern is increased because he has visited the neighborhood of 100 pitches in 4 of his 5 games, while pitching an average of 5.27 innings. For comparison, Godley’s average is 5.67 innings and Greinke’s average is 6 innings.

Jim: I always seem to come up with one question here, whose answer radically changes between being asked and answered. This is the obvious one here. The injury to Robbie Ray will test our pitching depth even further, with Matt Koch already replacing Taijuan Walker. I can only hope it’s something whose duration can be measured better in weeks than months, because even though Ray had not been his 2017 All-Star self to this point, I don’t have much faith that anyone in the Aces rotation will be able to replace Robbie’s output. There is no-one currently there with a Triple-A ERA below five. Maybe it’s #DuplantierTime?

James: I’m not sure whether today’s game changes my answer or not. However, now that Robbie Ray exited the game in the second inning with a right oblique strain, this is an easy one to answer. Here’s hoping Ray’s time on the shelf is short-lived and that he can return from this injury as strongly as he did from the injury he suffered last season

As April comes to an end, who were your Position Player and Pitcher of the Month?

Wesley: Patrick Corbin is the obvious answer, but I think you really need to give the bullpen collectively a nod for their performance in April as well. As I stated earlier, our bullpen has been ridiculously good so far this year. As far as position players go, I think the answer is Paul Goldschmidt. Despite getting off to a slow start, he’s been worth 1.1 oWar, which just edges out Pollock at 1.0. I think Pollock deserves credit as well, but Goldy coming through and still being worth more makes me give him the nod. If you want a player that’s been consistent all month long, then yeah, you have to give it to Pollock.

Michael: AJ and Patrick. Pollock has been the guy for the Dbacks that’s getting the big hit on a regular basis. Every time he’s up in a big situation I feel good about the Dbacks chances of scoring runs particularly since AJ is adjusted his offensive approach to more of a slugger than a speed guy as he’s aged. Strikeouts are way up, but for the tradeoff of more power and a 153 wRC+ (which ranks 3rd on the team behind Peralta and Goldy). Patrick Corbin should win NL Pitcher of the Month, the guy is putting up RJ-esque numbers.

Dan: I’m with Michael here, though I see Wesley’s point. Corbin, obvs, ‘nuff said. Goldy’s getting back to doing his Goldy business, but once his bat started waking up the last couple of weeks, I stopped being worried very quickly. He started looking right again, and once he starts looking right, you know that he’s right. AJ, though, not so much. So many injuries, a lot more streakiness, a lot of slumping when he’s back from injuries. I don’t think he ever really recovered from his injury woes in 2017, at least in terms of performance. He seems like he has so far, though, in 2018. I looked askance at the lineup the first time I saw him slotted into the cleanup spot, but damned if it doesn’t seem to be working. Yeah. AJ is doing the business.

Makakilo: Patrick Corbin is an easy pick. Let’s talk about David Peralta!

David Peralta ranks third in the NL in win probability added (1.2). To put that statistic in perspective, he ranks ahead of Goldschmidt and Harper. That statistic is a good one because it measures how much Peralta increased the odds of the D-backs winning games.

Offensively, his OPS is the highest on the team. On Saturday against the Nationals, he hit two homers which meant the game was tied 2-2 after 6 innings. Then his walk in the tenth inning made possible the go-ahead walk.

He ranked #27 in the top 50 D-backs of all time. See the AZ SnakePit article for more details.

“It’s been a long and hard road for me. I just want to be an inspiration for guys out there who haven’t made it yet. I want them to know if you work hard, and are dedicated, it can happen to you. It’s never too late.’’ David Peralta

Jim: Who am I to go against the hive-mind? Corbin. On the position side, it’s a lot tougher, with Goldschmidt, Peralta and Pollock all worthy candidates, as explained above. But I’ll give it to Daniel Descalso simply to annoy our one-day troll. Going into today’s game, Descalso had an OPS of .801 in high-leverage situations, compared to .724 overall. If he seems perpetually to come through when needed, that’s because he does.James: For pitcher, it has to be Corbin. While I think that it is possible to make an argument that other pitchers are performing higher above their expected talent, Patrick Corbin has done everything and more that the team has asked of him, which is why he landed NL POW honours. For the position player part of things, I’m going with A.J. Pollock. Pollock has been consistently good all month and is starting to remind people just how impressive he was back in 2015. He’s hitting for average and power and his defense has been impressive as well. He’s already made a number of big plays in the outfield. He’s also been one of the ones to come through with multiple big at-bats, especially over the last week or so.

What are the biggest reasons for optimism and pessimism as we go into May?

Wesley: The biggest reason to be optimistic is quite obvious to me. Despite playing without Lamb and Souza, two key offensive pieces, this team has won 9 series in a row. I don’t think we’ll have Souza back until the middle of May at the earliest, but Lamb is definitely knocking on the door of coming back. The loss of Taijuan Walker to Tommy John surgery definitely hurts, but Matt Koch has stepped up as replacement, and I’ve seen excellent pitching in the minors, so reinforcements are on the way. Shelby Miller will be back at some point this summer, which hopefully will help provide a fresh arm once we’re in June. I think regression by our pitchers is something that is always a potential concern when you are dealing with performances as good as we’ve seen this year. On the flipside, I think Ray, Greinke, and Godley are due for some positive regression. Another reason to be positive is that we have had a very, very tough schedule so far, and we are going to eventually see some easier stretches in the schedule.

Dan: What Wesley said, on all counts. More reasons, I think, to be optimistic than pessimistic at this point.

Michael: The biggest reason for optimism is this team no matter what seems to find a way to make things happen. They’re always getting the big hit, getting big outs, and out-executing their opponents. The team hasn’t missed a beat despite three injuries that should have been devastating to their playoff attempts. The Dbacks have their starting pitching, situational offense, and bullpen clicking right now and those are the three keys to success in October. The biggest reason for pessimism would be regression for the bullpen and injuries possibly continuing to devastate the club. The team has had Lamb for 4 games, Walker has only made 2 starts, while Delgado and Souza hasn’t appeared in a game. The Dbacks certainly miss Lamb’s bat at 3B (not his glove he’s in the lineup as a 25+ HR, 100+ RBI bat), but the torrid starts that Peralta, Goldy, AJ have gotten to at the plate plus Salas has done an excellent job filling in for Delgado.

Makakilo: The injuries to Jake Lamb, Seven Souza Jr., Randall Delgado, Taijuan Walker, and even Shelby Miller are causes for both pessimism and optimism. The downside is that injuries happened. The upside is that the team has done well despite the injuries. Injuries have been opportunities for depth players to demonstrate they are ready for more playing time.

However, as I wrote in my first answer, it is the intangibles that are the biggest reason for optimism.

UPDATE: And today’s injury to Robbie Ray is a big reason to be concerned - our depth in starting pitching will be significantly tested

Jim: The answer is the same for both: injuries. I think it’s becoming clear that the roster, as constructed, can compete with anyone. But we haven’t seen them play a single game with the roster, as constructed. They’ve weathered the losses of Souza and Lamb impeccably well, and their returns should help. But can they weather the losses of Walker and, now, Ray too? This and other variants of the question will likely be asked for the next five months.

James: My biggest reason for optimism is that the team went into today tied for the best record in all of baseball, this despite the absences of Souza, Lamb, and Taijuan Walker, along with the slow starts by Paul Goldschmidt and Alex Avila. This optimism ties into my concern though. This team is already down one pitcher for the season. Today Robbie Ray left the game with a right oblique strain. Starting pitching depth was a concern coming into the season. Now, only four weeks into the season, the team is already looking for starting pitcher number seven. The team is quickly running out of candidates to step up and perform if someone in the rotation goes down.

We face both the reigning AL and NL champions this week. How will we do?

Wesley: The Dodgers are currently doing without Justin Turner, Corey Seager, Rich Hill, Logan Forsythe, and Julio Urias. To top it off, Yasiel Puig was added to the DL earlier today. Their 13-11 Pythagorean W-L is the exact opposite of their 11-13 record, but they aren’t operating at 100 percent. Clayton Kershaw looks like he is finally starting to show cracks, and is not the indisputably best pitcher in the league anymore. So I think we can take the series with the Dodgers. The Houston Astros are somehow an even better team than they were last year, and their Pythag W-L of 19-7 compared to their actual record of 17-10 suggests they have been unlucky as well. The Astros have a deeper lineup than us, and have better starting pitching. Bullpens are both crazy good. I think the Astros will likely give us our first series lost of the year, but I think we’ll take at least one game. So a .500 record is about what I expect out of this road trip, and even that would be a positive. I really would like to see us take three from the Dodgers and put even more distance between us in the standings.

Michael: To be the best, you have to beat the best from last year. The Dbacks have taken advantage of a Dodger team that’s missing their best hitter and defacto clubhouse leader and it’s showing in their on-field play so far. The Dodgers are a very good team, or at least on paper they will be at full strength, so it’s important the Dbacks bury them while they’re not at full strength to try to win the division. The Astros look equally as impressive as they did last year and arguably have the best 25-man roster in the game today, so if the Dbacks win that series I feel like they’re going to do something special this season.

Dan: I’ve been enjoying looking at the box scores this weekend of the Dodgers losing to the Giants. Not too worried there, frankly. Not sure what’s wrong with them right now, but there’s something wrong (possibly many things), and I think we’re good ultimately. As for the Astros, I have no idea. I wish them luck...they won a WS for a city that needed something like that after a rough year last year, and they also stomped the Dodgers in getting there, so they’re good with me. I’m not entirely sure we can take them, but I think we can certainly go toe to toe, which will mean that the series victor winds up being a coin flip. We’ll see how it turns out.

Makakilo: We will win three of the four games in the series with the Dodgers, for the reasons explained so well by Wesley. For some additional thoughts on the series, please read my series preview that is scheduled to be posted Monday.

Fivethirtyeight.com shows odds for the series between the Astros and Diamondbacks. The first two games could be won be either team (51% vs 49%) and the third game will likely be won by the Astros (58% to 42%).

Jim: We’ve never played the NL + AL champions in consecutive series. Can’t imagine it happens very often for any team! So it’ll be an interesting challenge. The Dodgers are really struggling, losing consecutive series to the Marlins and Giants, and losing Puig does remove a reason to hate-watch these games. Ray wouldn’t have pitched in this series anyway, and I think we can take three here, but the Astros are living up to their World Series title, 100%. I can easily see our series winning streak closing next weekend.

James: The Dodgers are struggling right now and are without some key contributors. I feel good about the Diamondbacks against the Dodgers, assuming team health remains what it is or improves. I would feel even better about the series if Dodger-killer, Robbie Ray were healthy and starting. The AL champs are going to be a massive challenge. Having managed to win the series in Washington, I now look at Houston as Arizona’s big hurdle for consecutive series won. Justin Verlander is reminding the world why he is going to the Hall of Fame, meanwhile Charlie Moron and Gerrit Cole are torching MLB. THat leaves Keuchel and McCullers, both of whom have been struggling, but have been pitching well enough that Arizona is likely to have trouble with them.

MLB games broadcast on Facebook: discuss…

Wesley: I was planning on checking it out to see how bad it was, but I ended up having some other obligations that day so I missed it. In other words, I have no opinion.

Michael: Get rid of Eric Byrnes and the broadcast significantly improves. The play-by-play guy did a decent job of interacting with his audience and the lack of commercial breaks is a nice change. I still prefer Bert and Bob over them.

Dan: Why? The world didn’t need this. I did enjoy Eric Byrnes from time to time when he was patrolling our outfield, but do I want/need to hear him talk, on an insecure and deceptive social media platform, “helping” to call a baseball game? No, no thank you, thank you very much but no.

Wesley: Eric Byrnes was doing commentary? Really? I’m glad I missed that one. He wasn’t even that good in 2007, and anything he’s been involved in since then has been a mistake. Stick to surfing and kayaking with your dog, Byrnes. (The Eric Byrnes contract scarred me emotionally. I still have haunting dreams of Byrnes counting his fat stacks of cash in his Kayak at the All Star game in McCovey cove.)

Jim: I’m entirely in favor of games being available on as many outlets as possible, but - and it’s a big but - these should not be “exclusive”. That negates the entire point of having a range of outlets, if you force the viewer to sit at the end of one pipe. I’d rather they stream local coverage as well, so that we don’t have to listen to the half-formed blabberings of certain people.

James: I’m pretty much in agreement with Jim on this one. I want plenty of avenues for watching, but making anything exclusive to Facebook defeats the purpose. Casual fans of the sport tuning in for the latest Facebook game might have just been driven away by the horrific broadcasting too.

What is your first baseball memory?

Wesley: My first clear baseball memories are going to minor league Tucson Toros games with my family, and Craig Counsell scoring the winning run in the 1997 World Series. I remember being specifically annoyed because baseball was interrupting Fox Kids weekday afternoon cartoon lineup. I was a nerd growing up and never really got into baseball seriously until I was in highschool. I think the story is well known, but I had a gut feeling about the Dbacks winning the World Series in ‘01, and I hastily made $400 worth of bets that I don’t know how I would have paid off if they had lost. They won, and it was a karma thing following the team from then on. I went out of my way to learn as much as I possibly could about the game, entered the online fandom. It’s been a long journey but I don’t think I would be doing this without those early baseball moments happening. My interest in minor league baseball started with going to those minor league Tucson Toros and Sidewinders games growing up. I wouldn’t be a fan of the Dbacks if it weren’t for Craig Counsell’s presence on the team giving me a gut feeling that they would win the world series that year.

Michael: The first game I went to was the Round Rock Express (Astros AA) vs. San Antonio Missions (Dodgers AA) in 2000. I think I went to about 4-5 games between the 2000 and 2001 seasons there. The pitching coach for those teams then was Mike Maddux, who is now the pitching coach of the Cardinals. In 2001, I saw two games against the Angels AA affiliate whose pitching is Mike Butcher. Small world, am I right? Fortunately I didn’t become a diehard baseball fan until moving to Arizona, otherwise I wouldn’t be posting this.

Dan: Lotta indistinct memories of baseball stats and stuff, but the first actual thing I’d call a baseball memory is when I was in a tee-shirt league in Haddonfield, New Jersey, doing a run-down drill in preseason practice with a kid named Webb Blair who was our second baseman (I was the shortstop), and we were almost done, had closed in on the hypothetical runner, and I tossed the ball to him and he hauled off and threw it right back at me, full speed and face-height, when we were less than ten feet away. I couldn’t get my glove up in time--Webb had a good, strong arm, probably could have even played 3rd base if he’d wanted to--and took it right in the nose. Happily, my nose didn’t break, and surprisingly it didn’t bleed even though it felt very much like it wanted to. I hated him for about a week, because I thought it was personal (as I think about it now, I still think that maybe it was), but it was all fine once the season started. He and I both hit well, our team made it into the first round of the local playoffs, and we both got to represent Griffith Electric (if I’m remembering rightly) in the All-Star Game. Tra la.

Makakilo: My first baseball memory is playing little league. I enjoyed baseball very much. It was my one of my best childhood memories. Strange how I can’t remember when I stopped playing baseball.

While attending college, a baseball field was immediately next to my dormitory. I would take my homework with me and work on it while I watched games. On one occasion, a cute astro-science major asked me what kind of baseball analysis I was doing. My answer was more serendipity than serious.

Jim: Obviously, I don’t have one growing up: we played “rounders” occasionally during P.E. at school, does that count? I guess my first formal memory is passing through Phoenix in 1997, staring into a downtown hole in the ground, and trying to imagine what Bank One Ballpark would look like. Only later, did I discover I had been staring into the wrong downtown hole in the ground!

James: I grew up in a household that regularly tuned in for the game of the week. I also grew up watching teams practice at the local parks during spring training. I attended plenty of games as well, including numerous games at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, where the AAA-affiliate of the Giants played - the Phoenix Giants. That was many moons ago though, and I honestly have no idea which memory comes first. They are all somewhat vague and bleeding together.