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SnakePit Round Table: That’s more like it!

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The D-backs go 5-1, and retake possession of first place in the NL West. A happier round table looms...

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Are the D-backs playing better, or is it just bad opposition?

James: A bit of both. Yes, the competition is horrible. However, the team is now playing looser and seems to be having better ABs. Granted, the quality of pitching is not as challenging, but more players are hitting the ball with authority now instead of simply swinging through or grounding out. Also, there is less watching the ball shoot right down the pipe. Pitching seems to have stabilized some as well. The inevitable regression has started to settle in, but the starters are finding a way to gut out 6 innings. The bullpen has stopped melting down. Jorge De La Rosa is gone. Clay Buchholz has come in and done everything that could have been asked of him. I really do think he has provided something of a lift. No longer is the team going into every fifth game pencilling in a loss.

Keegan: Torey Lovullo said it best last night. Major League opposition is still competition. Make no mistake about it the Reds and Marlins are terrible teams currently, but players on their roster are among the best competition in the world. They just so happen to be at the bottom of that competition, so I’d say it’s both. These series are the perfect catalyst to reignite the Diamondbacks bats. No way they could continue to be as bad as they were.

Makakilo: I agree with James and Keegan that D-backs are playing better and that the Reds and Marlins are bad teams this season. However, it is more than that. Winning becomes a habit that helps the team in many intangible ways. One basic way is Lovullo (and Mike Hazen and other coaches) will sleep better at night. The recent wins will restore the Diamondback players back to who they are – a team heading towards winning the NL West.

Michael: Yes. In the Marlins series, they outscored them 21-4 and in their two wins vs. Cincinnati outscored them 17-7. So between the two worst teams in the league the team went 5-1 with a run differential of +24 and averaged 7 runs per game. Good teams not only beat bad teams, they need to completely outplay them. Even though the Rockies were in 1st place going into the week, I never really worried about them because they have a bad offense (especially away from Coors Field) and still more worried about the Dodgers, who just swept the Rockies at Coors.

Jim: A little of column A, a little of column B. It’s nice to see what a genuinely bad team looks like, to realize how far the D-backs are from that. The Reds and Marlins are currently on pace for 105 and 107 losses respectively, and I’m hard pushed to say they don’t deserve it. But they are still major-league teams, and Arizona took care of business. Winning five of six and outscoring them 42-18 over the two series is a solid level of performance from the Diamondbacks, and it’s good to see them back on track. Now, let’s see them continue that, as we get back to facing divisional opponents.

Shelby Miller is almost back. What do you expect from him?

James: If he can perform like Patrick Corbin circa 2015 did, coming off of Tommy John, I think we have to call it a complete win. Coming back to rapidly, he’s going to still be on some sort of pitch limit. That’s going to limit the innings he can provide, even if he does go every fifth day. At this point, anything above and beyond Koch is a plus though. Frankly, I would probably be happy if he can just stay both healthy and effective the rest of the season. I still have my concerns about his ability to pitch in a major league rotation after the way he so spectacularly broke down. Even when he came back, his “success” was mostly smoke and mirrors. I’m hoping that with a new crop of pitching instructors and a new pitching philosophy, he’ll be able to return to pre-Arizona form.

Keegan: I actually liked the thought of the team using Miller and Robbie Ray as a “tandem starter” having each man pitch 4-5 innings in the same game in order to bring them both back slowly, but that won’t be possible with them coming back at different times. I would bounce either Matt Koch or Zack Godley from the rotation, probably the former. It’s difficult to project what to expect from Miller once he returns. His career has been all over the place sometimes being one of the more dominant pitchers in the league, or being a complete disaster as he was in 2016. I want him to do well and completely light it up for his own sake and for the good of the Diamondbacks.

Wesley: If he can pitch like he did before he went down last year that’d be fantastic. I don’t think he’ll be as bad as he was in 2016.

Makakilo: Although not every pitcher returns, I expect Shelby Miller will return to pitch in the Majors. I expect his ERA this season will increase from 4.09 (2017) to 4.69 (2018). The interesting question is whether he would be better in the bullpen or as a starter. Brooks Baseball shows me that his best two pitches (based on batting average and slugging percent) are his four-seam fastball and his cutter. In the bullpen, could he focus on those 2-pitches with an occasional change-up?

Michael: I think Miller could be an improvement over Koch, but I’m not sure how much of an upgrade that is after watching Koch have the game of his life. I think Miller could be more useful as a reliever this year when the rotation is healthy. Buchholz and Koch have held their own when pressed into duty because of the injuries, even though I have long term concerns about Koch being very hittable in most of his starts (today’s game notwithstanding, he was unhittable today).

Jim: It’s going to be interesting to see how the team handles him, and who he replaces. We’ve got Clay Buchholz, who hasn’t allowed more than one earned run in a start, and Matt Koch, who now has an ERA of 3.76 over nine starts. Between them, they have been the #5 starter the team needed. It seems almost cruel to replace either man with someone who hasn’t faced major-league pitching in so long, and whose performance level will be uncertain. A nice problem to have, and good for there to be options in case of further problems.

Your weekly Goldschmidt update. Is he back?

James: Two weeks ago, I said he looked better at the plate, but that I wanted to see if he could build on the new look. Last week I was glad to see that he did manage to carry things forward. I was cautiously optimistic that Goldschmidt might have finally turned a corner, but wanted to see him put together a third consecutive strong week before I was going to be willing to entertain the notion he had finally figured things out. This past week was Goldy’s third week in a row of improved performance. It was the best week he has had since the San Francisco and Los Angeles swing over a month ago. I’m starting to feel hopeful that Goldy is finally making the climb out of the deep, dark hole he dug for himself. He needs to have another strong week to keep from losing the gains he has made. He also needs to bring the recent success forward with him against slightly tougher pitching. He loves to hit in San Francisco. With the next two series being in SF and Denver, I think Goldschmidt has a very real opportunity to put his slow start squarely in the rear-view.

Keegan: He laughs at you for ever thinking he was gone in the first place. Goldy is coming around. He is too good not to. If he could turn it around up put up offensive production 30% above league average (130 OPS+/wRC+), I’d be satisfied.

Wesley: I figured he’d get back to being the Goldy we all know and love eventually, it was just a matter of when. So yes I think he’s back. Every player has slumps.

Makakilo: His slump ended 25 May. I looked at his season OPS after each game (source: Baseball Reference), and compared it to his season OPS from seven games earlier. The comparison has been positive every game starting 25 May. His season OPS is .732 and I feel confident it will improve to at least .800. He is on his way back.

Michael: The overall improvements seem to be rolling in slower. Every 3-4 trips to the plate you see something encouraging from him. Last night vs. Miami he turned on a 95 MPH heater and launched it into the upper deck. He’s crushed LHP all year, especially with the long ball, so it wasn’t surprising to see him launch an upper decker vs. a lefty. Batting eye is still good and quality of contact is marginally improving although we haven’t seen the Paul Goldschmidt that can carry his team on his back type game yet. The Diamondbacks in general seem to have more quality bats in their lineup this year than last (pre-JD), so not needing Goldy to do everything is definitely a plus for the team.

Jim: As Goldy goes, so goes the offense. When he gets a hit, the team are 19-13. When he doesn’t (and that includes today) they are 12-14. When he gets on base more than once: 17-9. This past week has certainly been a tonic, and his best in a while - but I would want to see him facing better pitchers before I will commit to him being fully “back”.

Is John Ryan Murphy for real? How should catching duties be handled?

James: I think that depends on how one is defining “for real”. This is the John Ryan Murphy the Yankees thought they had on their hands when they refused to part with him in the Martin Prado deal. He isn’t flashing quite the glove I remember hearing about. However, it is more than serviceable. Heck, he still rates in the top 20% of catchers defensively. With more time, that might actually go up. I think the real test is still to come though. JRM has some Lamb-esque splits versus right-handed pitching. Given that the league is 70% right-handed starters, that could make things a bit tougher for Murphy in the long run. Although that does bode well for facing a healthy Dodgers team of Kershaw, Wood, Ryu, and Hill. Murphy has done enough that he needs to start getting more at-bats. That means he needs to become the primary catcher for non-Greinke starts. Give three of four to Murphy, making sure he starts against as many lefties as possible. If the splits come back to bite him, then I split the time 50/50 between Murphy and Avila and try to take as big advantage of the platoon as I can. If, however, he can weather the starts against right-handed pitching with any level of competence, I keep running him out there and hand him the primary catching duties next season when Mathis leaves.

Keegan: He’s been an absolute delight to watch in his small sample size this season. I don’t think we need to look much farther than Sean’s analysis of him. I have no idea if he can sustain this going forward, but if he can Arizona seems to have a long term solution behind the dish.

Wesley: Murphy has said that he’s changed his swing as part of the so called “Fly ball revolution”, so I am inclined to believe that he’s for real. I don’t think he’ll stay this good, I think we should temper our expectations a little bit, but I do think that this change is for real and he’ll be an average or league average hitter going forward until his decline.

Makakilo: I agree with Wesley that he changed his swing in the offseason, and we are seeing the benefit of that change. He hit 4 homers in the last 6 games. At that pace, he could have the most homers in a single season of any D-back – exceeding 57 homers in a single season hit by Luis Gonzalez.

I agree with James that he is in the top 20% of catchers defensively. He and Mathis are excellent behind the plate. This season, in pitch framing runs Mathis is 4th (4.0 runs), Murphy is 8th(3.4 runs), and in fielding runs above average Mathis is 2nd(5.8 runs) and Murphy is 15th(2.8 runs). (source: Baseball Prospectus). Even if his current pace of hitting homers is not sustainable – his real value to the team is behind the plate, where he and Mathis are ranked among the best in the Majors

Michael: Right now, no one is squaring up the baseball better than Murphy. When I looked up the Statcast leaderboard prior to Saturday’s game, he was #1 in baseball in Barrels/BBE and Barrels/PA when lowering the bar to 50 balls in play. However, the one underlying number that seemed off was his 95+ MPH contact number wasn’t in the same tier as the top barrels hitters, although 42.1% is still a solid number. There is a drastic change in his batted ball profile where his fly ball rate has gone through the roof (north of 60%) and the uptick in hard contact combined with the spike in fly ball rate has resulted in more extra base hits. I still think his HR/FB rate will regress unless his 95+ contact rate improves, but even if that’s the case he’s got 20 HR potential with the change in approach. It’s pretty funny that the team got him for a fringe prospect.

Jim: Yeah, the insane HR/FB rate Michael mentions appears to be propelling the ball out of the year for him. I don’t think the power is “legitimate”. But he is certainly a much better offensive threat than we expected him to be. My qualms are more about his work behind the plate: as noted during the Corbin start, our pitchers’ ERA is higher when throwing to him, and his rate of wild pitches/passed balls allowed is also higher than Alex Avila and Jeff Mathis. It’s really hard to evaluate catchers, because they contribute in so many ways. However, it would not surprise me to see a Murphy/Avila tandem in 2019.

The NL West is the tightest it has been in more than a decade. How does it look to you?

James: They might as well call it the MASH division. I honestly think that the first non-rebuilding team to get themselves healthy wins this division. Colorado is starting to crack. The Dodgers are still managing to hang around despite ⅘ of their rotation and their two biggest bats all being on the DL. The Giants have managed to hang around, despite all the pitching woes they have had due to injury. I do think the Giants’ age finally catches up to them and that they tail off. However, if the Dodgers and Diamondbacks fail to get healthy San Francisco can stay in the race. Of all the teams, I think the Diamondbacks have the best shot at taking this division. Healthy returns of four all-star caliber players in the next month will be a massive influx of talent. It will be like making multiple impact trades without actually losing anyone.

Keegan: You could construct a formidable roster with all of the players on the disabled list in this division. It’s a real shame because a truly feel that this would be one of the best divisions in the league if all of the teams were healthy. I’m interested in what this means for the division as the trade deadline draws closer. If there is little to no hope for one of the wild card teams to come from the NLW, does a team falling out of it (speaking mostly of SF, COL, or AZ) sell off what they have and focus on the road ahead? This division might not be decided until the final week of the season, so selling or buying at the deadline might prove to be premature. Should still be highly entertaining to watch. San Diego winning the division would be the greatest troll of all time.

Wesley: Injuries have played a big part in the division being so tight. If the Dodgers and Diamondbacks were both at 100% health it would be a two horse race. This year however, I have doubts about the wildcard coming out of the NL West. If the season ended today, the Dodgers and Rockies wouldn’t even make the playoffs. The two wildcards would be the Cubs and the Nationals.

Makakilo: James is correct that the healthy return of all-star caliber players will greatly help the D-backs. Two additional factors are John Ryan Murphy will be given more playing time, and Paul Goldschmidt will make a bigger impact going forward. In the context of a great team culture and players with the “right stuff, the D-backs are the favorites to win the NL West. As Keegan pointed out, the injuries in the NL West make prediction difficult. However my opinion follows (unchanged from the last time): the Rockies and D-backs will be neck-and-neck at the finish. The Dodgers will compete with the Giants for third.

Michael: This is the most winnable the division has looked for the Dbacks since 2013. Hopefully with injuries no longer being a one-way street and getting Pollock and Ray back helps boosts the team’s chances of making a run. The Rockies don’t have the offensive firepower to make a run at the division and I see them being a mid 80s win team plus I think the Dodgers’ slow start handicaps the number of wins they could get this year. San Francisco is still kind of there, but unless they go on a tear when Bumgarner comes back, they probably fade in July. Realistically I see the Dbacks and the Dodgers being the two teams in it towards the end of the season with the Rockies hanging around through August.

Jim: It has basically become an 80-game sprint, with little or nothing decided over the first 60 games. Every team seems to have their share of issues, but the team I think in most trouble is the Rockies. Their offense remains feeble, and the expensive bullpen they constructed is among one of the worst in the league, with an ERA north of five. I can see them fading down the stretch. The Giants have stuck around better than I expected, given the pitching injuries, and getting Bumgarner back might help a bit. The Dodgers are a totally difference animal without Kershaw: they’ve survived so far, but I think that’s largely smoke and mirrors, and with him out for another month, it’s going to be a slog. But they have so much depth, I can’t see them imploding totally.

All-Star voting opened. Save Patrick Corbin, does any D-back have a chance?

James: Given his personality and possibly being the real face of the franchise, I think Archie Bradley might still have a chance at going, especially if injuries continue to pile up all over the league. Bradley stumbled for a week or so, but he is still a dominant force out of the bullpen that any team in baseball would be thrilled to have.

Keegan: Archie seems to get a good deal of national media attention, so I could see him being selected as well.

Michael: Archie Bradley seems like the popular choice here, but he’s arguably been the team’s 3rd best reliever this season behind Brad Boxberger and Yoshi Hirano. The reliever with the strongest case is Boxberger. Box has a strikeout rate of 32.5%, which ranks 21st in MLB and 11th in the NL amongst qualified relievers. His walk rate is also the highest at 10.5%, but the walks have mostly been in the early season and command overall is a non-issue to me. His BABIP is .267, but he has a history of suppressing BABIP with a .279 career mark. Then of course the obvious: 13/14 in saves (Dbacks 14-0 record in Boxberger save opportunities) and a 1.80 ERA on the season (14th in ERA- for NL relievers).

Jim: It’s not going to happen, but I’d love to see Daniel Descalso get a change. He has played all over the field, hit all over the batting order, and delivered clutch at-bat after clutch at-bat. It may not show up in WAR, but you could make a case for him being the team’s most valuable position player this season.

Apart from the internet, what modern tech could you least do without?

James: My PCs. One has over 3000 movie titles, several thousand episodes of television, and a substantial library of books on it. (Yes, they are legal. You all should have seen the walls of the house my brother and I lived in when we were lining them with shelves filled with DVDs and Blu-rays.) The other has all the writing I have been working on and also has a number of games I enjoy wasting time with.

Keegan: Uhhh… is there a more appropriate choice than air conditioning as an Arizona resident? Going more modern I’d have to say I could not do without a portable audio device, more specifically an iPod. Having my favorite music readily accessible right next to me can be a godsend at times.

Wesley: I think James and Keegan are spot on here. I couldn’t do without my computer and the internet. Central and Southern Arizona wouldn’t be nearly as populous without air conditioning.

Makakilo: My cell phone. It is easy to carry in my pocket. From nearly every location on the planet, it provides incoming/outgoing calls and use of the internet. In some parts of the world, it is the primary way to make purchases (mobile money transfer). It provides many functions such as notepad, watch, and alarms. It provides video/audio entertainment/games.

Michael: Air conditioning is obviously the #1 answer because we live in a furnace. After air conditioning, I probably go cell phone 2nd (I’m on that thing non-stop during games but not to the point of where I’m ignoring the game either since you can do a lot in the 25 seconds between pitches) then my laptop 3rd. Cell phone ranks higher than computer because worst case scenario I can use my phone to do computer stuff.

Jim: I could manage a night without my PC, phone and Internet. Air-conditioning, not so much! But I’d like to give a shout out to the water-cooler here at SnakePit Towers, which we got a couple of years ago to save the cost (both financial and environmental) of bottled water, and which has quietly become the unsung hero of our kitchen utensils. Cold, tasty water at the push of a spigot, is a true delight.