If the standings were decided by how much WAR a team put up, the Diamondbacks would be in a considerably better position than they are. Currently, their record is exactly even, at 47-47, tied with the Rockies for eighth-best in the league. But they are ranked considerably higher by both fWAR and bWAR. At Fangraphs, the team are fourth in the league in both offense and pitching, and are league best in defense. Over at Baseball Reference, they are second in offense/defense (they’re combined on BR) and fifth in pitching. This makes it a bit harder to figure out where the team can improve.
We can get a sense of why the D-backs have underperformed if we look at the adjusted standings over at Baseball Prospectus. They offer three alternative numbers, in addition to regular win percentage:
- First-order win %: Based on runs scored and allowed
- Second-order win %: Based on how many runs scored and allowed a team “should” have allow, based on their underlying stats
- Third-order win %. Second-order win %, adjusted for the quality of the opposition they have faced.
The D-backs stand at .500 in regular W%. But the other three number are remarkably consistent across the board: .556, .556 and .559. We’ve often mentioned how the team’s run differential is far better than their record. It appears this differential is well-deserved, based on the stats beneath them - it’s not the result of excessive clutch hitting, for example. And Arizona have been done no favors by the schedule either. They play in what’s credibly the best division in the NL - one with a winning record against both the East and Central, and which has a collective winning record in interleague play too. Still, let’s see if we can identify some areas of improvement.
According to Baseball Reference, there is only one position on the diamond where the Diamondbacks have received below average production. Right field comes in at 1.4 wins below average, with Arizona ahead only of the Pirates in the National League. Fangraphs concurs, also ranking the D-backs 14th of 15 and above just Pittsburgh. Arizona is below average there in base-running, defense and offense, and it’s largely Adam Jones we have to thank. He has started 84 of 94 games: after performing admirably through the first month of the season, with a .935 OPS on April 27, he has fallen off the proverbial cliff. His OPS since then is .653 over a considerably larger 58 game sample, with a K:BB worse than 4:1.
There is outfield help looming with the return of David Peralta, currently on the DL with a shoulder issue. He’s scheduled to resume baseball activities today, and isn’t expected to need a lengthy rehab. However, given there’s a case he came back too quickly from his last DL stint, caution might be for the best. The Freight Train’s name is also one that comes up in trade rumors, with Ken Rosenthal saying the Cubs might be interested. That would likely only be if the D-backs enter sell mode, in which case squeezing more production from right field presumably wouldn’t matter. Peralta has 158 career starts in right, so it might make sense to move him back there, platooning Tim Locastro and Jarrod Dyson in left.
The back of the rotation
Overall, the D-backs starting pitching looks solid. Sixth in the league by fWAR, at 8.2, and fourth by bWAR. however, that does conceal how front-loaded it is. Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Luke Weaver and Merrill Kelly are responsible for 8.0, with everyone else barely above replacement. If everyone was healthy, that might not be so much of an issue: your fifth starter is pretty much going to be close to replacement for many teams. But with the injury to Weaver (and at least another month before he comes back, I’d say), we now have two spots at the back to fill with those non ZaRoLuMe pitchers. And they have generally not been very good. They’ve made 24 starts, going 5-10 with an ERA of 6.79.
If Alex Young turns out to be as good as the results in his first two starts indicate, that will be enormously helpful. However, those games came against the Giants in Oracle and Rockies at Chase: San Francisco have the lowest OPS of any NL team at home, as do Colorado on the road, so he could not have asked for a easier beginning to his career. Alex starts tomorrow in Texas, and the Rangers there are close to 150 OPS points better than either of his first two opponents, so will be a considerably tougher test. If he can beat Texas too, I might then start sipping some of the sweet Young-flavored Kool-Aid.
That only fills one of the two spots, and if you take Young’s stats out, the other back-end starters have gone 3-10 in 22 starts, with a 7.51 ERA. Jon Duplantier has the lowest ERA, at 6.23. The All-Star break and off-days help, but someone is still going to need to pitch as part of that crucial upcoming series against the Brewers, probably on Saturday. There will be other fifth starts going forward until the point when (if?) Weaver is ready to return to the rotation. Reaching the needed 85 or more wins will be considerably harder if those games are effectively a surrender.
Better late and close hitting
As Jack discovered last week, the problem with the team in one-run games might not be the obvious one of the bullpen. The offense has to bear their share of the blame too. The Diamondbacks’ OPS in what Baseball Reference calls “late and close” situations is only 10th-best in the league - and of the teams below them, only the Cubs could be considered as contenders (the others being the Padres, Giants, Reds and Marlins). Most teams do perform less well there - typically because they are facing the opposition’s top relievers. But the league wide drop is 32 points, while Arizona are close to twice that, being 61 points worse in L&C situations.
To see who are the biggest culprits, the table below shows everyone with more than 100 PA in any situation for the D-backs this year, and compares their overall OPS with the figure in those crucial L&C slots. Note that we ARE dealing with very small sample sizes there, in some cases as low as 20-25 plate appearances. You therefore probably should not read too much into these, but it does give you an idea who has most room for improvement over the final two and a half months.
D-backs OPS vs. C&L OPS
Of course, there’s a scenario where they go 1-5 over the rest of this week, drop out of contention, and Mike Hazen pulls the trigger on sales mode instead. Rumblings in the media suggest that may be more likely. But we’ll save a discussion on that scenario for another day. This is for talking about how we can get better...