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Are Diamondbacks Playoff Winners Next Season?

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The answer could be found in two 2-strike stats: wOBA and Homers per AB.

Playoff bound teams are not decided by throwing darts.
Playoff winning teams are not decided by throwing darts.
Photo by Adam Davy/EMPICS via Getty Images

This season, hitting was the Diamondbacks’ biggest weakness. “[Christian Walker was] one of the few offensive players not to have a disappointing year for the D-backs.” —Jim McLennan

Although a winning team has pitching, fielding, baserunning and hitting, for now let’s focus on hitting.

2-Strike Statistics

My curiosity about 2-strike statistics started with an article written by Travis Sawchick. Travis Sawchick focused on two-strike weighted on-base average (wOBA-2s). Two reasons to focus on 2-strike performance:

  • “...the percentage of two-strike pitches is typically greater in the postseason.”
  • “In the wild card round, four of the top five teams in two-strike weighted on-base average, and six of the top eight, advanced on to the division series round.”

Another two-strike statistic that was equally predictive of advancing in the playoffs was homers per at bat. Three of the four teams that reached the ALCS and NLCS were in the top 8 teams in both statistics (wOBA-2s and HR/AB-2s). The fourth team was the Astros, which ranked 12th and 16th in the two stats.

Teams that Advanced to ALCS and NLCS

ALCS and NLCS teams HR/AB-2s team rank wOBA-2s team rank
ALCS and NLCS teams HR/AB-2s team rank wOBA-2s team rank
LAD .037 1 .271 1
ATL .028 6 .253 3
TB .031 2 .246 8
HOU .024 16 .237 12
2020 Season. Data from Baseball Savant.

For the Diamondbacks, I am confident their talent is good enough to reach the playoffs in 2021. Ranking in the top 8 for 2-strike wOBA and 2-strike HR/AB would make me highly confident that the Diamondbacks would win and advance in the playoffs. The caveat is that having confidence is different than causation, which includes other factors in addition to hitting. Let’s look at hitting statistics for Diamondback players.

Which players were in the top 10 Diamondbacks for the two 2-strike statistics?

Let’s look at Diamondback players who were top-10 in both 2-strike statistics. Half the names surprised me. As a point of reference, the last column is wOBA for all counts.

Top Diamondbacks with 2-Strike Counts

player HR/AB-2s wOBA-2s wOBA-all counts
player HR/AB-2s wOBA-2s wOBA-all counts
Andy Young .059 .320 .345
Josh VanMeter .048 .292 .276
Christian Walker .042 .285 .333
Kole Calhoun .051 .284 .357
Tim Locastro .032 .260 .370
Wyatt Mathisen .053 .241 .349
2020 Season. Data from Baseball Savant.

Andy Young ranked first in both 2-strike statistics. In a small sample size of 34 plate appearances, he was better than known excellent hitters Walker and Calhoun. If Young is given more playing time, can he sustain that excellence? If so, it would help the Diamondbacks tremendously. Where would Andy Young play? He has played second base and third base. He is a better defender at second base (less errors per inning in AAA, and better UZR in the Majors (-.1 vs -1.8)). Unfortunately, Ketel Marte excels in that position. If they move Marte to the outfield, perhaps Andy Young could play second base.

Andy Young’s first hit in the Majors was a double.
Andy Young’s first hit in the Majors was a double.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Josh VanMeter and Wyatt Mathisen were excellent in both 2-strike statistics. The Diamondbacks have depth of hitting talent in the minors.

As a team, how well did Diamondbacks do against 3 types of pitches?

For the Diamondbacks, looking at type of pitch revealed significant insights. At first glance, I saw two situations that were insightful. Let’s look at them.

2-Strike Stats by Pitch Type

Pitch Type At Bats Homers Homer per At Bat wOBA rank of wOBA
Pitch Type At Bats Homers Homer per At Bat wOBA rank of wOBA
Fastball 490 8 .0163 .237 24th
Breaking 367 9 .0245 .233 4th
Offspeed 186 3 .0161 .203 19th
All Pitches 1043 20 .0192 .230 17th
2020 Season. Data from Baseball Savant.

Overall with 2-strikes, the Diamondbacks hit about average (see last row of table). Looking at specific types of pitches in the table revealed a strength. Compared to other pitches (and compared to other teams) Diamondbacks hit well against breaking pitches. Their wOBA (.233) ranked 4th in the Majors, and their HR/AB was 50% higher than other types of pitches.

The second situation was runner on base and less than 2 strikes. Overall the Diamondbacks’ .364 wOBA compared unfavorably with other teams (ranked 28th). Looking at specific pitches confirmed their strength against breaking pitches, with their .426 wOBA ranked 11th. Against breaking pitches their .054 homers per at-bat was greater than fastballs (.025) and off-speed pitches (.014).

How could the Diamondbacks improve?

Increase playing time for Andy Young and Tim Locastro, who hit well in 2-strike counts. As previously talked about, Andy Young could play at second base when Ketel Marte is in the outfield. Tim Locastro has speed and could play in the outfield or as DH.

As young players get more experience in the Majors, their hitting performance will likely improve. Diamondbacks position players in their first season in the Majors were Daulton Varsho, Pavin Smith, Wyatt Mathisen, and Andy Young.

With less than 2 strikes and with runners on base, team wOBA ranks 28th in the Majors. With expert coaching combined with realistic practice (with runners on base, and with realistic pitch speed and movement), the Diamondbacks could improve their results to at least average in this important game situation. Perhaps the coaches could look at Freddie Freeman. Makakilo wrote that he is one of six players with a gold-standard hit tool. Perhaps Diamondback hitters could make the same improvements as Freddie Freeman made this season. Travis Sawick wrote that his improvements were:

  • “His swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone is a career-low 24.1 percent.”
  • “Freeman has also added contact ability. He’s cut his swinging-strike rate by 3.1 percentage points in the regular season...”
  • “...Freeman is simply hitting the ball harder. His year-over-year average exit velocity gain of 2.7 mph...”
  • “He’s also lifting more batted balls into the air, enabling him to hit for more power.”

If the free agent market is weak, the Diamondbacks could acquire a bargain center fielder who had an excellent 2-strike wOBA in 2020. Possibilities include George Springer(.280), Jake Marisnick(.243), Kevin Pillar(.252), or Jackie Bradley Jr.(207) . Except for George Springer, their hitting was inconsistent from year to year, so there is some risk. On the other hand, risk often arrives at an affordable salary.

Conclusion.

In April and May, if the Diamondbacks rank in the top eight teams for 2-strike wOBA and 2-strike HR/AB, I will be confident they will win in the playoffs.

Formula for wOBA with 2019 factors. AB is at-bat, NIBB is not intentional base on balls, HBP is hit by pitch, and SF is sacrifice fly.

Wikipedia.