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Is Mike Hazen’s honeymoon over?

We are likely entering the most challenging period of Hazen’s tenure

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Mike Hazen, Diamondbacks GM Photo by Sarah Sachs/Arizona Diamondbacks/Getty Images

Our surveys have consistently shown that Diamondbacks’ fans have a lot of faith in the team’s front-office, under General Manager Mike Hazen. That’s understandable, because there’s an objective case to be made that he has been the best GM in team history. Part of the perception is likely that he came in after the almost entirely unmitigated disaster of the Dave Stewart era: improving on that is not exactly a high bar. But the early going of the Hazen era have been as good as those delivered under any other GM in team history. Here are the win percentages over the first three years (two in the case of Stewart) for the five permanent Arizona GMs:

  • Mike Hazen .535
  • Kevin Towers .527
  • Joe Garagiola Jr. .514
  • Josh Byrnes .510
  • Dave Stewart .457

I’m quite surprised everyone bar Stewart posted a winning record. Usually, GM changes come when a team is performing poorly: the final seasons of the four ex-GMs delivered 77, 65, 64 and 69 wins. And one winter is not technically enough for a GM to carry out the scope of makeover needed to rebuild a franchise in his image. But there seems to be a rebound effect, with their replacement improving the team record by an average of 17 games in their first campaign. Even Stewart delivered a 15-win increase in his rookie season. I can understand perhaps players putting in more effort for a new manager. But a new GM? That will have to await further study though. Let’s get back to our topic!

What’s notable about Hazen’s tenure is its consistency. While we may have joked about Mr. 500, the team did not have a single day with a losing record in the first two years under him. There had been only one previous season where the D-backs were at or above .500 every day from beginning to end of the schedule: 2000. Even in 2019, the low-water mark was -3, and that was for just a single day, on April 13. The past three years have largely spoiled us. The chart below shows a rolling three-year average i.e. the figure for 1998 is the average of 1998, 1999 and 2000. You can see that the past three have seen the D-backs produce their best regular season average win number since 2001-03.

It probably helps that, save for this season, Hazen’s teams have always started well: on April 30, the D-backs’ record from 2017-19 have been solidly above .500 each year, at 16-11, 20-8 and 17-13. Torey Lovullo has spoken a lot about playing “downhill baseball,” the concept being that “if you score runs early, players can take the stress off themselves and just play naturally.” While that’s applied to a single game, the same is true for a season. It’s a lot easier - for both players and fans - if the team gets out of the gate hot, rather than having to stare up at the side of Mt. 500. Obviously, in any season, there will be slumps. But they’re easier to deal with when the team has a winning record.

Through the start of spring training this year, the moves Hazen made have also been ones of which fandom has generally approved. He has done an excellent job of threading the needle, rebuilding a farm system which was largely bereft of life, without resorting to the kind of tanking in which we’ve seen other franchises indulge. Contrary to widely-held pundit wisdom, he was able to trade Zack Greinke’s contract for credible prospects, without having to pay most of Greinke’s salary. And he bit the bullet, putting logic before emotion to trade Paul Goldschmidt for another good haul, before a disappointing 2019 campaign for our beloved first-baseman. It almost seemed as if Hazen could do no wrong.

Then 2020 hit. The very season in which everyone stressed the importance of a good start, quickly saw the D-backs reach unprecedented depths for the Hazen era. 10 games in, they were four below .500, for the first time since the dog-end days of late 2016, when Dave Stewart was clearing his desk out at Chase Field. Things have evened out somewhat since, but the D-backs still would need to sweep the Padres in the upcoming series to find themselves on Mt. 500. That’s probably the necessary mark to guarantee a playoff spot, even with the expanded post-season this year. and one the Diamondbacks have not seen so far this year.

The pitching has been a disaster thus far, posting an MLB worst 5.87 ERA, after having conceded 32 runs over the last four games. The rotation has been especially problematic. Arizona’s starters have gone 3-9 with a 6.75 ERA, and that in a season where teams are collectively hitting .238 (even with the universal DH). The poster child for their struggles has been Hazen’s first “big ticket” free-agent signing, Madison Bumgarner. Signed to a five-year, $85 million contract in December, this was supposed to be the season where MadBum was relatively cheap and most effective. Instead, he started his Arizona career going 0-3 with a 9.85 ERA, before hitting the IL with back issues, return date unspecified.

Other decisions have not worked out as hoped either. Perhaps the most second-guessed one was tendering Jake Lamb a contract. In November, we asked whether the team should give Jake a one-year, $5 million deal. Of the 476 responses, 74% said “No.” Hazen went even higher, paying Lamb $5.515 million, but the early returns have been dire. Lamb is 2-for-29 with 11 strikeouts so far, and looks little if any better than the near-replacement level player he has been over the past two years. A chorus of “Told you so” from the fans, seems not unjustified there. Luke Weaver, part of the Goldschmidt return, can’t go past three innings, and Hector Rondon has lost zip on his fastball and been getting swatted around.

But if we’re going to use 19-game samples as a stick with which to beat Hazen (not necessarily wrongly - concern about Bumgarner in particular seems highly reasonable), we should also acknowledge the positives. Starling Marte has been awesome (169 OPS+), Kole Calhoun leads the team in home-runs (125 OPS+), while quickly becoming a fan favorite, and Junior Guerra has tossed 7.2 innings of one-hit relief. Some previous acquisitions have also done well. Those include Merrill Kelly with his 15:1 K:BB ratio, who has stepped in to replace Mike Leake admirably - if perhaps not sustainably (ERA = 2.29, FIP = 4.34). It certainly has not been all bad.

I think, more than anything, it’s probably just a reminder that Mike Hazen is mortal - even if at times he has seemed like a wizard with the power to mind-control other GMs. No GM will ever be infallible, because there are factors which go into results that are simply outside of their control. But it will be interesting to see how Hazen handles adversity. What will he do if, for example, the Bumgarner situation is as bad as it seems? The salaries of Lamb, Robbie Ray and Yasmany Tomas come off the books next year, yet franchise income is likely to be sharply down. Even discounting Leake’s option, the team has about $125 million on the books for next year, and that may not be sustainable.

Hopefully, the farm system will begin to bear fruit, providing a pipeline of cost-controlled prospects going forward, that can be used to offset savings from getting veterans off the payroll (in whatever way). Negotiating the post-COVID landscape is going to be a real test of front-office skill, and I think I’ll hold off for that, rather than coming to any conclusions based on results from this most bizarre of seasons. Put it this way, I won’t be changing my SIG any time soon.