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The Diamondbacks Improved Offense Still Struggles Early in Games

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Late inning heroics are covering for early inning failure.

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Oakland Athletics v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

While the Diamondbacks offense has improved greatly the last couple of weeks, they continue to struggle early in games. As has been highlighted in previews, recaps, comments around the site and on the television broadcast, for whatever reasons the hitters have been doing the vast majority of their damage late in games. The team has failed to score a run in the 2nd inning of every game played so far this season. No other team has scored fewer than 2 runs in the 2nd, and the league average is about 9.

MLB 2nd inning table link

It’s not only the 2nd inning that they’ve struggled to score runs however. We can see in the table below the 1st, 3rd, and 5th innings have been largely bereft of D-backs crossing the plate as well. On the flip side, late in games the team has scored a boatload of runs. In fact innings 7-9 they’ve scored more than any team in baseball by a very large margin.

Taking a look at a catchall metric such as wRC+ (see link if you need a refresher) we can also see a shocking lack of production. It’s not just been about not getting timely hits or leaving runners on base. (Last night’s 2nd inning notwithstanding) It’s been about getting few hits to begin with, very few extra base hits and homers, and very few walks. The below view is how the DBacks have stacked up in underlying production compared to the rest of the National League. This view has the DBacks taken out of the league average, so instead of comparing against league average, it’s compared against the league average with the DBacks taken out:

When you look at innings 1 through 3, and also 1 through 5, it’s fairly obvious that the team is struggling against starting pitchers, especially the first at bat vs. SP in the game. The 4th inning has been better, as by 2nd at bat the two Martes are usually starting to heat up. But the middle and bottom of the order have been punchless the first and largely second at bat of the game vs. starting pitchers. When the opposing starters are finally removed from the game, and the D-backs get into other team’s bullpens, then things start to click and the offense has taken off.

Ok, so we really already knew from watching and listening the team was struggling to score early and pouring it on late. But seeing it quantified in such extreme terms as the two table above begs further investigation.

First lets look at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd PA in game vs. Starting Pitchers for the National League. It should be noted that league wide, the 1st PA in game always is favorable to the starters, and by the 3rd PA in the game, hitters are starting to tee off on the starters. This has always been true, and the focus on this fact is why teams started pulling starters after two times through the order. It isn’t that starters in days gone by didn’t get hammered 3rd time through. They always have. Even when “men were men” . So teams just decided to stop all but the best pitchers from facing hitters the 3rd time through. Just how effective that is is debatable. A lot more innings are going to lesser relievers and as such reliever numbers in aggregate are worse, but that’s another article

NL BATTER OPS TIMES FACING STARTING PITCHER

So some level of difficulty the first time through is normal. But as can bee seen by the 2nd table above (wRC+) the D-backs struggles are extreme. Here is another view, bu OPS

The rank 1st time through is dead last in NL, 2nd time through ranks middle of the pack, 7th, and 3rd time through they rank 2nd best in the league !

It should be noted that last year the team struggled the 1st time through relative to the rest of the league as well. Their .661 OPS 1st time vs SP in 2019 ranked 13th in the league, (avg .713)

In 2018, the team ranked best in the NL 1st time through, carried by Goldy and Pollock. But since they’ve left and since Darnell Coles has taken over as primary hitting coach, this is one area that seems to have become a problem.

Here are the individual players for 2020 Full Table Link. Abbreviated table below showing only regulars with 10 or more PA vs. SP 1st time thru

Only two guys on the team have an OPS over .500 1st time facing SP, and there has been only homer, and that was on opening day by Kole Calhoun. Catchers Stephen Vogt and Carson Kelly have yet to get a hit the first time facing starters, and Eduardo Escobar only has two. Here is the 2019 full table link. Most of the carry over players that appear in both 2019-2020 tables did better last year. And these are still very small sample sizes on an individual basis. I can’t stress that enough.

The BABIP is only .200 That would seem to point towards some bad luck perhaps. But the lone homer, and strikeouts being almost four times that of walks indicate this isn’t just about batted ball luck. In fact, checking the “expected” * statistics at Baseball Savant we find that the D-backs not only rank 29th in wOBA (.222) in innings 1 thru 3, but rank last in expected or xwOBA (.278) as well. TABLE LINK TO xwOBA

Note* The “expected” metrics , or xwOBA in this case are calculated based on the quality of contact and what a team should expect to get out of their batted balls. See Glossary for details

Summary:

Given the failures last year early in games seemingly carrying over to this year to an even more extreme fashion, it’s fair to start looking asking questions about preparedness. In fact I already started doing that in the pregame ZOOM meeting with Torey yesterday. If you go to the audio link at the bottom of the Preview HERE and listen from the 13:18 point you can hear my question to Torey and his answer on advanced scouting. Of course he sang the praises of the coaches and scouts. But the problem was there last year too, and every team faces the same issues with advanced scouting in 2020 that the D-backs do. So questions I’ve been honing in on:

  • Are the players getting the right scouting reports and attack plans vs. opposing starters ?
  • Is batting practice being conducted in a different manner than years past ?
  • Are the players coming mentally prepared, is the mental skills coach helping them ?
  • What else can Darnell Coles and Eric Hinske be doing to help the hitters ?

It turns out that they have indeed been working with high velocity pitching machines and trying other methods to get the players going. Nick Piecoro touched on this today in his article. You can listen to Torey’s answer to that question in the preview later today.

While I applaud them trying new things and not just keep doing the same things expecting better results, it still hasn’t translated to better early game results. Emphasizing once again: This could be all be a small sample size fluke. In fact I am absolutely certain that these numbers will regress towards the mean over the next 37 games. To what degree remains to be seen. A big move towards the center would indicate that I just wrote 1200 words for nothing. A small move towards the center still leaves them at the bottom of the pile in MLB in the key area of getting out in front early in games. You can’t depend on late inning comebacks long term. Teams that get out front early win the most games.