Over the last several years the Diamondbacks have been an organization that has found advantages around the margins, making up in some cases for talent gaps.
GM’s for this team are never blessed with the highest payrolls to be able to sign, trade for, or retain the highest paid stars, (or when they do spend big they ended up with disproportionate amount of payroll invested in one player, hamstringing themselves in other areas). Their farm system sat decimated heading into the 2017 season, and they had to embark on a system wide rebuilding plan which at times has been two steps forward, one step back. They’ve made good trades, bringing in some good young prospects, and managed to retain most of their better prospects acquired through draft and trade. But they’ve also had some misfires at the top of the draft too where you expect to find impact talent. It’s all added up to a team that year in year out seems to have projections on paper that peg them as a .500 team at best, give or take a few games.
But through hard smart work and synergy between their front office, their coaching staff, and their players, they’ve managed to punch above their collective talent weight to be a competitive team each of the last three seasons. Don’t get me wrong, there has been and still is talent on the roster. But with the exception of Goldy in 2017-18, and Ketel Marte’s breakout in 2019, their position player roster has not had elite talent on the offensive side of the ball. On the pitching side, Zack Greinke was one of the better pitchers in baseball, but he was doing it with smarts and guile as much as with “stuff”. And they ultimately felt compelled to dump his salary to contain payroll while attempting to shore up the farm. When they did have a break out pitcher like Patrick Corbin, he first got injured, then after coming back strong, could not be retained as he went into free agency and got a 9 figure deal. The rest of the roster has usually been populated by some good players and some average players that the team was able to squeeze the most out of.
I won’t bore you with a lot of numbers here, although you can follow links if you like, but some of the areas the team has always ranked at or near the top over the last 3 seasons:
· Stolen Base Percentage and Baserunning runs on offense
· Stolen Base Percentage and suppressing the running game on defense
· Defense , whether measured by modern metrics, or traditional.
· Runs saved from Defensive Shifts
· Even Video Replay Challenge Success Rate
Virtually all the areas we can measure “around the edges” have been areas that the team has excelled in. This is testimony to good preparation, good use of analytics, good coaching, and players buying in and not playing selfish baseball.
At the same they’ve been a team that plays hard. As Nick Piecoro said in the Brute Side Chat recently, in 3+ years he’s virtually never seen anyone not running hard to first or not giving top professional effort. As for the manager Torey Lovullo, the areas of strength for him have been patience, loyalty, & communication. His players play hard for him. And sticking with a struggling player gives him the opportunity to turn it around and improve.
But 2020 may be exposing the fact that the core talent on the roster is simply not strong enough to compete in an environment where preparation is compromised and there isn’t time to wait. Advanced scouting is severely hampered, as teams cannot send their scouts around the country to watch other teams live. The advanced scouting work is being done on TV screens and video monitors. The data they are able to collect is in short supply, and less reliable.
Beyond those factors however is perhaps a larger underlying issue. These players have been “coached up” into reaching their maximum potential and output. And while every team has had to deal with the same issues when it came to the shutdown of spring training and then the hurried restart to the season, it stands to reason that this particular team may have been impacted more than most. Simply put, when your ability to squeeze out every conceivable advantage around the margins is stripped away, what is laid bare is a core of players who while legit major leaguers, every one of them, are not collectively talented enough to excel on a head to head basis with the other teams in the league and in their division.
Whatever the reasons, the team is misfiring in virtually every aspect of the game. Offense, starting pitching, relief pitching, defense especially at catcher, it’s all been poor. Even in a league where 8 teams will make the playoffs, in just one week the D-backs have seen their fortunes drop to the point it feels like they have little chance of participating in the “everyone gets a trophy” that is the 2020 post season setup.
Now we see players, the manager, and coaches ALL pressing and trying to do too much. We see hitters with poor approach swinging at pitches out of the zone instead of working the counts and moving the chain. We see pitchers over throwing, failing to command the strike zone and even pitching through injury (Kelly and Bumgarner). We see Robbie Ray changing his mechanics from game to game and even inning to inning. We see a manager who’s calling card has been to remain a steady hand and stay the course now flailing about making odd moves that alternate between panic and reason.
Can they turn it around? Sure, anything is possible. Maybe they rip off another 6 or 7 game winning streak and get right back in it. The short nature of the season has two sides to the coin. While a losing streak like the team is on now is magnified, another winning streak will also be magnified in impact, increasing their post season probabilities. They better hurry though.
We know that Mike Hazen has a very strong competitive streak. But he’s got to be looking beyond 2020, and will need to find ways to close the talent gap. When asked by Doug Franz on the radio this morning if the D-backs were really a below .500 team his simple response was:
“Yeah we are”
If we are learning anything in this season, there is just no substitute for great baseball players. If you have them, you can go far, if you don’t you won’t.