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SnakePit Round Table: Awards week

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Robbie Ray. Enough said? Well...

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A year after leaving the D-backs, Robbie Ray won the Cy Young. What happened?

James: He found himself playing for a team that was more willing to work with what worked for Ray than the Diamondbacks and their organizational philosophy of what he should be trying to do. The Blue Jays didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, they just made sure the tire was well balanced and inflated to the proper pressure and let Ray do what he did best already. It also helps that 2021 was not the pandemic season that trashed just about every aspect of what Ray was trying to accomplish. It’s tough to say just how surprising the results are, when he was trending in the right direction by the end of the shortened 2020 season. I don’t know that anyone expected this level of improvement, but 2020 was clearly a fluke.

Dano: I am happy for Robbie. As for what happened, I feel like it’s a movie that all fairly long-tenured Diamondbacks fans have seen many times before. We take young players, they perform well but with some developmental hiccups, our coaching and “player development” schemas seem to mess them up more, and they we cut them loose for pennies on the proverbial dollar. They go somewhere else, where the coaching doesn’t suck and where, like James notes, the player’s talents and skills are foregrounded rather than the “organizational philosophy,” and they flourish. Frankly, I’ve come to expect it once our organization gives up on a young player who clearly has talent but can’t seem to work it out under the Diamondbacks’ coaching and player development regime.

Makakilo: It was a missed opportunity. What did NOT happen? Player development.

Jack: I’m not sure exactly why what he was trying to do here in terms of mechanics changes didn’t work out or if he kept at it and they finally took hold in Toronto. Or did he abandon the changes he had made here and tried something else? Bottom line is he couldn’t do it here and did it elsewhere. It’s terrible for the club to miss out on that performance.

Steven: I think we all saw the potential from Robbie when they acquired him from Detroit but it seemed like he was always trying to tweak something in the offseason and sometimes you just have to stop opening the oven and let things bake. Still, for the D-backs to give up on Ray, even in a disjointed season like 2020 was, was just brutal. The talent was always there, and good for the Jays for taking advantage and for Ray to finally capitalize on his tremendous stuff.

Bryce Harper and Shohei Ohtani won MVP honors, despite neither team making the playoffs. How much of a factor should that be?

James: I think when two candidates are indistinguishably close, that team performance and how a player contributed to the performance and outcomes can be a factor. I also think it is more important that a player not play for a dead-last cellar-dweller than them playing for a contender. If Harper had played for the Diamondbacks, I likely give him less credit. After all, if your team is down by seven runs on a nightly basis, you are facing garbage time pitching and defense. In the case of Ohtani, I personally think the gap between second and third was closer than the gap between first and second. In Harper’s case, I also think the right choice was made. Tatis Jr lost his grasp on the award when he lost too many games to injury, and Soto did not have enough season remaining to run Harper down, especially with Harper’s final two months, the likes of which had not been seen since some guy named Bonds.

Dano: Seems to me like Ohtani was a no-brainer. I was a bit surprised to hear that Harper got the NL nod, but that’s more on me for not paying particularly close attention to what he and the Phillies got up to in 2021. Good on both of them, and as for neither of them playing for teams that made the postseason, I’m fine with that. I don’t think that team standings should be that much of a consideration at all. Stacked lineups, like the floral delivery empire in our division roll out every year, make every member of the lineup better, because pitchers have to work their way through the batting order differently. The more I think about it, the more I think that individual standout performances should maybe rate even higher if those individuals are playing for relatively substandard teams.

Makakilo: Two observations follow:

Players with the Angels have won the MVP four times in the last eight years. Mostly the Angels had losing win-loss records (98-64, 74-88, 72-90, and 77-85). So maybe team results are a minor factor instead of a major factor. On the other hand, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani are the best-of-the-best and a big part of baseball history.

Neil Paine built a model to account for the impact of being on a team with a better winning percentage than the leading candidate for MVP. I looked at his table to compare Juan Soto and Bryce Harper (using differences of 0.105 team winning percent and 1.2 bWAR). Although if I used the table as intended was not a sure thing, the extrapolated table values showed that Soto’s odds were about 48% and Harper’s odds were about 52%. So it was a very close call.

Jack: When I took both bWAR and fWAR and averaged them out, and used that as the starting point, (not an end point) there was a pretty clear cut top 4 tier of players. I did this second to last day of season so might be slightly different with the last day of play factored in but here is how it worked out:

  • Juan Soto 6.95
  • Trea Turner 6.45
  • Fernando Tatis Jr. 6.45
  • Bryce Harper 6.15

The next two highest were Goldy and Bryan Reynolds at 5.65, clearly a cut below the top tier. From there my fake first place vote went to Turner. He was only half a war behind Soto, he changed teams mid season and played even better for the Dodgers when many of their vets were either hurt or under performing. He’s a terrific all around player playing premium middle infield positions. It should be noted that as great as Soto is, a lot of his value came from his 144 walks, 72 of which came in August and September after Washington traded everyone else. Tatis only played 128 games, and his team collapsed in the 2nd half. He also played SS poorly and had to be moved to the outfield. Harper helped put his team INTO the race, but ultimately they missed the postseason, and his defensive value hurt him a bit. Below was my final ranking of these top 4 guys. Any of the 4 were deserving. It was that close. There was no “wrong” pick.

  1. Turner
  2. Soto
  3. Harper
  4. Tatis

Steven: It’s hard to make much difference as a superstar when your team isn’t very good. The actions of a single player just doesn’t have the impact as players in other sports and if you start discounting players because of record, you’re just limiting your options for no good reason other than team performance.

Thoughts on the other awards?

James: For the most part, I think voters got the awards right this season. I have some qualms about some of the lesser awards, but not enough to get terribly bent out of shape over.

Dano: I really haven’t paid much attention to anything but the top-end awards. 2021 was a grueling year to write about and follow baseball, and I’ve been suffering from serious baseball exhaustion.

Makakilo: This season, David Peralta was a finalist for a Gold Glove. One core of how-the-Diamondbacks-play-baseball is great defense. Next season I anticipate defensive improvement because of improved discernment of players’ defensive capabilities and flexibilities, and because of increased experience by younger players.

An example of a great defensive team: This season the Cardinals won five Gold Gloves: Paul Goldschmidt at 1B, Tommy Edman at 2B, Nolan Arenado at 3B, Tyler O’Neil at LF, and Harrison Bader at CF. And, Nolan Arenado won a Platinum Glove, too.

Jack: I had Zack Wheeler for Cy Young. The IP and Batters Faced totals were so much more for Wheeler than Byrnes, and if Burns had to face the lineup the 3rd time through as often as Wheeler he would have ended up with rate stats that were not nearly as pretty.

Steven: I agree with Jack, Wheeler not earning the CY Young, despite 4 more starts and almost 50 more innings pitched, is a mistake. Burnes was excellent, but his numbers the 3rd time through (.314/.368/.443) are glaring that this pitcher has a limit. We saw that in the playoffs, as Burners was working a shutout through 6 and the Brewers still took him out.

You’ve now heard new D-backs pitching coach Brent Strom. What do you think, and how will you judge his success or otherwise?

James: My biggest takeaway is that it seems the Diamondbacks have finally come to their senses and are embracing a more fluid approach to pitching development, at least at the top level. Strom is not a one-size-fits-all coach, nor do I see him adopting that sort of philosophy.

Dano: From everything I’ve read (and this is one of the developments that I have been following), he’s the genuine article and a great fit for the job. So I think it’s great. As for how I will judge his success, I think it will be twofold: (1) improvement of the product on the MLB field; and (2) what kind of positive progress he can make with all of the highly-touted pitching prospect our farm system reportedly has but who never seem to be able to successfully make the final jump from AA and AAA to a major league rotation or bullpen. Also, I am inclined to think at this point that, even if he doesn’t have a whole lot of success with improving one or both, I’ll be more likely to blame the organization and its long-standing player development malfeasance than I will Strom.

Makakilo: Hiring Strom exceeded my optimistic expectations because it’s likely he is the best pitching coach in the Majors. With him it is possible that my expectations for pitching improvements are currently unrealistically high, or on the other hand just high enough.

Nevertheless, as the season progresses, I will count how many Diamondback pitchers achieve career best seasons, and how many minor league pitchers make their debut in the Majors with success.

Jack: I will judge Strom’s success or failure on a number of factors. I’d like to see at least half of the holdover pitchers from last year show improvement above and beyond any regression to the mean we might otherwise expect. That may be hard to quantify though. Most importantly however will be how much he’s able to help the younger wave of pitchers arriving over the next two seasons evolve into GOOD major league pitchers. That will take 2-3 years to actually see the results. Only the entire success of the franchise for the next half decade depends on it.

Steven: It’s all talk now and it’ll be an offseason of articles talking about his influence but until the 2022 season kicks off, we won’t know if it made any difference.

Kevin Ginkel, Riley Smith and Miguel Aguilar left the 40-man roster. Do you see a future with Arizona for any of them?

James: Riley Smith may end up circling back around to fill some bullpen depth. I would say Ginkel could as well, though I now think there is a good chance the team has seen enough of Ginkel to allow him to become someone else’s problem, unless of course, he shows night/day improvement for an extended period (maybe four months) in the minors. I suspect we have seen the last of Aguilar.

Dano: If there’s any justice, no. I don’t want to have to write another word about any of these folks in a recap in 2022 or beyond.

Makakilo: In 2021 they had about the same ERA+ (68, 71, and 69). Although their ERA+s are low, anything is possible.

Of the three, Riley Smith is the most interesting because in 2020 he pitched 18.1 innings with an ERA of 1.47. This season he had a second year slump – some players bounce back from a second year slump. This season he pitched much better as a reliever than a starter (4.89 vs 7.92 ERA and 6.0 vs 2.9 SO9). Perhaps he can bounce back and make a future as a reliever with the Diamondbacks.

Jack: Of the three, Kevin Ginkel has the best chance to actually contribute at the major league level. Lots of if’s, starting with elbow health, and then ability to command his fastball and get back to landing his slider. His stuff (High spin fastball) is major league stuff, but health and what’s between the ears may not allow him to ever reach his potential. Smith’s stuff just isn’t that good, and with the new pitching coach, I don’t think he gets much of a chance to roll out his groundball act. Aguilar is organizational filler. He had some very good numbers in the minors but he was so old for the level and was basically just taking advantage of younger hitters. He’s left handed, so never say never, but even if he makes it back to the majors I don’t expect much success. See images of Ginkel and Smith’s StatCast Percentile rankings below

Steven: All 3 of those pitchers are JAGs. Miguel Aguilar was a cool story in a lost season, as he had a long career in the Mexican League before making his debut at 30 years old, but Ginkel was a disappointment after showing real stuff in 2019 and Riley Smith didn’t look like he was an MLB pitcher.

What is your favorite quote?

James: It really depends on my mood and in what context I am being asked to provide one. One that regularly jumps to mind though:

“The concept of the reasonable man shall not be expanded to encompass the stupid mistakes of an ignorant man who honestly used his own bad judgement.” - Prosser

Dano: I actually had to step away to consider this one for a while, and to consult with Ramona. I share James’s caveats regarding both mood and context, and so I wound up thinking about samplings of other people’s words that I find myself deploying out loud to other people on a frequent basis. The one that leapt out at me, and also the one that Ramona noted, both come, oddly enough perhaps, from that seasonally appropriate Arlo Guthrie song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” and they both come from the same verse. So I’m gonna block-quote that verse in its entirety, and bold the two candidates, and let all y’all pick your poison:

Now friends, there was only one or two things that Obie coulda done at the police station, and the first was he coulda given us a medal for being so brave and honest on the telephone, which wasn’t very likely, and we didn’t expect it, and the other thing was he coulda bawled us out and told us never to be seen driving garbage around the vicinity again, which is what we expected, but when we got to the police officer’s station there was a third possibility that we had not even counted upon, and we was both immediately arrested. Handcuffed. And I said “Obie, I don’t think I can pick up the garbage with these handcuffs on.” He said, “Shut up, kid.

I think both of these derive from the deeply uncertain times we live it, and the stupid sh*t that erupts in response to ostensibly bog-standard occurrences in public life in the US on a regular basis these days.

So good luck to us all. Tra la. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I hope each and every one of us gets to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat come Thursday. Cheers.

Makakilo: “Choose to be optimistic. It feels better.” – 14th Dalai Lama

Jack: “Every now and then say, “What the f__k. What the f__k” gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.” ~ Miles, Risky Business