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The Diamondbacks in 2004 vs 2021: Position Players

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At least this year’s lot were not below replacement level.

Athlete’s Performance Photo by Jason Wise/MLB via Getty Images

2004 Diamondbacks

  • Total position bWAR: -0.5
  • Top eight by PA bWAR: 3.7
  • Everyone else: -4.2
  • OPS+: 77
  • dWAR: -0.9

Wins above average by position

2021 Diamondbacks:

  • Total position bWAR: 9.0
  • Top eight by PA bWAR: 9.3
  • Everyone else: -0.3
  • OPS+: 87
  • dWAR: -5.1

Wins above average by position

This is definitely an area where 2004 struggled harder than this year. They were outside the top ten of the National League at every position. Even their everyday players (the top eight by plate appearances) averaged less than half a win above replacement level, and that was wholly negated by the sub-replacement level of the bench and fill-ins. Alex Cintron, for example, led the team in games played and PA, but was below replacement level. On any other team, he’d have been benched. Since then, just one NL player has had 600 PA and a lower OPS+ than Cintron’s 68: Billy Hamilton’s 66 for the 2017 Reds. And obviously, he stole 59 bases, compared to Cintron’s... three.

Not that 2021 was any great shakes, but Carson Kelly was actually above league average as catchers go. Considering he appeared in fewer than a hundred games, that’s not bad. But the chart above does illustrate nicely how much work Mike Hazen has to do to get the D-backs into post-season contention. The lowest win total of an NL playoff team this year was the Braves’ 88. Even though pitching was more their strength than hitting, they still posted a total of 19.5 bWAR from their position players, more than twice the total Arizona managed. On the plus side, there’s almost nowhere to go but up for the majority of positions around the D-backs’ diamond. Though 2004 is a counter-example!

Speaking of which, let’s compare the 2004 and 2021 teams, position by position. At each spot, I’m looking at the player who started most games there, but their stats will include any time spent elsewhere.

Catcher

  • 2004: Juan Brito - 56 G, 184 PA, 37 OPS+, -0.4 bWAR
  • 2021: Carson Kelly - 98 G, 359 PA, 104 OPS+, 2.2 bWAR

Brito was way down the depth chart when the season started. The team went through Brent Mayne, Bobby Estallella and Robbie Hammock before he made his first start, and that was not until June 10. It showed, particularly at the plate. In the 17 seasons since, no D-back with that many PAs has had as low an OPS+: the worst was Jarrod Dyson’s 45 in 2018. Kelly’s 2021 campaign started off in barn-storming fashion, with a 1.103 OPS in mid-May. But when he came back after he was hurt, Carson seemed to have lost his hitting mojo. But still, no Arizona catcher has put up more than 2.2 bWAR since Miguel Montero in 2012.

First base

  • 2004: Shea Hillenbrand - 148 G, 604 PA, 104 OPS+, 0.8 bWAR
  • 2021: Christian Walker - 115 G, 445 PA, 88 OPS+, 0.6 bWAR

Similarly Hillenbrand was not intended to be the 1B, though he would still have been an everyday player at third-base. But the injury to Richie Sexson forced a move across the field for Shea. Though it is worth noting Sexson was on pace only for about a two-win season, due to his defensive indifference, so his loss was not perhaps the cataclysmic loss sometimes claimed. Walker had health issues of his own, and it’s hard to say how much they might be responsible for his OPS+, a sharp drop from the 112 and 111 posted the previous two seasons. With arbitration looming, there are younger, cheaper and, at least potentially, better candidates lurking at 1B.

Second base

  • 2004: Scott Hairston - 101 G, 364 PA, 83 OPS+, -0.4 bWAR
  • 2021: Josh VanMeter - 112 G, 310 PA, 76 OPS+, -0.2 bWAR

Hard to separate these two, with not dissimilar stats and overall production. The rookie Hairston took over after Roberto Alomar and Matt Kata went down, and did about as well as expected. He never established himself as a Diamondback, though had seven more major-league years after being dealt to the Padres at the 2007 deadline. VanMeter’s offensive numbers were about in line with what he had produced in 2019-20 (OPS+ of 73), and he’ll turn 27 before next Opening Day, so the further upside there seems limited. Here’s to Ketel Marte being the everyday second baseman going forward.

Shortstop

  • 2004: Alex Cintron - 154 G, 613 PA, 68 OPS+, -0.2 bWAR
  • 2021: Nick Ahmed - 129 G, 473 PA, 67 OPS+, 0.7 bWAR

We talked about Cintron above. What’s interesting here, is to see the similar offensive production, but Ahmed’s defense kept him above replacement level. On the other hand, Cintron would not get above league minimum until the 2006 season, whereas Ahmed is earning $7.88 million this year. If both side of his game continue to decline, as they did this year, then the remaining two years of his contract are going to be rough. He gets another $7.88m next season, then jumps up to $10.38m in 2023.

Third base

  • 2004: Chad Tracy - 143 G, 532 PA, 90 OPS+, 1.8 bWAR
  • 2021: Eduardo Escobar - 98 G, 400 PA, 107 OPS+, 2.3 bWAR

Hillenbrand’s move to first opened the door for another “Baby Back”, and Tracy is still #11 on the franchise all-time list for games played, with over seven hundred. Surprisingly, most of Tracy’s value in his rookie campaign came with the glove - 2004 was the only year Chad had a dWAR greater than zero. The absence of Escobar from the trade deadline was obvious, with the position basically an open audition the rest of the way. Four different players started there for Arizona in the final 26 games (Drew Ellis, Josh VanMeter, Josh Rojas and Ildemaro Vargas), but none really made the position their own.

Left field

  • 2004: Luis Gonzalez - 105 G, 451 PA, 118 OPS+, 1.5 bWAR
  • 2021: David Peralta - 150 G, 438 PA, 96 OPS+, 1.1 bWAR

Gonzo’s salary more than double in 2004, going from $4 million to $8.25 million, and as you might expect from a 36-year-old, his production did not. Though by the standards of the 2004 team, he was far from the weakest link. However, Gonzalez missed basically the last two months after having Tommy John surgery - his arm went from adequate to noodle thereafter. I was quite surprised to see Peralta’s OPS’s as high as 96; it “felt” considerably lower than that. But his defense did not seem as good as it was, and that weighed down his value. Certainly, no Gold Glove nomination for the Freight Train this year.

Center field

  • 2004: Steve Finley - 104 G, 456 PA, 107 OPS+, 1.7 bWAR
  • 2021: Ketel Marte - 90 G, 374 PA, 143 OPS+, 1.8 bWAR

Finley played a total of 162 games that year, but 58 of them were after being traded to the Dodgers. Despite being 39 on Opening Day, he had a solid campaign for both clubs, though only went 2-for-16 in the postseason with LA. He won the National League Gold Glove that year, his fifth and final award. In 2021, Marte saw his playing-time limited by injury, but when healthy, he was far and away the best hitter in the Diamondbacks line-up. On the other hand, the defensive metrics were unimpressed with Ketel in center. There should, hopefully, be other alternatives for the team there in 2021.

Right field

  • 2004: Danny Bautista - 141 G, 582 PA, 85 OPS+, -1.2 bWAR
  • 2021: Pavin Smith - 145 G, 545 PA, 98 OPS+, -0.2 bWAR

This was Bautista’s last hurrah in the majors, as he announced his retirement the following March after an ankle injury [he did briefly return to indy ball in 2007] He batted .286, which included a 21-game hitting streak, but a low walk- and extra-base rate kept Bautista’s overall production down. and poor defense really sunk his value. Smith was one of the Swiss Army knives of this team, starting 9 or more games at all three outfield positions and first-base. Only Peralta appeared in more games than Smith; his 145 as a rookie has been surpassed only three times in team history (Travis Lee, Chris Young and Christian Walker).

Bench players

This is where the 2004 team really struggled, with the rest of the position players being worth more than four wins below replacement level. Highlighted here were future ex-Padres manager Andy Green, who managed to accumulate -1.2 bWAR in only 119 PA, and Jerry “the walkless wonder” Gil, worth -0.9 in 88 PA (without a base on balls). Josh Kroeger, Greg Colbrunn, Tim Olson and Carlos Baerga are among the other names which didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, all coming in at under replacement. The biggest positive contribution came from catcher Chris Snyder in his rookie campaign, who was worth 0.7 bWAR in 29 games.

What’s interesting about this year’s bench is that Josh Rojas led the team in PA (550). There can’t be many times a player has done that, without starting even 40 games at a single position. His high was 37 at second, along with starts at third (7), short (33) and both left- (12) and right-field (27). More valuable by bWAR, in less playing time, were Asdrubal Cabrera and Daulton Varsho, though the D-backs’ “tail” had their share of under-performers as well. Drew Ellis and Andrew Young were both worth -0.7 bWAR; the latter a bit of a surprise, given his 107 OPS+. But the worst-producing position player on the 2021 D-backs was... [sad trombone noise] Tim Locastro, at -0.8 bWAR. Speed and HBP clearly were not enough.

Defense

This was an area where the 2004 team was actually better than the 2021 version. Though you would not know it if you just looked at raw errors, where the 2004 edition made a whopping 39 more (139 vs. 100). This year, Rojas led the team with 15 E’s; three of the 2004 D-backs had more (Hillenbrand 16, Cintron 17 and Tracy a whopping 26). But despite that, the defensive metrics look more kindly on the 2004 team. They still weren’t what you’d call good, but their -0.9 dWAR was a good bit better than the -5.1 posted in 2021. Smith, Rojas, Young and Marte were all worth -1.0 or worse. Unsurprisingly, Nick Ahmed had the best number at +1.0 - the fourth consecutive year he has had the best dWAR on the D-backs.

Next time, we’ll look at the pitching, and you will not be surprised to find, there were a couple of reasons why the 2004 team were better...