I imagine I hardly need to rehash the recent results for the Diamondbacks for contemporary readers. But in case someone comes across this piece a few years down the road, it’s worth summarizing what has happened. On June 12, the D-backs came from 5-1 down to beat the Angels 9-8. It was their sixth win in a row, and moved Arizona to 41-25. It was the furthest they had been above .500 since 2017. The team were on pace for 101 wins, and Fangraphs gave them an 80.4% chance of making the playoffs. The next three weeks saw the cracks begin to show, as they remained around that level, They greeted July by winning at the Angels, to return to 16 over, with a 79.8% post-season chance.
And, then, the wheels fell off. Arizona have the worst record in the major-leagues since then, going 7-22 and being outscored by 58 runs over that time. Their playoff odds have plummeted to a mere 21.0%, little more than they were at the start of the season. They’ve lost games in just about every way possible, and though the team did make a series of moves at the deadline, they haven’t helped. Indeed, new closer Paul Seward blew yesterday’s game in spectacular fashion. It was the seventh time this year the D-backs had lost a game which they led in the ninth. Arizona has now lost six in a row and are 3-14 since July 19th.
Fans are not happy, for obvious reasons, and I’ve noticed increasing calls for changes to be made. I’ve seen calls for Torey Lovullo to be fired as manager. Others want General Manager Mike Hazen to be replaced. Some want a full-scale house-cleaning, with everyone replaced, from Hazen through bullpen coach Mike Fetters. I’m all too aware of the tendency for fans to be reactionary, and very much determined by recent events. But I have to wonder how long this tailspin can go on, before the team owners decide that things aren’t working. Because, even by the high standards of Arizona sports, this collapse may be legendary.
It is worth remembering that just two years ago, the Diamondbacks lost 110 games. In the past fifty years, only one other National League team has lost that many games. I’m sure I need hardly remind you, that was the 2004 D-backs, who lost 111. That season precipitated not just front-office change, but OWNERSHIP change for the franchise. This time though, things remained unaltered. Things improved by 22 games the following season, and with a slew of prospects ready to make their mark, while hopes were restrained, 72% of fans in our pre-season poll expected at least 80 wins, with the SnakePit writers predicting an average of 83.6 wins. A month ago, it seemed those numbers would easily be surpassed.
Now? Not so much. The current pace is 82 wins, and the team are probably lucky to be where they are. They have been outscored by 18 runs so far. While the wins they have are in the books, the resulting Pythagorean projection of ,485 would see them finish the year at 81 wins. But that may be the optimistic end of projections, considering how many of their remaining games are against winning or contending teams. Of the 49 to come, only 13 (six vs. COL, four vs. NYM and three vs. CHW) are against teams with losing records. While I still fully expect the D-backs to end up better, both than last year and the Vegas line of 74.5 wins, it may be by only a handful of games or less.
It’s particularly disappointing when you put Arizona beside Baltimore, who also lost 110 games two years ago. Last year, they improved by nine games MORE than the Diamondbacks. And they have sustained this, improving even further in 2023. The Orioles currently lead the very tough American League East, a division where every team is above .500, and are on pace for 101 wins, an 18-game improvement over last year. They are also doing this with a payroll which is $47 million less than Arizona, little more than $70 million. It is true that Baltimore had been bad for longer - the 110-loss season was immediately preceded by full seasons with 108 and 115 losses.
But you could argue this shows that Hazen’s refusal to enter a full rebuild, opting to “reload” instead, was the wrong choice. The reality is, since the start of 2019, the D-backs are 81 games below .500, with the 27th-best record in the majors. While there’s no denying the terrible previous regime left them with a lot of problems, we are now almost seven years removed from Dave Stewart being fired. That is less and less a tenable excuse for the current situation, For all Hazen’s work on the farm, it matters only in the way it can be used to help build a successful major-league roster. That’s an area where we have seen very limited success.
In particular, the free-agent market has repeatedly proven to be an Achilles heel. There have been successes, most obviously Merrill Kelly, but also Yoshihisa Hirano. They just seem to be heavily outnumbered by the failures. While Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner and Mark Melancon may be the higheet-priced disappointments or worse in the desert, there have been a slew of underwhelming others. Steven Souza. Alex Avila, Adam Jones. Jarrod Dyson. Kole Calhoun. Joakim Soria. Zack Davies. Ian Kennedy. I’m sure you can come up with your own favorites. Given the team needs to fill the inevitable prospect holes in free-agency, this is problematic.
I’ve previously discussed Hazen’s bullpen construction problem, and things have only got worse since then. Our relief ERA is now 4.58, ranked 25th in the majors, while FIP has dropped significantly since that piece was written, and is 23rd. From the beginning of 2020, Arizona’s bullpen is the only one in the majors to be below replacement level, and it’s not close. This isn’t something for which Tony La Russa can be blamed. If progress continues to stall, and the overall improvement in wins this year can be counted on one hand, despite adding the likely Rookie of the Year winner to the roster, then Hazen will face some uncomfortable questions at his own end-of-year review.
The position is harder to assess with regard to Torey Lovullo. Hazen’s job is constructing the roster, and we can see and assess the results of that, using objective metrics. But I’ve always been of the opinion that most of a manager’s job is out of the public eye. We see the in-game moves he makes, though with the arrival of the DH in the National League, ChatGPT could probably make 95% of them. We see his post-game press conferences, but these are for the media. What we DON’T see is the day-to-day interactions with the players, and to me, that’s the real key to whether a manager is “good” or not. Does he get the best out of his players? We really don’t know.
On the other hand, the manager is the tip of the spear, and is typically the first casualty when a team fails to meet expectations. At the time Madison Bumgarner was let go, Hazen said, "I ask our players and staff to have urgency around how we’re going to play and attack." Not many managers survive four consecutive years with a losing record, and in the National League, only the managers of rather more succesful franchises in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Milwaukee pre-date Lovullo. If the D-backs end 2023 below .500, it's possible a signal may be seen as needing to be sent.
I suspect there will not be any radical changes immediately. Bad though the past 5-6 weeks have been, it'd be an overreaction to fire anyone as a result of them. The overall W/L record remains broadly in line with what most people expected for 2023. But if the recent trend is not corrected going forward, then I would certainly not be surprised to see changes made at the end of the season. We'll see what the scope and scale of those might be. But, right now, what are your thoughts? Who do you blame most for the slump, and why? Here is a poll, and feel free to explain your choice in the comments.
Who do you blame MOST for the recent slump?
This poll is closed