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The Diamondbacks History by Starting Pitchers

We’ve had a few good ‘uns, make no mistake...

Randy Johnson #51, Curt Schilling #38

Previously, we looked at the wide disparity around the diamond, in terms of the production the D-backs have obtained from their position players. Some spots have been a consistent source of trouble over the course of franchise history. But now, let’s turn to the mound, where the Diamondbacks have certainly had their stars. Between them, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Brandon Webb combined for five Cy Young awards, and five more runners-up spots. With only 26 seasons in the books for Arizona, that’s definitely punching above the average team’s expectations. But you need more than one or two pitchers, so how do the D-backs stack up generally?

There’s one factor which needs to be discussed up front, before we even get into how Arizona have done. Starting pitchers are now less productive than they were. In Arizona’s first season of 1998, starting pitchers were worth a total of 360.2 fWAR. Last year, the equivalent figure was 313.6. More than forty-six wins have evaporated from rotations over that time. It’s not hard to find the reason. The number of innings thrown by starters has been on a largely consistent downward trend. In 2023, they threw almost 4,500 fewer innings than in 1998. The innings per start has declined by close to an inning, going from 6.06 to 5.14 since then.

There’s an old joke. Did you hear eating bacon every day will take ten years off your life? But it’s alright, because it’s the crappy years at the end. The same goes for starting pitching. Managers have a quicker hook, because they now have better options for the sixth inning in the bullpen, rather than a starter going through the order again. What’s been lost is the starters’ least-effective work. That’s why the 13% drop in fWAR is less than the 15% drop in innings pitched by rotations. However, it does need to be taken into account when looking at the D-backs’ effectiveness. So that stat of choice is Arizona’s fWAR, multiplied by 30 and divided by the total fWAR. 100 = average compared to starters’ fWAR that year. Have a chart.

There are some things here that come as no surprise, yet other elements probably are unexpected. Five of the seven best years in franchise history, when Arizona rated at fifty percent or better than average, came during that glorious period from 1999-2003, when Johnson won four consecutive Cy Youngs. I’m a little shocked 2003 was so good on the end of that spell, considering the Big Unit went 6-8 with a 4.26 ERA. But it was Brandon Webb’s rookie year, so he and Schilling took up the slack. I am genuinely startled that 2017 and 2008 rank as the second- and fourth-best starting pitching seasons in team history, better than some years in the Johnson and Schilling era.

In 2008 it was Dan Haren and Webb who combined for 11.6 fWAR, with Johnson and Doug Davis helping behind them quite respectively. We had a very stable rotation that year, which helped. Those four started 123 games between them, and Arizona only used eight starting pitchers in total, limiting the need to use replacement level starters. Then there was 2017. Nobody reached five fWAR that season, Zack Greinke leading the pack on 4.9. But once more, the D-backs had stability. Behind Greinke, Zack Godley, Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin and Taijuan Walker also had ERA+ of 116 or better. The quintet started all but seventeen of the 162 games, with Godley replacing Shelby Miller the only real change from Opening Day.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. Readers of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now. We discussed in the previous article how it wasn’t the pitching that doomed 2004, and we see that here. At 100.1%, the starting pitching that season was actually the closest it has ever been to average. The worst seasons were 2020 and 2021 (and, don’t forget, the shortened season in the former doesn’t matter, because these figures are relative to MLB average). In 2020, Zac Gallen led at 1.4 fWAR, and was largely negated by Robbie Ray (-0.5) and Madison Bumgarner (-0.6). The following year wasn’t much better. Merrill Kelly (2.2) was top, but 6 of 16 starters used were sub-replacement level.

The good news is, things improved in 2022 and 2023, with the Diamondbacks’ rotation being better than average last year for the first time in five years. I’m hopeful we will see further improvement this season, with the new, improved version of Brandon Pfaadt and Eduardo Rodriguez, basically replacing Zach Davies and MadBum on the opening rotation. But as we’ve seen from the highest-tier seasons above, it would be very helpful if they, along with Gallen and Kelly, were able to start 120 or so games for Arizona. It’s not just about having good starters, as much as minimizing the need for Torey Lovullo to go down into the bowels of the depth chart.

Next week, I’ll look at the relief pitching situation. I’m not saying it’s nasty, but let’s just say, that article won’t be appearing in school libraries. :)