While the conversation certainly is not over, the Arizona Diamondbacks are making a case for being one of the success stories in the 2011 season. They are one of only two teams in the mediocre NL West to have a winning record, and owned first place until the San Francisco Giants swept in. They rode the cellar last year, but made a managerial change midseason and hired Kevin Towers toward the end of the season. The big moves were trading away strikeout-prone slugger Mark Reynolds and stocking up what was a woeful bullpen.
So what is the secret? Is it just a natural progression of the developmental path the team was already making under Doug Melvin? What role does Towers play in all this, and how about Kirk Gibson as a manager?
Offensively, the D-backs’ stats are roughly the same as they were last year. Losing Reynolds and Adam LaRoche has certainly helped them cut down their strikeouts from 2010’s record level, but they are still high. The .252/.325/.424/.740 tag they have this year appears to be about the same as the .250/.325/.416/.740 they hit in 2010, but when compared to the rest of the league in 2011, it is a slight improvement, or at least shows there is little or change in the face of better pitching. Their team batting average was .250 in 2010, which rated them 11th in the league, while their .252 (as of June 15) is eighth. Their OBP is .322 in 2010, fourth in the NL, while the .325 mark they hit in 2010 was seventh.
The same is true in OBP and OPS, where the numbers are slightly worse in 2011, but better in relation to the rest of the league. They are on a path to hit about the same amount of homers this year as they did last year, but while they ranked third last year, they are first so far this year. They are on pace to slightly increase run production from last year, but while they were eighth in runs scored last season, they are third in 2011, which implies more than a slight increase.
Places they have moved the needle positively include speed. Their 52 stolen bases and 890 total bases, on top of the runs scored, show a team that is more aggressive and more successful on the base paths.
The offensive personnel changes have had little effect. Last year’s starters Reynolds and LaRoche were basically replaced by platoons that have somewhat increased efficiency at the plate at the expense of power.
Kelly Johnson is morphing into a one-dimensional power hitter, Stephen Drew’s offensive stats, gap power and decent OBP have pretty much stayed the same. Chris Young’s power has been about the same, but his stolen bases have declined, as has his average and OBP. Justin Upton looks to be getting closer to his breakout 2009 numbers than his relatively disappointing 2010.
The big progression so far is with Miguel Montero. His .282/.362/.490/.852 tag is solid, and if he keeps up the pace will eclipse his career highs in doubles and homers.
Team speed has improved, strikeouts have gone down some, and while offensive numbers appear about the same as they did last year, they have improved in relation to the rest of the league. The big difference is, despite an older roster, it is younger players like Upton, Young and Montero carrying the load, while veterans are playing a more supporting role, such as Xavier Nady and Willie Bloomquist. But overall, it does little to explain the change from the basement dwellers of last year to the semi-contenders of this year.
Defensively, it’s a mixed bag. They got better in some areas than in 2010, but worse in others. The culmination is probably a zero-sum.
Behind the plate, Montero is throwing out runners at a higher rate, and displays a better range factor than in 2010; the stats for the Juan Miranda/ Nady platoon are nearly identical in all facets to LaRoche in 2010. Johnson at second base seems to have declined in both range factor/9 and runs saved, while Drew is about the same as he was. The Ryan Roberts/Melvin Mora tandem at third brings better range than Reynolds in 2010, but fewer runs saved.
Gerardo Parra continues to be a solid defender in left field. Young seems to have declined in center field, with a lower range factor and runs saved, while Upton is better in right field than he was.
It looks like, based on the info, while the defense isn’t doing a huge amount of favors for the team compared to last year, it isn’t bringing it down either. There are not a lot of power throwers on the pitching staff, so it is necessary for the Diamondbacks to at least have a decent defense, which they do.
While the 2010 Diamondbacks bullpen deservedly gets much of the blame for their woes, the starters that year didn’t exactly set them up for success, either. Ace Dan Harendidn’t have a good year and was shipped off to the Angels. Edwin Jackson and Rodrigo Lopez had ERAs over 5.00. Ian Kennedy was the only consistent arm on the staff.
It got so bad that retreads like Dontrelle Willis and Kris Benson got long looks. While the 2011 rotation is still probably the worst in the division, it is solid in the front end. Kennedy is the ace, with a 3.23 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and six wins, and is on pace to pitch over 200 innings. Kennedy doesn’t dazzle, but hitters are hitting only .220 against him and he doesn’t walk too many and generally keeps the ball in the park.
Daniel Hudson has established himself as a solid No. 2. He strikes out more guys than Kennedy and gives up more hits, but otherwise relies on a similar formula. Joe Saunders is being a healthy version of Joe Saunders. You know what you’re getting: a mid 4s ERA, a WHIP of about 1.4 and not too many strikeouts. In Arizona terms, that means No. starters. Josh Collmenter is looking strong, with four wins in 13 starts, a 1.12 ERA a WHIP of 0.78, and two straight shutouts. After that it’s a little scary, but three solid starters as opposed to only one amount to a nice difference over a year.
Towers’ biggest contribution was stocking up the bullpen.
The 2010 bullpen was horrendous. Original closer Chad Qualls was torched for an 8.29 ERA, a 2.00 WHIP, and opponents hit .363 against him. He didn’t have much help. Only two bullpen members had ERAs under 5—Blaine Boyer and Aaron Heilman—and theirs were well in excess of 4.00. Their overall ERA of 5.47 did no favors for the beleaguered starters and the average offense.
Towers signed J.J. Putz, a successful closer in the middle of the 2000s, but much injured since. He throws some heat, has an ERA of about 2.00, and has 15 saves. David Hernandez, a product of Reynolds’ trade to the Orioles comes in with a 3.18 ERA and10.2 K/9. He walks too man, but is still a huge upgrade over last year. Esmerling Vazquez and Sam Demel, overwhelmed last year, have become solid middle relievers. .With more pitchers getting quality starts and a more reliable and less overworked bullpen to hand the ball to, it can mean only good things for the DBacks.
Managing and coaching
It is difficult at best to determine the effect of the manager on a team (at least in quantifiable terms), but the team’s more aggressive approach on the bases has paid some dividends, so some of that credit must go to manager Kirk Gibson. He must also receive credit for hiring on Don Baylor and Alan Trammell, two character guys who not only had storied playing careers but also experience as major league managers. Other coaches Matt Williams and Eric Young are also character guys who had long, productive playing careers. Pitching coach Charles Nagy also deserves some credit for the improvement of the pitching. With this group, it looks like a more disciplined, yet more aggressive team. Gibson, assuming the D-Backs hold up, would have to be mentioned in any Manager of the Year discussions.
As of July 15, the Diamondbacks are 37-32, 2.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants. They’ve been inconsistent lately. They’ll have to win Thursday to avoid a sweep by the Giants, which they preceded by sweeping the Marlins. Before that, they lost three out of four to the Pirates.
That being said, they’re not in a bad spot. The Giants look like the team to beat, but are hardly insurmountable. The Rockies are even more inconsistent than the D-Backs, while the Dodgers are a mess and the Padres in full rebuild mold. It is a funny division. The Rockies have this uncanny ability to get hot late in the season. If the Dodgers hitting and pitching actually come together, they may make some noise, while the Padres, with not much more talent last year, nearly made it in the playoffs. It looks right now to be a dogfight between the Diamondbacks and Rockies to see who will contend with the Giants for the division. Compared to where they were last year, the DBacks must be pretty happy.
People may be quick to give Kevin Towers credit for the turnaround, and he did bring in Putz and Hernandez, who have helped solidify the bullpen, but his other moves haven’t added up too much. Mora hasn’t given them much of anything, while Miranda, Roberts and Nady have been solid platoon guys, but not much more. Pitching acquisition Armando Gallaraga and his 5.91 ERA haven’t pitched in a month.
Towers may yet put his mark on this team, but he hasn’t yet. The credit goes to the maturation of starting pitchers like Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, plus the solidification of the bullpen. Montero has become one of the best hitting catchers of the game; Upton has developed into a front line player, while Young, Johnson and Drew continue to give good depth to the starting lineup.
Some credit must be given to the previous administrations, including Josh “organizational advocacy” Byrnes and Joe Garagiola Jr., who drafted and/or traded for many of the core Diamondback players. You also can’t ignore Gibson and his coaching staff, who took a team from cellar dwellers to possible division contenders in less than a full season.