Is There Hope for the Diamondbacks?

The first three months of the season have not been kind to the Diamondbacks. An extra-innings loss on Tuesday brings the defending National League West champions’ record to 33-35, nine games out of first place. However, Arizona is better than their record suggests. They are one busted slump, one injury return, and one trade away from contending for a playoff spot.

The Diamondbacks are third in the National League in team WAR, trailing the Cardinals and Dodgers. Like St. Louis, Arizona has excellent sabermetric stats, but the actual wins have not followed suit. The biggest reason for this has been a lack of clutch hitting. The Diamondbacks have a .277 wOBA in high leverage situations, compared to .317 overall. It is difficult to separate luck and skill in these situations, but Arizona’s .252 BABIP in high leverage situations – worst in the league – seems probable to rebound.

Arizona’s pitching has been excellent, as their 92 FIP- is second best in the league, behind only Washington, and they have some pretty solid defenders on the field as well The biggest problem has been the offense, as the team has struggled to put up enough runs to compete on a regular basis.

The glaring difference between the lineup that scored 4.5 runs per game in 2011 and the one that averages 4.2 now is the performance of Justin Upton. The 24-year-old’s .310 wOBA seems impossibly low after his .385 last season. Upton’s wRC+ has gone from 40% better than league average to 22% worse. More concerning, this decline cannot be explained away by luck dragons. His BABIP is 10 points better this year than 2011.

Diagnosing Upton’s decline is simple; his power has disappeared. True, he is striking out a little more this season — 24% from 19% — but the power is much more concerning. Upton’s .105 ISO is the worst in his career by far, and trails the likes of Elvis Andrus, Ichiro Suzuki, and Marco Scutaro. He is simply too good to hit this poorly, especially at his age, but his thumb injury is likely getting in the way of his overall production, and health may be the key to the remainder of his season. ZIPS sees him as a .359 wOBA hitter the rest of the season, which should not be a stretch considering his talent and track record if he can get past the thumb issues.

Shortstop Stephen Drew is ready to return from his ankle injury, which should be another shot in the arm for the Diamondbacks’ lineup. Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald have split time at shortstop in Drew’s absence, but both are below-average hitters. Drew will slowly work his way back into the lineup, but will likely play everyday within a few weeks. Drew, a career .333 wOBA hitter, will be an upgrade offensively and defensively over the Bloomquist/McDonald combo.

It is unclear when the Diamondbacks will call up their top prospect, starter Trevor Bauer, but if he gets promoted soon, it makes the team’s performance between now and the trade deadline very important. Bauer’s promotion would give Arizona another starter, and make Joe Saunders likely trade bait. What the front office would want in return will depend on where the team is in the standings. If the team falls further out of the race, they would probably just look for a prospect. If the team gets some momentum between now and July 31, they could use Saunders, or trade a prospect, to try and make a run.

Chris Young started the season blazing hot, but is trying to regain his stroke after an injury. Daniel Hudson‘s ERA is 2.6 runs worse than his xFIP. Miguel Montero has been decent, but not as good as usual. There are more reasons why the Diamondbacks should start a hot streak than reasons why they will fall apart, and that is why Arizona fans can be optimistic. Upton, Drew, and Bauer are the three key variables for a turnaround. If they come through, and it better start soon, the Diamondbacks can still be contenders.

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Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.

18 Responses to “Is There Hope for the Diamondbacks?”

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  1. theawesomersfranchise says:

    There may not be much hope for the D-Back this year but when you have Bauer, Bradley and Skaggs coming down the line, there is hope right around the corner.
    People like to yammer about Skaggs being overrated. With Hudson and Kennedy that makes him potentially their #5 in 3 years. Not too bad

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    • Mr. Wisdom I am Not says:

      Most pitching prospects don’t pan out. If just one of them becomes a frontline starter and another becomes a serviceable pitcher, they should be happy. But if you use that logic, then a lot of teams are apparently going to have a ridiculous rotation in a few years.

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      • Marc says:

        A little different story here, though. Bauer and Bradley were both expensive top draft picks while Skaggs was pretty much the center-piece of the Haren trade. I’m sure the D-backs are expecting all three to blossom into stars.

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  2. Preston says:

    If the D-backs do fall out of it, shouldn’t they look to trade Upton? He would net a monster return. The Yankees and Red Sox would start a bidding war, probably sending 3 or 4 of their top ten prospects. Something like Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams, Austin Romine and Manny Banuelos from the Yanks or Bogaerts, Lavarnaway, Iglesias and Barnes from the Sox would be hard to pass up for a team that has limited financial resources. Maybe the Rangers don’t want to re-sign Hamilton and are willing to deal Profar, Perez and Olt to get his replacement.

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    • Marc says:

      If the DBacks were completely illiterate then yeah they should do that

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      • Matt says:

        The Dbacks should trade Upton before his value falls. He looks like a legitimate loser at the plate this year. He makes bonheaded plays both on defense and on the basepaths that kill momentum for the team. I would gladly take the Rangers package above or the Yankees if they threw in Betances. Something that must be noted is the Dbacks have played a lot better this season when Justin Upton has been off the field. And while Justin Upton’s potential is an extremely rare opportunity, I would gladly take three superb prospects for Upton with a tad less potential and better attitudes.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        OK but the prospects listed don’t have “a tad less potential”. They have a lot less potential. The only one of the bunch who has a high shot at being a perennial MVP candidate is probably Profar and even that’s nowhere near as likely as it is for Upton. If the Diamondbacks don’t want Upton, I’m sure any team would happily take him off their hands.

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      • Preston says:

        Upton is a .275/.355/.475 hitter, which are hardly perennial MVP numbers. Yes he’s only 24 and you could expect his performance to mirror his breakout 2011. But, since he’s mired in a pretty awful slump, 2011 could prove to be an aberration. The Diamondbacks have constantly questioned his work ethic and desire. His contract is pretty team friendly, but the Dbacks routinely have a payroll in the bottom third, so paying eight figures to anyone is a risky proposition. If it’s the particular prospects you are quibbling over then that’s a matter of opinion, and I’m sure the Dbacks would have their pick of which ones they like.

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      • Bo Diaz says:

        There is absolutely no chance, 0.0%, that the Rangers would trade Profar, Olt and Perez for Upton. I find it hard to believe any team would trade 3 or 4 top 10 prospects for him.

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      • Marc F says:

        Preston, you seem to be severely discounting the fact that Upton has had a thumb injury this year.

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    • Matt says:

      Profar comes at a premium position too. When it comes down to it, I’d take 3-4 good major league players for 1 inconsistent superstar like Upton. Take this for instance, David Murphy had a 1.1 war last year, Elvis Andrus had a war of 4.5 last year, Jamey Carroll had a war of 2.2 last year. Add those up and it equals 7.8 WAR. Justin Upton had a WAR of 6.4. That is not to say I would take those players for Upton, but Profar, who has a better bat than Andrus and plays good defense would likely be worth more than Andrus. Moreover, Olt should be worth far more than Murhpy. Moreover, Perez would help and I’m sure the Dbacks could probably get Leonys Martin thrown in which would help further. I understand that Upton’s potential far outways any of these guys but Profar should be very good, Olt has a lot of power at 3b, Leonys Martin would be a solid centerfielder, and Perez would be a top pitching prospect. In terms of WAR, the move makes sense, but in terms of whether the move is right for the team, that is the true dilemna.

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  3. Checkmate says:

    Absolutely amazing that Justin Upton is still only 24 years old.

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  4. Marc says:

    LOL oh my god apparently a three month stretch of poor performance (and he’s playing hurt) is somehow proof that Upton’s 2011 was a fluke. My goodness, does anyone have the slightest clue how much value a 24 year old who’s already had an MVP caliber season with a team friendly contract have? Prospects are nobodies until they prove themselves in the big leagues, and the fact that names like Martin Perez, Leonys Martin and Dellin Betances are even brought up is absolutely laughable. The DBacks don’t need to rebuild. What they need is a healthy Upton. Let’s get real now, if you honestly think the proposed packages above are going to even get Kevin Towers to seriously consider trading Upton, you are kidding yourself.

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  5. JSprech says:

    Are this year’s DBacks last year’s Brewers? I’m waiting to see one of these underperforming teams (MIL included) show up what they were predicted to be..

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  6. shoewizard says:

    “The Diamondbacks have constantly questioned his work ethic and desire. ”

    This not even remotely true. Where do you come up with something like that ?

    The quotes from team officials and coaches are all the exact opposite. They say he grinds and tries TOO hard.

    Upton has his faults as a baseball player, but poor work ethic and desire are not among them. You made that up out of nowhere, projecting your pre conceived, canned, cliched notions on him. I know this sounds like a personal attack for stating an opinion. But you made that comment as fact, and in fact, it’s patently false.

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  7. Dave says:

    Upton’s xBABIP is above his actual BABIP, so yeah it’s probably some bad luck. His plate discipline seems to be a little worse though, and the injury that’s been dogging him might be eating away at his power. It’s hard to say. And unfortunately Young has had very poor offense since his injury, but he’s quite a bit older so I’m not sure he will turn things around if he continues to have a poor 2012.

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