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.

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