The Case of the Curious Diamondbacks

In general, most baseball organizations are headed in the same general direction. The idea that you have to choose between stats or scouts is dead, and almost everyone is now just compiling as much good information as they can. While it was oddly notable for teams to have a “stat guy” 15 years ago, it’s now oddly notable when a team only has one. Teams might not weigh all the information the same way, and it certainly doesn’t all filter up from the nerds to the GM at the same rate, but mostly, everyone is generally doing things the same way now.

Except the Diamondbacks. They don’t just march to the beat of their own drum; they’re not even sure drums qualify as a musical instrument. This isn’t even about hiring a guy with a veterinary background to run their analytics department, or Dave Stewart‘s months-old comments about the D’Backs being a “true baseball team”; their opinions just seem to run counter to the rest of the sport at just about every single turn.

The Yankees traded Peter O’Brien to Arizona in large part because they didn’t think he was a Major League catcher, an opinion shared by virtually everyone else within baseball. Their differing opinion led them to keep the position open for O’Brien this winter, despite everyone in baseball assuming they’d make a move to acquire something better than what they have. Stewart’s response to those rumors:

Thus far, Stewart’s proclamation has remained true, even after O’Brien developed some problems throwing the ball back to the mound and was reassigned to minor league camp. But, okay, you might say that the D’Backs are rebuilding, so it’s not really all that important if they have a +0 WAR or +1 WAR catcher behind the plate, since the value of that win is not particularly high. Well, the D’Backs wouldn’t agree with that statement either.

LaRussa, back in November.

“I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record next year, which is 82-80,” La Russa said. “I mean, I really believe that that’s realistic, but 82 is not going to get you into October.

“I think the message that we’re careful to send to our fans is that we are not a patient bunch. We are not going to ask them to hang with us for four or five years.”

Part of their plan to win sooner than later? Signing Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas to a $68 million contract, luring him to Arizona by also including an opt-out after the fourth year. Tomas was an outfielder in Cuba, and his size caused some to question whether he’d eventually need to move to DH, but as usual, the D’Backs went the other way and decided to try and turn him into a third baseman. After all, they already had a lot of outfielders, but they didn’t have an obvious candidate to start at third, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

Well, there’s the minor issue of Tomas actually being able to make the transition.

Again, though, the D’Backs simply don’t agree. Stewart’s response:

Bobby Bonilla was the third baseman on a championship team and he was big,” Stewart said. “I already think [Tomas] is an average third baseman and he is such a hard worker that I think he can be better than average.”

Again, public quotes don’t mean a lot, and a GM should be supportive of his players. You wouldn’t expect Stewart to come out and rip on Tomas’ glovework, nor should he. But as Joel Sherman wrote in the piece linked above, Tomas is somewhat emblematic of the disconnect between what the Diamondbacks seem to believe and what every other team in baseball seems to believe.

It doesn’t end with O’Brien and Tomas’ defense, either. Yesterday, the team’s management was raving about Nick Ahmed‘s defensive abilities, calling him “the best defensive shortstop in the National League”, perhaps forgetting that Andrelton Simmons is a thing that exists. Or when it’s suggested that perhaps the team consider trading Mark Trumbo — both to ease their outfield logjam and to clear some salary from a payroll that is apparently so maxed out that they can’t even afford Dioner Navarro — Stewart responds in no uncertain terms:

“We are not moving Trumbo,” Stewart said.

At nearly every juncture, the D’Backs appear to see things differently than the rest of the league. And because their process appears to be so different from the path that everyone else is going down, it can be easy to assume that this team is going to be a disaster. It almost feels inevitable that this is all going to blow up in the D’Backs faces.

But every time I start to go down that road, I remember feeling this way about the Orioles four years ago. No one wanted to work for Peter Angelos. Seemingly every decent GM candidate publicly declined to interview or withdrew from consideration, and the team ended up turning to Dan Duquette, a guy who had been out of baseball for a decade. When organizations were going young and giving first-time GMs a shot, the Orioles went with a retread who hadn’t even been treading lately, and then proceeded to get themselves in some trouble with some weird and potentially shady international signings.

The Orioles were where the Diamondbacks are now, and were about as perplexing and criticized an organization as Arizona has been this winter. And then they won 93 games and a Wild Card spot, followed by a 96 win season and a division title just two years later. The Orioles lost 90 games five years in a row, hired a guy that no one wanted, did some weird things, and it all added up an immediate success story.

I don’t think that’s going to happen in Arizona. I don’t think the D’Backs are even all that close to being a good team, and like most everyone else, I don’t really see how their plan is supposed to work. But every time I get close to writing off the D’Backs because their process is just so weird, I remember doing the same thing to the Orioles, and realize that weird front office statements don’t really matter much when the games start. As much as we focus on good processes and sound decision making, baseball is still remarkably random.

Yasmany Tomas might look an awful lot like Dayan Viciedo right now, but that doesn’t mean he’s definitely going to hit like Dayan Viciedo once the season starts. A rotation that begins with Josh Collmenter and Jeremy Hellickson seems like a disaster, but maybe by May or June, we’ll all realize that Rubby de la Rosa and Chase Anderson are the team’s two best pitchers and an interesting young tandem to build around. Maybe Stewart’s bluster about not trading for a catcher will pay off when they claim some reasonably useful veteran off waivers right before Opening Day, picking up an upgrade without surrendering any talent in the process.

On the one hand, I think the Diamondbacks are probably a poorly constructed team with a lot of legitimate problems, and I don’t have a lot of confidence that Stewart and La Russa are the ones seeing clearly while everyone else in baseball is wrong about their players. But on the other hand, the results on the field aren’t dictated by what a front office deserves based on their decision making process. Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa don’t have to be right about everything for Arizona to win. They could be wrong about a lot of these things and still have it all turn out okay, especially if Paul Goldschmidt hits 50 home runs or something.

More likely, I think the Diamondbacks end up as a 90 to 100 loss team, as a lot of these strange bets the front office is making are more likely to fail than succeed. But I keep remembering the 2012 Orioles. Weird things happen in baseball. The D’Backs having a winning year in 2014 would be a bit weird, but baseball seems to enjoy giving us weird results on a pretty regular basis.



Print This Post



Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Bob
Guest
Bob
1 year 2 months ago

The D’Backs having a winning year in 2014 would be a bit weird. I will certainly agree with that.

david k
Member
david k
1 year 2 months ago

What, just because 2014 is over and by all accounts, they didn’t actually have a winning record in 2014???

Joe
Guest
Joe
1 year 2 months ago

Kevin Towers is gone, I consider that to be a winning season

jwise224
Guest
1 year 2 months ago

Well done, Dave. I spend about 90% of my writing covering the D-backs and to call the team’s direction “interesting” is kind. With that said, they’ve accumulated a lot of pieces in the rotation, the outfield and the infield, plus they have a decent bullpen with a half-dozen young, hard-throwing arms in the wings. So while I’m not sure I like the process, the results could be intriguing within a couple of years. You throw enough “stuff” at the wall and something should stick, at least one might hope. It’s going to be ugly at times, or most of the time, but where it all settles might be more palatable down than road than it appears in 2015, even if the process is to getting there is strange to say the least.

Or it might not.

capnsparrow
Member
capnsparrow
1 year 2 months ago

So basically La Russa and Stewart are throwing one pair of poopy underwears after another at the wall hoping for some of them to stick.

LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU
1 year 2 months ago

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the winning Diamondbacks.”
“There is no winning Diamondbacks.”
“That is the curious incident.”

Phillies113
Member
Member
1 year 2 months ago

I love this title. It sounds like an Encyclopedia Brown mystery novel.

The Diamondbacks are clearly run by a very stubborn bunch. Whether things work out the way they see fit, well, we’ll see. I’m sure the projections and preseason predictions are gonna be incorrect in a few areas, strictly because of some unseen, unforeseeable circumstance. And that’s good! That’s part of what makes baseball so exciting! Can you imagine if the projections were right 100% of the time? How boring!

Swiss Cheese
Guest
Swiss Cheese
1 year 2 months ago

Not so sure it’s being stubborn as much as trying not to publicize a weakness. They may believe they need a catcher or have to trade Trumbo but admitting it does them no favors.

Phillies113
Member
Member
1 year 2 months ago

I agree that publicly admitting to these weaknesses (which everyone already knows about) doesn’t help them out. Where they’re stubborn, though, is the fact that they don’t seem like they’re in any rush to correct these problems. If they do think they need a catcher, then they should be working to try to acquire a catcher. If they think they should move Trumbo, then he should be dangling out there on the block.

Now, I don’t have any insight into what the Arizona front office is doing behind the scenes, nor should they be making public what they’re trying to do. But I haven’t seen or read anything that’s indicating that the Diamondbacks are trying to make these moves. Either their front office is air tight, and no one is leaking any information about anything going on in there, or they are sticking to their guns with the roster they have, in spite of the fact that these are moves and areas that they need to address if they want to be competitive. That, to me, is stubborn.

Ryan Brock
Member
Member
1 year 2 months ago

It narrowly avoids being yet another “The Curious Case of ____” headline, a well which has been revisited on this site so many times I’ve lost count…

maguro
Guest
maguro
1 year 2 months ago

Haha. I don’t think I have ever seen Bobby Bonilla’s 3B defense cited as something to aspire to.

jwise224
Guest
1 year 2 months ago

True baseball.

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City
1 year 2 months ago

Years ago Bill James summarized Bonilla’s 3B defense as follows: “When I said Carney Lansford was an awful third baseman, I didn’t mean that he was as bad as Bobby Bonilla. Bonilla, listed at 240 pounds, has played about 8,000 career innings at third base, so I suppose that makes him a third baseman, and if you sent him into space a few times I suppose that would make him an astronaut, but apart from that, he was no more a third baseman than he was an astronaut.”

How could anybody not love Bill James?

Famous Mortimer
Member
Member
1 year 2 months ago

Because of the chapter of his Hall of Fame book where he said anyone criticising Pete Rose was an idiot, he never gambled on games and you can’t prove anything – before then saying anyone who wanted Shoeless Joe in the Hall was like a battered wife going back to their abuser for the hundredth time?

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City
1 year 2 months ago

Touche.

Richie
Member
Richie
1 year 2 months ago

Well, other than that he didn’t actually say those things. Two of ’em, anyway.

bglick4
Member
bglick4
1 year 2 months ago

I remember Bobby Bo playing third a few times with the mid 90 Orioles. He wasn’t simply bad. He couldn’t field the position. He should have been a DH. He was worse than 2012’s Wilson Betemit.

Mike
Guest
Mike
1 year 2 months ago

Diamondbacks and Arizona, a match made in heaven. You’re so cute together! You deserve each other!

Phillies fan from Germany
Guest
Phillies fan from Germany
1 year 2 months ago

You are basically saying that the Orioles won because they got lucky which is a little bit self-righteous…

CrazyPants
Guest
1 year 2 months ago

and that would be pretty mild compared with the way the O’s have been cut down for 4 yrs.

Jason B
Member
Jason B
1 year 2 months ago

So even a “gee, we kinda got it wrong on the Orioles, they were better than we expected!” isn’t good enough for butt-hurt Orioles fan. Out in the early lead for most insufferable fan base of 2015!

(Or, as the article would say, 2014.)

(Which they already won pretty handily.)

Jason B
Member
Jason B
1 year 2 months ago

So even a “gee, we missed on the Orioles, they sure surprised us and were better than we expected!” isn’t enough for butt-hurt O’s fans. Staking an early lead to most insufferable fan base of 2015!

(Or, as the article would say, 2014.)

Jordan
Guest
Jordan
1 year 2 months ago

What are everyone’s thoughts on Yoan Lopez? They paid him a pretty penny but I can’t seem to find a definitive answer on what kind of pitcher folks think he’ll be.
(selfish insert–I’m in the later rounds of an NL-only keeper league and am thinking of grabbing him. Would appreciate someone with a little more knowledge of him giving some insight.)

Miguel
Guest
Miguel
1 year 2 months ago

Interesting article, though I’d hoped for a bit more insight than “the Orioles bucked my expectations a few years ago, so it could well happen here too.”

BGizzle
Member
BGizzle
1 year 2 months ago

Exactly.

mlstarr
Guest
mlstarr
1 year 2 months ago

I still wonder if the Dbacks’ whole Stewart show has just been a bluff at least to some extent. They can support their players through media channels and make some pretty crazy statements without really hurting anything. It’s not all that crazy to think that the “true baseball team” comments were trying to lure Shields when they thought they were behind in the running. It’s also not crazy to think that the denial of a lot of these trade rumors are to try to show all the confidence in the world in their guys while they allow them to try to regain some of their value after horrendous years (opposite of the KT approach). This is the same front office that moved Montero and Miley to save some money and acquire some talent when they each still carried some decent value. Perhaps they didn’t get enough in return, but we don’t really know yet and don’t have access to the info that was used for their player/prospect evaluation anyway. The Hellickson deal makes no sense to me, but none of their other moves seem totally crazy when you strip away the comments to the media.

That or they’re just winging it.

CrazyPants
Guest
1 year 2 months ago

Agree. When was the last time a GM’s remarks could be taken at face value?

If the DBs could deal Aaron Hill, Cody Ross, and Bronson Arroyo, they would have done so yesterday. But yeah, I’ve stated that they should be dealing Trumbo for a while now. And if they are truly considering to play Nick Ahmed at the expense of Jake Lamb then I retract every nice thing I ever said about them.

Bottom line is that there is a bright side to their future. They’ve got a real nice assortment of prop sects lined up. They aren’t far away.

chuckb
Member
chuckb
1 year 2 months ago

I don’t know. I’m a Cards fan who follows them religiously and I can tell you that most of this sounds exactly like Tony La Russa.

Am I the only person who remembers the Skip Schumaker at 2b experiment?

Matt W
Member
Matt W
1 year 2 months ago

Being asleep at the wheel does sound a lot like Tony LaRussa.

BALCO
Guest
BALCO
1 year 2 months ago

What’s so weird about hiring someone with a veterinary background?

King Buzzo's Fro
Guest
King Buzzo's Fro
1 year 2 months ago

Dave is a concerned “Pet Parent”

Trigaux
Member
Trigaux
1 year 2 months ago

The part that gives me pause is that LaRussa was part of a relatively progressive, very successful franchise, St. Louis, as a manager for years, and Stewart was both a very good player, and a successful agent. Between them, they have a lot of “baseball knowledge,” and its hard to believe they are ignoring the opinions of the rest of baseball with a reason and a plan.
I haven’t a clue what it is, but I’m interested to see where it might go.

florida ron
Member
florida ron
1 year 2 months ago

Would expect nothing else from a team headed by Tony LaGenius. The guy has always thought he invented baseball.

Rob
Member
Rob
1 year 2 months ago

Maybe the new Diamondbacks GM is smarter than the so called experts, just like the old one.

wOBHey
Member
wOBHey
1 year 2 months ago

I think the weirdest thing about the Diamondbacks is that I would be equally entertained by either a colossal flop or resounding success. I don’t really understand what is going on there but I’m always a fan of more entertainment, so bring it on LaStewsa!

Also, why not just move Trumbo to catcher?! Mark Trumbo sounds like a catcher’s name anyway. All the MLB teams are way behind on making decisions based on how their players’ names sound, IMO.

rye
Member
rye
1 year 2 months ago

I’m a huge Diamondbacks fan and the direction that TLR and Stewart are taking makes a ton of sense to me. In 2014, starting pitching (and health) was an enormous issue. Lots of cheap, high-upside/boom-or-bust options were brought in to compete. Webster, de la Rosa, and Hellickson could end up being anything from solid rotation contributors to bullpen pieces to total busts. Add to the mix the already present Nuno, Ray, and Anderson, a very solid Corbin who should return come July, and 3 top-notched, not too far off prospects in Bradley, Blair, and Shipley and I’d be very surprised if this team doesn’t have one of the best rotations in baseball come 2016. If management is quick to evaluate and react I can see 2015 not being a total disaster as well.

The team, already anchored by Goldschmidt, also has a young core of infielders in Lamb (3B, 1B), Owings (2B, SS), Drury (3B, 2B), and Ahmed (SS) that can be built around. AJ Pollock in center is solid and both Inciarte and Peralta are underrated players.

I haven’t mentioned Tomas or Trumbo whose fates are joined. Tomas is not a 3rd baseman and I don’t think anyone in the organization really believes he is. So why call him one then? Because doing so doesn’t hurt Trumbo’s value the way calling him an outfielder would. There’s no place for him right now so why call him an outfielder? Calling him a third baseman also gives the team a convenient excuse for sending him to Reno to “work on his fielding”. Trading Trumbo will happen and it will happen before 2016 and Tomas will take his rightful place in left field.

Catching. I admit that from an offensive perspective the Diamondbacks catching situation is laughable. If Tuffy can hit .230 I think you’ll have to consider that a success. But, despite this, he can do things behind the plate that will help the team. During this year I believe it the team’s intention (and in their best interest) to do whatever it takes to pound the square-peg O’Brien into a round-hole catcher ready for a August call-up and a 2016 start.

Right now, this is a team that has a lot of question marks but also a lot of potential answers. At the end of the year, two of the biggest contracts (and dead money) in Cahill and Ross come off the books. It’s very clear that the team would like to move Aaron Hill who would be the biggest contract in 2016 and, as I said above, I think they’ll move Trumbo who would be the 2nd. Couple this with a new, big money TV contract and the 2016 Diamondbacks will be flush with cash. This money will come at a perfect time as after 2015 it should be extremely clear as to what the missing pieces are, whether that be TOR pitching, a catcher, or a proven infielder. LaRussa and Stewart are doing exactly what they need to be doing; playing a calm and patient hand while they figure out how to play their cards.

MLB Rainmaker
Member
Member
MLB Rainmaker
1 year 2 months ago

Ok, I will start by saying its a FanGraphs problem, and specially with you Dave, to think that the FG view of the world is the ONLY view of the world. While I think most of us tend to agree, that the FG model is probably the most right….winning MLB games is not a perfect science.

For example, certain teams have found ways of doing business that gives them a competitive advantage that has nothing to do with statistics — the White Sox consistently remained the lowest team in DL days for more than 10 years, the Cardinals have show the ability to develop an inordinate amount of their minor league talent into above-average big leaguers, and the Rays have found a way to manage pitch selection to boost average pitchers to above-average performance.

That is all to say; its conceivable that there are other competitive advantages that make a difference. Just to guess, with LaRussa at the helm, I say there may be an effort to bring that training and development program for internal talent that made the Cardinals so successful to the D-Backs.

That’s not say the D-Backs are beyond criticism, but you article reads more like whining than compelling criticism. So what they think Ahmed is a great defensive shortstop? Fat Panda just signed for $17M/season but his size is Ok?

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
1 year 2 months ago

“So what they think Ahmed is a great defensive shortstop? Fat Panda just signed for $17M/season but his size is Ok?”

Is this serious? First of all, he didn’t say Nick Ahmed a great defensive shortstop. He implied he was the best defensive shortstop in baseball after a whopping 167 innings.

Second, years have demonstrated that Sandoval is good, despite his size. Trying to compare him with Nick Ahmed (despite the fact that Panda, a good defensive player, isn’t going to be asked to play shortstop) is more than a little ridiculous.

wpDiscuz