Author Archive

Some Optimism for the Arizona Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks have the third-worst record in baseball this season, which obviously isn’t a very good thing. But I feel that there are some positive signs for the Dbacks. Or a handful of them, anyway.

Before I begin saying good things about this Arizona team, a disclaimer:

I do recognize that the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are still in the National League West as well, so it will take a good many things going the right way to make the Diamondbacks do as much as compete with their divisionmates. Even with that, I’m optimistic.

First and foremost: They still have Paul Goldschmidt, and he’s under team control through 2019. Since his first full season in 2012, Goldschmidt has been the second-best first baseman in the bigs. This year, Goldschmidt has been a top-25 player despite missing several games due to injury. Having an All-Star/MVP-caliber/middle-of-the-order-hitting first baseman is a good place to start for a team.

But one excellent player doesn’t make a great team. The old adage is “be strong up the middle,” after all. And Arizona kind of is, or could be.

Of course there is catcher Miguel Montero, who is locked up through 2017. We’ve almost certainly seen the best of Montero already, but he’s still a solid everyday player, at least defensively. And it seems like good defensive catchers pretty much keep being good defensive catchers.

Continuing up the middle, there’s Chris Owings at short. Owings is only 23 and debuted last season. He’s pretty good defensively, has a decent bat with some pop and, despite having only played 72 games this year, has been quite productive.

Again, he’s only played a little more than half a season. But he ranks 14th among all shortstops, and he’s been better than any other one who has played as few games as he has. If we take Owings’ WAR (1.8) for this season and prorate it for a full season (600 plate appearances), he becomes a four-win player. Only four shortstops totaled four wins above replacement last year: Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Ian Desmond and Andrelton Simmons.

I’m not really trying to suggest that Owings will be as good as any of those four right now or next year or the year after that, but he’s been good so far. And at 23, he’s still got some time to grow.

Center field has been one of the good spots for Arizona. AJ Pollock has been quite good in his limited time, and Ender Inciarte has done well there, too. Inciarte is a defensive wizard, and Pollock was an outstanding hitter this season before going out with a hand injury. We probably shouldn’t expect Pollock to keep this level of offensive production up, but he’ll probably be pretty good. Even if he can’t hit, he put up good defensive numbers last season.

Pollock and Inciarte can play multiple outfield spots, so there’s not a logjam in center, and trading Gerardo Parra away at the trade deadline opened up a spot for the near future.

If Pollock and Inciarte are taking up two spots in the outfield, maybe David Peralta can take the other. Peralta started as a pitcher in St. Louis in 2006, staying in rookie ball for two seasons before eventually blowing out his arm in 2009. From there, Peralta played some independent ball when Arizona discovered him last year. Peralta just turned 27 in August, so he’s still a young guy. Even if he takes a step back in 2015 — and he very well might — he’ll be a piece to have.

A piece of what, I’m not sure. He and other outfielder Mark Trumbo have both probably hit their peaks, and the projections just do not care for either of them going forward. I don’t personally know who provides the Oliver projections, but I must presume Peralta and Trumbo have wronged that person/computer in some way.

Veteran Cliff Pennington has been a good at all over the infield this year, and has provided about as much value as Owings in 20 fewer games. He’s 30 now, so he still has some years left and can provide some good defense at a couple of infield spots, at least.

So it’s a good-looking seven players that will head into next year for Arizona. But the problem hasn’t been those pretty good players as much as it’s been the dead weight that Cody Ross, Jordan Pacheco, Trumbo and Aaron Hill have provided this year.

Odds are that we’ve seen the best of Ross and Hill. Both were good players in their primes, but those primes have passed. Ross is locked up through next season, and Hill will be there through 2016. But Trumbo and Pacheco could both be let go after this year.

Sure, there’s value to having Trumbo. He hasn’t hit for much power this year, but that’s been his calling card in the past. But the Dbacks can’t really put him at first because Goldschmidt is there. And if he plays left or right field, Trumbo is taking a spot away from one of those outfielders. Of course, Peralta could have a poor 2015, and Trumbo would fit in left if that’s the case.

I have no idea if that will happen, though. I can’t tell the future.

Trumbo might fit at third, but he hasn’t played there much. Fortunately for Arizona, third base prospect Jake Lamb has already debuted. While he hasn’t been very good at the big league level, he absolutely crushed pitching in Double-A. Lamb is only 23 and projects to be a plus hitter. He’s probably the future answer at the hot corner.

Now for the pitching.

It hasn’t been good. But there’s hope.

Today, we spell hope “A-R-C-H-I-E,” for Archie Bradley, or “B-R-A-D-E-N” for Braden Shipley, both of whom are top 100 prospects, with Bradley being No. 11 overall. Bradley had a little arm trouble this year, but was absolutely lights-out in Mobile last season. Shipley is completing his first full season of professional baseball, and hasn’t been bad at all. Both guys have fastballs in the mid-90s with other offerings that project to be really good.

Relying on prospects is what I meant when I said, “it will take a good many things going the right way” earlier. For the Diamondbacks to have real shots at success, they’ll probably need Bradley and Shipley to pan out. Bradley should be up sometime next year, and Shipley might come just after him.

As far as pitchers already in the rotation, it’s not ideal at the moment. Trevor Cahill has been a bit of a disappointment since coming to Arizona, but he’s only 26. Wade Miley has been pretty unlucky this year and should get a little better, according to his FIP and xFIP. Josh Collmenter pretty much is what he is, and he is a solid starting pitcher when healthy. Collmenter is 28 and Miley is 27, so there’s a chance that they’ll still get better, or at least stay basically where they are.

So that’s it. That’s my case for optimism for the Arizona Diamondbacks. It hinges very much on three good players (Goldschmidt, Montero, Owings) continuing to be really good and several other players (Trumbo, Pennington, Peralta, all the pitchers) just not being awful.

Perhaps I’m looking at the team with Diamondbacks-colored glasses, but I don’t think I am. Maybe I’m expecting too much from the younger guys in the near future.

Actually, that’s probably it. Still, I like their chances.

On Chris Davis and How He Isn’t Hitting Very Well

A fair amount has been written about both Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles and his season. Put simply, Davis has been a train wreck combined with a tire fire. He was the third-best hitter in all of baseball last year, which is shocking for me to even write considering how bad he is right now. This is just a snapshot of his numbers between 2013 and 2014.

__ Batting Avg. On-base % ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
2013 0.286 0.370 0.348 0.336 0.421 168
2014 0.191 0.296 0.202 0.241 0.302 89

So everything is worse, which — not surprisingly — leads to a worse season. While he’s still hitting for great power, it’s nothing close to what he was hitting in 2013. It would be pretty easy to look at his BABIP, which often is an indicator of how lucky a hitter is, and say Davis has just been tremendously unlucky this year, and was super lucky last year.

And you wouldn’t be wrong, necessarily. He has been unlucky this year. But his career BABIP is .323, which isn’t too far off from the .336 he posted last year. So I guess a positive here is that if the season were, I don’t know, 250 games instead of 162, Davis would probably stop being so unlucky and get closer to normal. Unfortunately it’s not 250 games, so he might not turn it around so quickly.

When hitters have a major breakout year like Davis did in 2013, it maybe shouldn’t be too surprising if they drop back a little in the following season. It often is a surprise, but pitchers scout those hitters a little harder, coaching staffs focus on them more, and so on and so on. So naturally, if a pitcher realizes a hitter totally crushes sliders and fastballs, that pitcher — if he’s not a dummy — will likely throw fewer sliders and fastballs, or at least fewer of those that are hittable.

Using pitch values from FanGraphs, we can see that, last season, Davis was that guy who crushed fastballs and sliders (and changeups, too).

Pitch Values Fastballs Sliders Cutters Curveballs Changeups
2013 1.7 3.4 1.98 0.94 5.71
2014 0.98 0.9 2.3 -3.07 -2.27

So Davis was better than most at hitting fastballs in 2013, and he was even better at hitting sliders and changeups. This year, though, he can’t seem to hit any of those three kinds of pitches as well, and he pretty much can’t hit a curveball or changeup at all.

Would you like to guess what non-fastball pitches he’s been getting more? Did you guess curveballs and changeups?  If you did, congratulations! You’re correct! Pitchers have adjusted to Davis hitting fastballs and sliders, and they’ve started to give him more curveballs and changeups, which, again, he can’t seem to hit this year. So part of Davis’ problem could simply be that he’s being pitched to differently.

And it’s not only that different kinds of pitches are coming to Davis. Pitchers are throwing low and away more often, and it’s hurting his numbers. Below is what I’m going to call an animation showing where pitches are coming to Davis. It’s from the catcher’s point of view, and it reads like a heatmap; white is neutral, red means more pitches are coming in that location and blue means fewer pitches are coming in that location.

pitch percent

So it’s pretty clear that 2014 pitchers are focusing on Davis low and away, which is a good idea since Davis is having trouble hitting those pitches, as shown in this second animation, or whatever it is.


So pitchers are coming at him differently, and he’s hitting differently. In 2013, Davis could basically hit anything in the strike zone and even a little bit below the zone. This year, he seemingly can’t hit the ball unless it’s low in the zone, and even then it’s a little shaky.

He’s also changed his approach a little bit. While Davis is chasing fewer pitches out of the zone, he’s also swinging less in general, even at strikes, and that’s a trend that’s been going on since 2012. And not swinging at strikes isn’t always a bad thing; Joey Votto swings less than almost anyone, and he’s a pretty good hitter. What’s a little troubling is that Davis is making less contact when he does swing, and that’s also a trend two years in the making. Of course, when a guy is hitting .286 and blasting 53 home runs, who cares if he’s making less contact? But when those 53 dingers turn into 21 and that .286 average drops below .200, we can start to be concerned.

So it’s all kind of going against Davis right now. He’s trying to be more patient, but pitchers are recognizing that and throwing him more strikes. And when he gets behind in the count, it makes things a little more difficult. Plus those mean old pitchers are throwing him pitches he doesn’t hit so well. It’s been an off year for Davis, and he’s still hitting for really good power. Not as much as 2013, but still a lot. If he can do that, and maybe turn things on for the last 35 or so games and into the playoffs, his team could make some kind of run. Maybe not a great run, but some kind of run.

Mike Minor and All the Home Runs

Mike Minor just keeps giving up home runs. To be fair, he’s a fly ball pitcher and home runs will come with that. And actually, he’s given up the long ball a little more frequently than he should (10.5% HR/FB) throughout his career, so maybe this shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

His 1.51 HR/9 this season is 7th among pitchers who have thrown as many innings as Minor has (83.1). But he’s had some bad luck this year – .343 BABIP, 14.9% HR/FB – and he’s been stricken with a… different kind of offseason injury plus shoulder tendinitis in Spring Training, so it’s reasonable to think that’s where the issue starts and ends. But after personally seeing him give up four home runs in a rehab game against Reds double-A squad Pensacola, it feels like something may be wrong. So I’d like to examine this a little more, if that’s ok.

I imagine that if the problem is something more than just arm trouble or bad luck, it should show up in his numbers somewhere. So I’ll compare his PITCHf/x, pitch type, and heat map data from this season – a not-so-good one – and last season – a quite good one.

First, I just want to show again that he’s been much less lucky this season. It feels to me like there’s something more to it, but luck could be the problem.

babip minor

While that may be so, giving up more home runs could be the result of a change in the amount he’s throwing each of his pitches and the velocity of those pitches.

pitch type

So there’s actually been a small uptick in Minor’s velocity since last season, and he’s been throwing more sliders and fewer changeups. He’s been showing that same trend since his debut and seemed to find a happy medium last year. Those changes from 2013 to this year seem significant, and I think they might be playing a part in his production.

First, we’ll compare how his pitches have been moving and how effective they’ve been the last two years. Rather than show four more tables with a bunch of numbers, here’s a quick summary: 1) His changeup is moving less than it did last year, and it’s getting crushed. 2) His fastball and slider are both moving more than they did last year – but only by a little – and are getting crushed. So those things aren’t great. The BABIP on his changeup is the only one that isn’t outrageous; it’s .281 this year. The opponent’s BABIP on his fastball and slider are .394 and .350, respectively, which are both pretty crazy. So those are two more points for just a ton of bad luck going Minor’s way, and perhaps some good signs pointing towards better luck in the near future. On to the next thing.

Maybe his issue has been locating the ball. He’s walk rate is up a little bit from last year, so it could be that he’s having trouble pitching where he did in 2013. I thought showing his heat maps might illustrate that, but, well…

2013 heat map 2014 heat map

They don’t. Not really, anyway. A lot of his pitches this year, like last year, are right around the middle of the plate, though they were spread out a little more last year. I’m not sure what exactly that means, but maybe he’s not locating quite as well this year.

From what I can gather, it seems like Mike Minor has seen several little changes. (A little higher release point turns into less movement on a pitch every now and then, which turns into everyone crushing your slider, etc.) And a lot of little changes can make a big difference – if things aren’t the same, they’ll be different, right?

Now for a little good news – though I hesitate to call it that. Minor’s historically been a “2nd half pitcher.” Hitters go from a .330 wOBA against him in the 1st half to a .300 after the break, and his FIP and xFIP see some drops as well. In addition, his xFIP is 3.61, which is actually a little better than it was last season. A turnaround doesn’t seem terribly far off for Minor. Cut out a little of that horribly bad luck, and Atlanta’s rotation gets better. Those things might not mean much at all, but maybe it can give Braves fans some hope.