Five questions: Arizona Diamondbacks

With the threat of regression in the air, will the Dbacks repeat as 90-game winners?

Two major factors were behind the Diamondbacks’ success in 2011: pitching and defense. According to UZR scores, the team ranked first in the National League in team defense with an overall score of 6.5. Breaking this down, we see the team also led in outfield defense with 8.8 and was above average in overall infield defense. Understanding that UZR, or any current defensive metric, is far from perfect, how much of a negative or positive shift can we expect in 2012?

This upcoming season, the team will have Paul Goldschmidt as the full-time first baseman (currently grades as below-average defensively) and Aaron Hill at second (score varies from slightly above-average to average, entering his age-30 season, which could point to the negative).

Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald will be subbing for the injured Stephen Drew for an undisclosed period of time. Bloomquist was capable as a defense shortstop last season, but in 1400-plus innings in his career, he scores as slightly below average. On the other hand, McDonald makes his living as a defensive-minded infielder. It’s just unfortunate that he has a .265 career wOBA as the trade-off.

Finally, Jason Kubel was brought in to add some left-handed power to the lineup. However, he rates as a major defensive downgrade.

Looking at the pitching, last season Arizona starters posted an overall ERA of 3.84, which is solid but falls below their overall FIP and xFIP of 4.13 and 4.11, respectively. In 2012, the team will be adding Trevor Cahill to this unit as the expected No. 3 starter.

Ian Kennedy: 8.03 K/9, 2.23 BB/9, .270 BABIP, 2.88 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 3.50 xFIP
Daniel Hudson: 6.85 K/9, 2.03 BB/9, .295 BABIP, 3.49 ERA, 3.28, 3.79 xFIP
Josh Collmenter: 5.71 K/9, 1.73 BB/9, .259 BABIP, 3.59 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 4.33 xFIP
Joe Saunders: 4.58 K/9, 2.84 BB/9, .271 BABIP, 3.69 ERA, 4.78 FIP, 4.38 xFIP

Glancing over these numbers, we see all four of the above pitchers showed excellent command and, with the exception of Kennedy, didn’t post any high strikeout numbers. This suggests a pitch-to-contact approach that will be hard to replicate successfully if we expect a defensive downgrade. Over the offseason, the team acquired Cahill as the team’s No. 3 starter.

Trevor Cahill: 6.37 K/9, 3.55 BB/9, .302 BABIP, 4.16 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 3.90 xFIP

Looking over Cahill’s brief 2011 stat line, we see a similar pitcher who doesn’t rely on any overpowering stuff and utilizes a heavy sinker to, hopefully, induce weak contact. He also will need a capable defense in order to show any effectiveness.

Using Oliver as a quick projection model, I have added up all the current WAR projections for the team’s probable 25-man roster, and the numbers fall between being an 84- to 85-win team. This falls well short of last season’s 94 wins.

Based on last season’s runs scored and allowed, the D-backs should have won 89 games, which points to luck playing a slight role. Even with a slight downgrade on defense, I still expect Arizona Dbacks to perform above average defensively; however, I do expect the low BABIP total to rise, which will, in theory, affect the team’s padded ERA totals and shave off some wins in the process.

Is Justin Upton anywhere near his peak in terms of performance?

If we are to believe that offensive players peak at the age of 26 to 27, then Upton, who will be 25 in August, should be in line to show further improvement over the next few seasons.

Currently, our 2012 player forecast sees Upton performing at similar levels previously established, but is it possible that he will eclipse last season’s production level?
Upton has the speed and athleticism to assume the favorable position near the top of the provided chart, which is promising in terms of sustaining production. But if you look at the two players most similar to Upton (according to his page) one will see two names provided at the top: Ruben Sierra and Andruw Jones.

Like Upton, both players were athletic outfielders who made an impact by the age of 20 in the big leagues, and both players were able to parlay their athletic skillset into prolonging their careers into their mid-30’s. However, Sierra peaked rather quickly, posting his best season at the age of 2,3 while Jones performed as an above-average power-hitting outfielder before posting his best season at the age of 28.

To further illustrate this, let’s go to one of my current obsessions: generating WAR graphs via Fangraphs:


In no way is this definitive, since it only involves three names, but it does pose a curious line of trajectories that Upton could follow, eclipse or fit in between. Physically, all three players were listed as 6-foot, 1-inch, but while Sierra was always “leaner,” Upton seems more likely to put on extra weight in line with how Jones developed.

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

To get a general comparison of these three players, one can see that through the age of 23, Sierra well below average in terms of plate discipline while Jones and Upton were similar according to walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Andruw Jones 2619 8.8 19.6 .220 .284 105
Ruben Sierra 2464 6.0 14.4 .207 .280 113
Justin Upton 2402 10.1 23.9 .211 .337 119

(all stats were taken through the player’s age 23 season)

Looking at Upton’s season numbers, his walk and strikeout numbers do fluctuate similar to what Jones displayed during his time in Atlanta. Last season, Upton did work to cut down on his strikeouts, going from 26.6 percent in 2010 to 18.7 percent last season while still keeping his swing-and-miss percentage high at 11.6 percent.

This could suggest that adjustments have been made in two-strike situations, which calls for further study, but I do see Upton making further progress overall and posting a few forty-home run seasons before the age of 30.

Are the D-backs making a mistake relegating Gerardo Parra to fourth outfielder?

I’ll admit that having Parra available on the bench is a luxury usually afforded to an elite team, but what if the argument can be made that he is better than the player set to replace him?

Surprisingly, Jason Kubel was one of the more divisive free-agent signings this offseason. When it was announced that Arizona signed Kubel to a two-year deal in December, many saw this as a positive since having Kubel return to an everyday role away from Target Field would give the D-backs a solid source of left-handed power. Others saw this as a drain on the team’s budget and antithetical to the qualities that led to the team’s success.

As an everyday player, Parra does have his limitations. Praised for his excellent arm and ability to patrol left field, Parra doesn’t have the plus power we like to see from our corner outfielders. This season, Parra will be 25 and isn’t a total tweener since he has enough gap power, along with the pitch selection ability, to post an OPS in the .750 to .800 range. On paper, Kubel presents a power upgrade, but his questionable health, struggles against left-handed pitching, and atrocious defense makes him a zero-sum player.

I understand Chase Field is much more favorable to left-handed hitters, and if Kubel can produce thirty-plus homers, then the switch makes sense, but the team is trading off two valuable qualities in age (Kubel will be 30 while Parra is 25) and defense. And with offensive production down across the board, I’ll guess we’ll see if squeezing 10 to 12 extra home runs out of the left-field position will be beneficial at the cost of defense.

What contribution can we expect from Trevor Bauer in 2012?

After compiling an obscene number of innings at UCLA, it was expected that the Diamondbacks would limit Bauer’s appearances during his stint in the Cal and Southern Leagues last season. (In his brief professional career, he has already posted 43 strikeouts in 25-plus innings.) Bauer has been invited to his first big-league camp, but the the preferred developmental plan is to have him report back to Double-A.

However, if Collmenter turns into a pumpkin or Saunders proves completely ineffective, I could see Bauer logging time in the 2012 rotation. His ability to dominate hitters will be a welcome addition to this franchise, but based on his struggles in Double-A Mobile last summer (20 hits allowed in 16.2 innings), it’s probably wise to have him return to Double-A at the start of the season. With that written, I fully expect Bauer to become major league-ready quickly; the question is how soon?

My prediction is that Bauer tears through Double-A hitters and logs about 100 innings before being promoted to Triple-A for about four or five starts and makes his debut in Arizona in late August as a reliever and spot starter. That should set up his next step for 2013 quite nicely.

When can we expect Stephen Drew to return to full health?

Watching Drew suffer an ankle injury on July 20 gave many Arizona fans reason to panic. The team was four-and-a-half games behind the Giants and preparing itself to make a second-half run.

Ankle injuries can be serious and looking at the video, it’s obvious some serious ligament damage occurred based on the fact that his foot was pointing the wrong direction for a few seconds. Since camp began, Drew has been on the field trying to shake off some rust but the team has been extremely cautious in his rehab.

At the time of the injury, Drew was underperforming offensively, hitting only .252/.317/.396, but his defense was key to keeping the D-backs competitive at the time of his injury (for the past few seasons, UZR has rated Drew as an above-average defender).

Drew posted his best offensive season at the age of 27 in 2010, hitting .278/.352/.452 with a .354 wOBA and 133 wRC+ and showing a healthy rise in walk percentage and isolated power that nicely translated into an fWAR of 5.1. This would suggest Drew’s first-half numbers last season were an outlier, but even if he returns to complete health, Drew has shown an alarming rise in his strikeout rate that may be indicative of a three-season trend of increasing whiff rates as well as a falling contact rate.

Since 2009, Drew’s overall contact percentage has fallen from 85.3 percent to 82.6 in 2010 to 79.3 percent last season. This also correlates with his increasing swing-and-miss rate that was 6.8 percent in 2009 and has trended upwards from 7.4 percent in 2010 to 8.7 percent in 2011.

It’s still early to fully gauge Drew’s ability to regain his lateral movement since he hasn’t been cleared to play any games this spring, but this injury certainly doesn’t help matters. It may take until after the All-Star break until Drew is cleared to return as an everyday player.

References & Resources
Aging curve chart was orginally generated and posted by Jeff Zimmerman at Beyond the Boxscore.

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Jim McLennan
Jim McLennan

“Watching Drew suffer an ankle injury on July 20 gave many Arizona fans reason to panic. The team was four-and-a-half games behind the Giants and preparing itself to make a second-half run.”

Actually, the team was 4.5 *ahead* of the Giants on that date, a rather different situation…

Jim McLennan
Jim McLennan

Never mind, I’m an idiot. smile