All Arrows Pointing Up for Diamondbacks Rotation

On December 2, new Diamondbacks general manger Mike Hazen announced the hire of Mike Fitzgerald to lead the Diamondbacks’ analytics department. Perhaps Fitzgerald’s most notable contribution in Pittsburgh, where he was the No. 2-ranking analyst, was pounding the table for then free agent Russell Martin — and, at the same time, the power of pitch-framing — at the close of the 2012 season.

On December 2, the Diamondbacks elected to non-tender incumbent starting catcher Welington Castillo, which surprised some in and around the industry. Castillo led an Arizona catching group that finished 26th in framing runs last season, according to Baseball Prospectus.

On December 2, the Diamondbacks reached an agreement with catcher Jeff Mathis on a two-year deal. On a per-pitch basis, among catchers who received at least 1,000 pitches last season, Mathis was was the ninth-best framer, according to StatCorner, and the best free-agent catcher available by that measure. While in a reserve role last season, Mathis graded out as the 13th-best defensive catcher in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus. Castillo ranked 95th. New Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said at the winter meetings that there is no clear-cut No. 1 catcher and that Mathis will split the work load with Chris Herrmann.

Said Lovullo to reporters in Washington, D.C, in December:

“We believe in the metrics. We believe in the data. We believe in trying to do as much research as possible. We have a great team of people that are working hard behind the scenes.”

It was on December 2, 2016, that the Diamondbacks joined the 21st century. And no group of players stands to benefit more than the Diamondback starting pitchers. As noted by Mike Petriello on Tuesday in an excellent piece for, Zack Greinke is a good bounce-back candidate for 2017 due to the club’s improved framing and defense. Indeed, everyone in the Diamondbacks staff is a good bet to improve.

Greinke will be Exhibit A, though.

As Petriello notes, according to Baseball Prospectus’ values, no pitcher benefited more from framing than Greinke in 2015. It’s part of the reason I led my 2015 NL Cy Young ballot with Jake Arrieta in a tight race, as Greinke benefited from Yasmani Grandal.

Greinke fell from first to 725th last year in framing support, a 15-run drop.

Wrote Petriello of Greinke’s outside-of-the-zone strikes rate:

In 2015, Greinke got 232 such calls, 7.2 percent of all his pitches. In 2016, that was merely 137, or 5.5 percent. …. We’re talking about dozens of calls he didn’t get last year — and if you think that doesn’t matter, realize he allowed a .843 OPS after a 1-0 count as opposed to a .690 OPS after an 0-1 count. When he got ahead, it was .554. When he didn’t, it was 1.057. It matters. A lot.

Some visual evidence…

This was a ball?

And this?

Focus on that body language…

Fellow Diamondbacks pitchers Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin and Josh Collmenter were also among those pitchers most negatively affected by poor framing in 2016, as was Taijuan Walker in Seattle, who was acquired in a trade.

While, as Jeff Sullivan found in December, the power of framing has been diminished as more teams have bought in, and while the strike zone shrunk last year for the first time in the PITCHf/x era, the Diamondbacks still can likely expect to enjoy a framing boost in 2017 as one of the last adopters.

(The Diamondbacks also hope Greinke benefits from better health after missing time with oblique and shoulder injuries last season.)

But it’s not just better glove work — as Petriello notes, the Diamondbacks had a stunning drop of 56 Defensive Runs Saved last year (A.J. Pollock really needs to be healthy) — and deception skills behind the plate that should help Diamondbacks pitchers. All the rotation pieces are good bets to be better than a year ago independent of Mathis and the outfield defense.

On December 5, ZiPS’ Diamondbacks projections were published, and they called for nearly across-the-board improvement for the entire staff. And those projections did not account for throwing, most often, to Mathis.

Arizona Pitchers Should be Better
Pitcher 2016 WAR 2017 ZiPS projected WAR Difference
Shelby Miller 0.5 2.1 1.6
Taijuan Walker 0.6 1.8 1.2
Zack Greinke 2.2 3.1 0.9
Robbie Ray 3.0 3.6 0.6
Patrick Corbin 0.5 1.0 0.5
Archie Bradley 1.8 1.8 0.0
Totals 8.6 13.4 4.8

Also, consider the differentials between last season’s ERA and FIP…

Arizona Pitchers Have to be Better
Pitcher 2016 ERA 2016 FIP Difference
Shelby Miller 6.15 4.87 1.28
Robbie Ray 4.90 3.76 1.14
Archie Bradley 5.02 4.10 0.98
Patrick Corbin 5.15 4.84 0.31
Zack Greinke 4.37 4.12 0.25
Taijuan Walker 4.22 4.99 -0.77

This is a staff loaded with pedigree, as Neil Weinberg noted earlier this month. From Neil’s piece:

“Based on what you know about all of these pitchers in 2017, you’re best impression is that this is a mid-level rotation. Greinke is good, but maybe on the decline. Corbin may or may not be the guy he was before Tommy John. Miller, Walker, and Bradley were all top prospects but have had significant growing pains in the majors. Ray is probably the only one of the group who looks better now than he did then, and he was almost certainly starting from the lowest point. Five of the six potential arms are coming off a 2016 that raises questions, but it wasn’t that long ago that this group would have been really exciting.

The Diamondbacks have assembled a group of pitchers who, relatively recently, would have been considered an emerging super rotation.”

Did the Diamondbacks build a super rotation? We’ll see. It should be a markedly more productive one, if nothing else. After finishing 21st in baseball in WAR last season (7.9), ZiPS is projecting a 13.4 WAR from the group, and even that might be conservative.

This is a group that should benefit from better catching and outfield defense. This is a group that projections suggest underperformed its true talent a year ago, a group with pedigree and upside. While things can always be worse due to the fragile nature of elbows and shoulders, it seems, with heath, all arrows are pointing up.

We hoped you liked reading All Arrows Pointing Up for Diamondbacks Rotation by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Is there a projection for the rotation at home and on the road?