How to Solve a Problem Like the Diamondbacks

Despite internally high hopes after some notable acquisitions over the winter, the Diamondbacks season has simply been an unmitigated disaster. As we head towards September, they have a 51-73 record, second-worst in the National League, and they’ve played every bit as poorly as their record indicates; they also have baseball’s second-worst run differential (-129) and third-worst BaseRuns expected run differential (-138). Basically every single thing that could have gone wrong did go wrong, and instead of becoming a contender, the team has fallen apart.

The lousy results might end up costing many of the high-ranking front office personnel their jobs. The team has yet to exercise their 2017 options on GM Dave Stewart or AGM De Jon Watson. Tony LaRussa’s contract also expires at the end of the year, and reports suggest that the team is considering another front office overhaul. Unsurprisingly, Stewart and LaRussa feel that they deserve more than just two years on the job and don’t think basing an evaluation of their job performance on the team’s 2016 record is fair.

“We had one good year, and if you look at what’s happened on the field this year, then one bad year,” Stewart said. “I think we deserve a tiebreaker.”

“I think our group has earned the benefit of the doubt,” La Russa told USA TODAY Sports, “but it’s their decision. The way I look at it, if you get an opportunity, you don’t complain about the length of the opportunity. So I don’t complain about that.

“This is a game based on results. There was good improvement in ’15, and in ’16, was the opposite of that. It’s disappointing. We’re all upset about it.

“If somebody in charge is upset enough, they’ll make a change.”

In a rare case of agreement, I’m actually with LaRussa and Stewart on the idea that they shouldn’t be fired simply because the team performed badly in 2016. The results of one season, whether positive or negative, don’t provide enough information about the quality of the decisions made, and especially not the quality of the decision makers.

But I think the Diamondbacks should clean house anyway.

If there’s one underlying theme in most of the analysis and commentary we publish here, it’s that good processes lead to good decisions more often than not, and we’re generally better off judging the quality of a decision by the information available at the time rather than using hindsight to try and guess whether a person accurately predicted the future. To Stewart and LaRussa’s point, this wasn’t an obviously foreseeable result of the 2016 Diamondbacks season.

Back in March, when I was defending our projections against Stewart’s claims of bias, our calculations had the Diamondbacks as a 78-win team, and I noted that I’d probably take the over on that, eyeballing them as about an 80-or-81-win team myself. It would be hypocritical for me to pretend that we called the D’Backs collapse. If the D’Backs do finish at 67-95, which is what they’re on pace for, that would mean our preseason projections would have missed their record by 11 wins; that’s hardly the kind of difference that we use as an example of the accuracy of our forecasts.

Arizona’s season has been undone in large part by a bunch of results that simply shouldn’t have been rationally expected. There was no reason to believe Shelby Miller was going to go from a solid innings-eater to one of the worst pitchers in baseball. There was no reason to expect A.J. Pollock would miss most of the season, or that David Peralta would miss most of it, and struggle to hit when he was able to take the field. There was no reason to think that Patrick Corbin was going to inexplicably lose his command and get demoted to the bullpen.

So yeah, holding LaRussa and Stewart responsible for the team losing 90 to 95 games seems a bit unfair. They were relying on some good players with solid track records, and those guys either got hurt or played significantly worse than could have been reasonably expected. Our preseason forecasts expected the Diamondbacks to get something like +10 WAR from Pollock, Peralta, Miller, and Corbin; instead, that quartet has given them +0.1 WAR if you judge their pitchers by FIP, -2.3 WAR if you judge them by runs allowed. Few teams in baseball could overcome a 10 to 12 WAR deficit from a group of their core players.

But saying that this front office shouldn’t be fired because of the team’s current record isn’t the same as endorsing the group to remain in place beyond this season. Holding the team’s failure this season against them isn’t fair, but the team’s processes over the last few years suggest that this group probably shouldn’t be trusted to get the team back on track.

The Shelby Miller deal is the one everyone talks about first, of course, because it was the single-worst transaction any team made last year, and maybe the worst in recent history. But this front office’s history of questionable decisions long predates the Miller trade.

17 months ago, I wrote about a piece entitled “The Case of the Curious Diamondbacks”, noting that while they were really an island unto themselves when it came to many of their evaluations since LaRussa and Stewart were put in charge of the baseball operations department.

There was the “Peter O’Brien is a catcher” situation, which led to the team ardently defending the idea that a guy that no one else in baseball thought could stick behind the plate would be able to carry the load as a full-time catcher in 2015; the team finally had to relent and give up on the idea after O’Brien developed the yips in Spring Training, and then spent the next couple of years vacillating between making him an outfielder or continuing with the catching experiment.

At the same time, the team was trying to convert a defensively challenged outfielder into a third baseman, since they gave Yasmany Tomas $68 million but didn’t really have a spot for him to play at the time. The team stuck with that experiment for 30 games at the big league level before they admitted that he couldn’t play third base at an acceptable level, and moved him to the outfield full-time, where they’ve now seen that he can’t play defense out there either. The Tomas signing seemed a reasonable price at the time, though as a one-dimensional slugger without any defensive skills, he’s not a great fit for an NL ballclub, and he’s turned out worse than expected.

So when Stewart and LaRussa decided to include Ender Inciarte as just one piece in the Miller deal, it was very hard to not see a pattern; this looks like a front office that either doesn’t value defense or doesn’t know how to evaluate it. That’s a real problem, and the team’s atrocious fielding has been one of the keys to the team’s downfalls in 2016. The fact that they saw swapping Inciarte for Miller as a dramatic improvement for the big league roster remains a significant red flag about how the front office’s ability to value different skillsets.

Then there was the Yoan Lopez debacle. The team’s decision to spend $8 million to sign Lopez — a mediocre pitching prospect who had uneven reports even then — also triggered an $8 million tax for exceeding their international bonus pool allocation. Plenty of teams have blown their bonus pool out of the water to land top talent as part of a long-term strategy to game the international signing system, but this wasn’t that; this was a team getting overly excited about one player and paying an insane cost to land him.

The cost of that signing may have been even higher than the simple $16 million in payments required to bring Lopez in, in fact. Six months later, the team essentially sold 2014 first-round selection Touki Toussaint to the Braves in exchange for $10 million in salary relief. Industry speculation has long tied the two events together, suggesting the team was forced to make a cost-savings deal because of the Lopez signing. If viewed together, the idea of paying an an extra $6 million to effectively exchange Toussaint for Lopez, plus take on the international signing restrictions that came from signing Lopez, call into question the team’s ability to properly value their own assets.

On their own, these issues could be waved away, especially if there was an obvious strength that this group brought to the table, but the collective pattern shows that the Diamondbacks current front office simply doesn’t value baseball players the same way the rest of baseball does, and they’ve yet to show that their valuations are regularly more correct than the rest of the league. Sure, they’ve got Jean Segura as a feather in their cap after he’s run a .360 BABIP to reestablish himself as a big leaguer, but by and large, the limbs they’ve gone out on have broken underneath their weight.

This Diamondbacks front office has essentially set themselves up as something like renegades relative to the current trends in MLB. There’s nothing wrong with zigging when everyone else zags if you’ve actually got some interesting ideas and can find ways to exploit deficiencies in the market. But, realistically, what competitive advantage should the Diamondbacks believe that their current front office has been trying to exploit by going against baseball consensus the last few years?

The idea that defense isn’t important? That’s been proven wrong. That evaluating pitchers by ERA is still a good plan? That’s not working out so well. That a team’s baseline expectation for the future is simply the number of games they won the year before, plus some upwards adjustment to account for the offseason acquisitions? That isn’t how baseball works.

In the quote above from Stewart and LaRussa, they frame the decision about their futures as one that should be made by evaluating the results of the team on the field. But I don’t think this decision really should be about wins and losses. Good organizations don’t make reactionary decisions, and the team’s ownership shouldn’t change course simply because they’re angry about how this season has gone.

But they should look at the preponderance of the evidence and question whether this group has shown themselves capable of making enough good decisions to lead to a good result over time. At this point, the last two years in Arizona have been filled with a series of decisions that challenges the idea that this group knows how to build a winning team in the first place.

In Nightengale’s piece defending the front office, he notes that it is highly unusual to give a front office only two years to see their plans come to fruition, and he points to other teams that stuck with embattled executives who made early mistakes only to find later success. He even states there’s “no harm” in giving this group another year and seeing how they do with another shot.

But of course there’s plenty of potential harm to be done. The team only has Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock for a few more seasons, and they’ve already squandered most of Goldschmidt’s prime. The team is in a position where they probably need a coherent plan for the future, one that goes beyond “let’s get some good pitching and try to win a bunch of games”, which was seemingly the only evaluation the team did over the winter. The franchise is in a crucial situation, and needs people in charge who can weigh the pros and cons of various options and determine a reasonable expectation of outcomes depending on which path is chosen.

I don’t see much evidence from the last two years that would give me confidence that LaRussa and Stewart are the right guys to trust with a vitally important offseason for the organization. The Diamondbacks are at a crucial juncture, and they need better decision-making processes than they have now. They shouldn’t let the current staff go because they’re angry about how this season has gone; they should let this group go because they can likely find people more willing to make rational decisions rather than believing that they can see what everyone else cannot.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

I think the most crucial point here is that they shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. When you have 29 front offices using every predictive metric they can get their hands on and 1 front office full of people who have made a career out of (as Dave put) “being renegades”, it’s like walking up to a fully armed US marine squad with a spear and pretending it will be a fair fight.

5 years ago
Reply to  BernieBrewer

Ill take the spear guy, if its night, and he knows what he’s doing with that spear…

5 years ago
Reply to  jmsdean477

That massacre would make the DBacks season look successful!

5 years ago
Reply to  jmsdean477

NVGs, though.

Paul G.member
5 years ago
Reply to  jmsdean477

It happens in the Civilization video games all the time.