Pay Attention to the Diamondbacks

Over the last few seasons, the Diamondbacks haven’t been a team worthy of positive attention. Ever since Mike Hazen took the reins back in October, however, we’ve been keeping tabs on them. It started when Dave correctly noted that there wasn’t a clear direction for the D-backs to pick heading into the 2017 season. We’ve seen why through the first six weeks of the 2017 campaign: this season has presented the D-backs an opportunity. With the Giants’ rapid fade and the Mets’ injury troubles, the National League Wild Card is suddenly wide open, and teams like Arizona (and Colorado) have an opportunity to step into the void. As such, it’s time to start paying attention to the D-backs.

The first thing that strikes one about the D-backs is how very few of the club’s players are performing poorly. Catcher has been a total sinkhole, and it’s a mystery to me how Fernando Rodney is still in the majors, but other than them and a couple of utility players, you wouldn’t characterize anyone else as having a bad season.

The encouraging signs abound on the roster. Obviously, Paul Goldschmidt is still doing his thing, and that’s essential, but there are bright spots that don’t involve him. As Jeff detailed last week, the team’s baserunning has been excellent. The team’s rotation features the highest WAR in baseball, and it isn’t close. The gap (1.1 wins) between the D-backs and the second-place Dodgers is the same as the gap between the Dodgers and the 17th-ranked Mets. (Actually, the gap would officially land between the Mets and the 18th-ranked Mariners, but it’s closer to the Mets.)

This isn’t completely a surprise for devoted readers, as both Neil and Travis were bullish on the D-backs’ rotation in the offseason. But it’s still welcome news, because as Dave and Jeff pointed out in the past couple of months, Zack Greinke still had a big red flag entering the season — namely, his velocity*.

That red flag is still present. According to Statcast, Greinke’s four-seam velocity has dropped from 92.03 mph to 90.52 mph, and his two-seam velocity has dropped from 91.29 mph to 90.25 mph. Here it is in graphical form:

Not great, right? Doesn’t seem to be, but let’s hold on a second. As Dave Cameron explained in some detail earlier today, Greinke has produced basically a peak-level performance so far this year.

According to both BIS and PITCHf/x numbers, Greinke’s four-seamer has been a slightly positive pitch, which is a lot better than it was in 2016. His four-seam contact rate is down more than three percentage points from last season, and his swinging-strike rate is up nearly two points. Both numbers are now a lot closer to his career averages than they were last season.

Greinke has other pitches too (BREAKING NEWS!). And overall, he’s missing bats at the best rates of his career. Both his overall SwStr% and Contact% are easily career bests at the moment. Batters are still swinging at his stuff at the same rates as they have in the past; they’re just missing them more.

Looking over Greinke’s season in more detail yesterday, I saw that his season high in Ks came against the Padres and his season-low came against the Dodgers. Is that the secret to his success? Is Greinke feasting of lesser talent?

To answer the question, I took a quick tour of the play logs for his starts to see exactly who he’s struck out swinging. Here’s the list:

Now, this obviously isn’t conclusive in any way, but it probably does address any real concern about Greinke’s strength of competition. For one, only two of the 27 players here are pitchers — Chacin and Anderson. For another, a lot of the better players on the teams he has faced populate this list, including hard-to-strike out batters like Aybar and LeMahieu. There are easy to strike out players, too, like Blash and Story, but they don’t dominate the list.

Then Greinke went out last night and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, before Gregory Polanco hit a home run to lead off that frame. It would be the only hit he allowed, and he matched that season-high 11 Ks. Let’s add the Pirates who went down swinging to the list:

Greinke single-handedly rose Cervelli’s 2017 strikeout rate from 17.0% to 19.3%.

Overall, Greinke has been a top 20 pitcher this season by WAR (fifth), ERA (19th), FIP (12th), xFIP (seventh), and K-BB% (sixth). This is the Greinke that Arizona was hoping to get last season.

Another Zack who’s performing well so far for Arizona is Zack Godley. Back in February, Jeff Zimmerman identified Godley as someone who was experiencing an uptick in velocity, and that has held true in the regular season:

So far, Godley has started twice in place of the injured Shelby Miller (Braden Shipley also got a turn) and done well against the Padres and Tigers. In his two starts, he’s running an even better SwStr% than Greinke — 14.3%, which is up from his 11.8% mark last season. We have to be wary of his performance so far given his poor results in his major-league stints in 2015 and 2016, but so far, so good.

That’s the story for the rest of the rotation, as well. Robbie Ray (14th) and Taijuan Walker (30th) also find themselves in the top 30 in K-BB%. Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura have certainly played very well for Seattle, but at least Walker is holding up his end of the bargain thus far.

While there was promise for the rotation, the bullpen was expected to be dreadful. Let’s flash back to the intro of Dave’s article about Archie Bradley and Jorge de la Rosa from the dawn of the season:

The Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen could charitably be described as not particularly great. A more straightforward talker would call the group pretty lousy. We currently have them projected as the very worst group of relievers in Major League Baseball.

That projected awfulness still remains if you go to the page today, but so far, the bullpen has been anything but. By ERA, they rank 16th. By FIP, they rank 10th; by xFIP, seventh. And those rankings include the truly awful performances from Rodney. In 12.2 innings pitched, Rodney has posted a 9.95 ERA/4.84 FIP and has allowed 25 of the 61 batters he’s faced to reach base. Oh, and he’s thrown four wild pitches somehow. Most pitchers don’t throw four wild pitches in a season.

Despite this, the relief corps has performed better than expected, thanks mostly to Bradley and de la Rosa. (Andrew Chafin and T.J. McFarland have been pretty good, too.) Bradley’s 27.9-point K-BB% ranks 21st best in the majors among relief pitchers.

The offense has mostly filled in with league-average players behind Goldschmidt. All six regulars behind him (minimum 100 plate appearances) have posted a wRC+ between 102 and 119 — Brandon Drury, Jake Lamb, Chris Owings, David Peralta, A.J. Pollock, and Yasmany Tomas. They would rank higher in wOBA or wRC+ if the bottom of the offense hadn’t been so dreadful (though they do rank 10th overall in wOBA). Daniel Descalso, Chris Herrmann, Chris Iannetta, and Jeff Mathis have combined for 239 PA of .169/.238/.297 hitting. Well, perhaps “hitting” isn’t the right word for it. Nevertheless, this foursome has set the bar so low, that if the D-backs remain in contention, they won’t have much difficulty improving on those performances.

A few standout players combined with a whole bunch of average players have turned the Diamondbacks into a team that now commands our attention. At the start of the season, Arizona’s playoff odds sat at a lowly 8.2%, but they have risen steadily to 35.3%. And the rise looks legit. Their BaseRuns run differential is +22, which is fifth-best in the majors — only the Yankees, Nationals, Dodgers and Astros have a better BaseRuns RDif. The team is 12th in runs scored per game and sixth in runs allowed. They’re preventing runs at an elite level and scoring enough runs to stay in every game. They’ve only lost two games by five or more runs, a mark only bested by the Yankees. This is a recipe for success; we need to pay attention to the D-backs.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Original Greaser Bob
5 years ago

Too bad Dave doesn’t believe they’re for real.

5 years ago

Pack it up, boys. Dave doesn’t believe they’re for real.

5 years ago

Help me understand why readers get so offended when Dave uses a non-emotinal, statistical approach to forecasting and analysis.

5 years ago
Reply to  biffyclyro2

It’s not what Dave says, it’s the way he says it that grinds people.

5 years ago
Reply to  Huron

ya think maybe he does that on purpose to get eyeballs to his blog?