If I told you that a team was hitting .274/.349/.476, including a league leading 38 home runs and 144 runs scored in its first 25 games, you would assume they had been playing well, right? That sounds like the kind of team that could get around a poor month from its starting pitchers – even with their starters allowing a 4.69 FIP and 5.34 ERA, this hypothetical team should have been able to slug their way to at least a .500 record, if not higher. Instead, the Arizona Diamondbacks, powered by Kelly Johnson, Justin Upton, and Mark Reynolds, are sitting at 11-14, tied for last in the NL West and 5 games behind the surprising San Diego Padres.
It’s not that their hitters or starters have been producing in unimportant situations, either. D’Backs hitters have been great, compiling a whopping +3.24 WPA , easily best in the majors. Their starters have been unimpressive, posting a mere -1.34 WPA. Still, between both these groups, the D’Backs have a +1.90 WPA, which would equate to a team that’s about 4 games over .500.
However, the Diamondbacks bullpen has been absolutely atrocious by every measure. Their 7.02 ERA and 6.17 FIP are both worst in baseball. They’ve been beaten by the home run in particular, allowing 1.94 home runs per nine innings. It all adds up to a WPA of -3.40 as a group. Most of the blame falls on the two late-inning relievers, Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez. Each has allowed 2 HRs and at least 4 BBs in 10 and 11 innings respectively. Qualls has compiled -0.96 WPA already, and Gutierrez is even worse at -0.99.
These players both have entered games in important situations – Qualls’s gmLI – Leverage Index upon game entrance – is 1.23, and Gutierrez’s is at a whopping 2.05. Not only has Gutierrez been ineffective, he has been ineffective in situations that are twice as important as the average baseball confrontation.
Blaine Boyer and Aaron Heilman have also struggled, combining for a large portion of the -1.45 WPA remaining for the D’Backs bullpen. In fact, only two D’Backs relievers have positive WPAs for the year – Esmerling Vasquez and Jordan Norberto, who have thrown a combined 9.2 innings. Overall, the -3.40 WPA from the bullpen pushes the teams total WPA to -1.50, which translates to the 3 games below .500 we have seen from Arizona thus far.
The -3.40 WPA so far puts the D’Backs on pace to receive a mind numbing -22.0 WPA from the relievers for the season. That, of course, is completely unsustainable. The worst relief corps from 2009 was the Pirates, at only -5.88. The D’Backs RPs have given up home runs on 15% of fly balls so far, a number that should fall as the season progresses. Still, there’s not much talent in this bullpen, and it projects as a weakness over the rest of the season.
The Diamondbacks have the lineup to compete even with a below average pitching staff. If Brandon Webb can return in June, the starting rotation would go from slightly below average to well above average. This is a team that should have the talent to compete if it can just get the bullpen to produce at any sort of reasonable, if still below average level.
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