Snakebitten Diamondbacks’ Many Losses Now Include Bumgarner

Though the 13-game losing streak that left them with the NL’s worst record came to an end on Sunday, the Diamondbacks’ season has taken another turn for the worse, with Madison Bumgarner leaving Wednesday’s start against the Mets after just two innings due to discomfort in his left shoulder. Fortunately, an MRI revealed nothing more than inflammation, though he landed on the injured list anyway, joining three other members of the team’s starting five. That’s hardly the only issue holding down the rebuilding Diamondbacks, who at 20–38 are on pace to lose 106 games.

Even before he took the mound on Wednesday at Chase Field, Bumgarner’s performance this season had veered all over the map. He allowed 17 runs in 13.2 innings over his first three starts, then went on a five-start run during which he allowed just three runs in 30 innings. On April 25, he spun a seven-inning no-hitter — a feat not officially recognized by Major League Baseball, but the high point of the 31-year-old southpaw’s season — in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Braves. Bumgarner’s performance has deteriorated since then, however, with 16 runs and eight walks in 14 innings over three starts from May 17 to 28.

Even that couldn’t have prepared anyone for what took place on Wednesday. Facing a makeshift Mets lineup that included James McCann in the third spot and just two regulars (leadoff hitter Jonathan Villar and cleanup hitter Pete Alonso) who entered the game with a wRC+ of 100 or better, Bumgarner began by allowing six straight hits, including a three-run homer by McCann, and four runs. The Diamondbacks countered by piling up five runs against Mets starter David Peterson and reliever Robert Gsellman, with Bumgarner’s own two-out RBI single giving his team a 5–4 lead. But he couldn’t hold it in the second inning, yielding a one-out single to Villar and then a two-out RBI double to McCann.

As this was going on, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo and pitching coach Matt Herges noticed that something was off.

“You spend a lot of time watching the body language of your players, and Matt Herges was just making comments about just the way he was stepping back and moving around the rubber,” Lovullo told reporters afterwards. “And he just didn’t look like he had good tempo and good rhythm, and I started to pay attention to it, and he just lacked a little bit of finish to his pitches.”

Bumgarner, who threw just 48 pitches for the day, conceded afterwards that he’d been pitching through an issue that had arisen two or three weeks earlier that had affected his May 28 start against the Cardinals (during which he allowed seven runs in four innings), and that he thought the problem would get better:

“I didn’t think too much of it. This stuff comes and goes throughout the year every year. Like I told you guys before, it’s pretty rare to go out there and feel great every time, and this is just bad judgment on my part. I thought it was gonna get better and go away sooner. It’s gotten worse, and the last three or four days have been enough where it’s going to affect my pitching.”

With the shellacking, Bumgarner now has a 5.73 ERA and 4.44 FIP this season, and a 6.04 ERA, 5.57 FIP, and just 0.2 WAR in 101.1 innings since signing a five-year, $85 million deal with the Diamondbacks in December 2019. While his average fastball velocity (91.1 mph according to Statcast) has rebounded from last year’s dip (88.4) to approximate his 2019 average (91.4), both his 90.7 mph average exit velocity and 41.3% hard-hit rate are his Statcast-era worsts. That said, his 8.1% barrel rate and .315 xwOBA are well below his marks from last year (14.9% and .410, respectively), when he was hampered by a mid-back strain and missed four weeks of the brief season.

Bumgarner has become increasingly homer-prone in recent years, in part because he’s stopped generating groundballs at a time when the incentives to hit the ball in the air have increased, that while moving to a more homer-conducive ballpark.

The extent to which those trends owe to Bumgarner’s aging and injuries — including a 2017 left shoulder sprain and bruised ribs, suffered in a dirt bike accident — and a deeper analysis of what’s gone wrong for him is a subject for another day. But given his dismal results, the fact that Pitching Through It is what brought him to this juncture in the first place, and that the Diamondbacks aren’t contending for anything except last place and the No. 1 draft pick, it made for a puzzling response when Lovullo initially indicated that the team might not place Bumgarner on the injured list. Via the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro, it was just a misdirection play:

In landing on the list, Bumgarner has plenty of company; eight other Diamondbacks are already there, including three members of the rotation. Here’s a screenshot from Derek Rhodes’ fancy Baseball Prospectus IL Ledger (ignore the two Braves below the Diamondbacks bunch):

Rotation-wise, Zac Gallen, who suffered a hairline fracture in his right forearm while batting during spring training, made just five starts before being sidelined by a minor UCL sprain. Luke Weaver, who strained his shoulder during his May 16 start, has since been transferred to the 60-day IL. Also on the shelf is Taylor Widener, who replaced Gallen in the rotation at the start of the season, initially landed on the IL with a groin strain on April 28, and lasted just 4.2 innings in his return on May 23 before reaggravating the injury.

“For about 10 days there, we kept taking a lot of body blows,” Lovullo said on Thursday, adding that the news about Bumgarner not having any structural damage “was something we were encouraged by… we’re hoping for as quick a flip as possible.”

From among the team’s projected starting five — a unit that ranked just 25th in the majors in our preseason Positional Power Rankings — that leaves only Merrill Kelly (5.04 ERA, 4.04 FIP) among the unscathed, as the patchwork unit has lately included righties Jon Duplantier, Seth Frankoff and Matt Peacock and lefty Caleb Smith. All in all, a total of 11 pitchers have started for the team, tied with the Marlins, Mariners, and Rays for second in the majors behind the Blue Jays, who have used 13 starters. The unit has been about as mediocre as projected. Its 2.2 WAR ranks 23rd in the majors with a 5.26 ERA that’s the NL’s second-worst mark and a 4.68 FIP that ranks just 12th. The 20.6% strikeout rate, 12.6% strikeout-walk differential, and 1.48 homers per nine all rank 12th in the Senior Circuit. Gallen, Widener, Peacock and Weaver are the only ones with ERAs and FIPs below 5.00, but together they account for just 21 of the team’s 58 starts, and as noted, three of them are unavailable right now.

On a staff that’s allowing 5.36 runs per game, more than all but one NL team, you’d figure that the bullpen hasn’t been much good, either. You’d be right. Arizona relievers rank among the NL’s bottom six in both ERA (4.70) and FIP (4.49), which undersells the situation relative to their -0.3 WAR. Smith, not to be confused with righty Riley Smith, has pitched respectably while throwing a staff-high 30 innings in that context, but two of the next three most-used relievers, righty Kevin Ginkel and lefty Alex Young, have been below replacement level, and closer Stefan Crichton has a 5.40 ERA and 4.39 FIP.

As for the offense, it’s been middle-of-the-pack: seventh in the NL in scoring (4.40 runs per game) and batting average (.237), sixth in slugging percentage (.390), eighth in on-base percentage (.313), and ninth in wRC+ (93). For a team that had just one top-10 ranking in our Positional Power Rankings (center field, via a Ketel Marte/Tim Locastro combination) and just two others in the upper half (12th at second base via Marte and Josh Rojas, mainly, and 15th at catcher via Carson Kelly and Stephen Vogt), Arizona has done respectably in the aggregate, particularly given so many injuries. Marte missed 37 games due to a right hamstring strain, and Asdrúbal Cabrera (hamstring), Kole Calhoun (hamstring, with surgery), and Christian Walker (oblique) have hit the IL as well, with Cabrera and Calhoun still there.

Kelly, first baseman Pavin Smith (who has filled in for Walker and may supplant him) and Rojas, who’s split his time between the outfield corners and the midldle infield, have been bright spots; all are in their age-27 seasons or younger and with wRC+ figures above 100, led by Kelly’s 150 (.283/.418/.504). Marte has hit a sizzling .375/.414/.613 (175 wRC+), albeit in just 87 PA. Meanwhile, both Eduardo Escobar and David Peralta have been around league average, which isn’t particularly helpful from corner positions expected to provide offense, and Nick Ahmed, for as strong as he may be defensively, has hit for just an 80 wRC+ (69 before Thursday’s four-hit night) after two seasons above 90. Locastro’s stolen base streak was fun — 29 straight successful steals to start his career, though spread over five seasons — but he’s provided just a 52 wRC+ in 111 PA, suggesting he’s closer to the second coming of the 21st-century Billy Hamilton than the 19th-century one.

For the first five weeks of the season, the Diamondbacks — whom we projected for just 72 wins, with a 1.7% chance at making the playoffs — looked like a pleasant surprise, going 15–13 and outscoring opponents by six runs through May 2. They’re an unfathomable 5–25 since, including Thursday night’s loss, having been outscored by 62 runs. They’re taking their hits off the field as well, via announcer Bob Brenley’s mockery of Marcus Stroman’s du-rag, the latest in a series of questionable comments regarding players of color that dates back to his time with the Cubs; he’s taking a leave of absence to undergo sensitivity training. Whether or not that controversy has further legs, the Diamondbacks’ play alone, and their slew of injuries, has made it apparent that it’s going to be a long summer in Arizona.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

Question: What is a “normal” number of players to have on the DL at a given time in the year? Because it feels like this article is getting written a lot.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Last I saw it was 33% up from any year ever. It hasn’t slowed since then.