Diamondbacks Report: Few Bright Spots after 61 Games
The first 10 weeks of the 2021 season have seen few bright spots for the Arizona Diamondbacks. They mostly came in the first month, having clawed their way back from a sluggish start to have a 15–13 record on May 2. At that point, they had won 10 of their previous 13 games. Hopes were riding high. Then injuries and other problems caused the wheels to come off, and at the close of play on June 6, they were 20–41. The causes of the 5–28 stretch between those two dates are multiple and deeply troubling for the organization and its fans. This edition of the Diamondbacks Report will focus on that and, as always, will back it up with numbers.
(Author’s Note: I wanted this to be a 60-game report, but the Brewers series ended after 61 games, and I felt that the end of that series was a better stopping point. Due to the sheer length of time required for the research, the statistics in here do not include Tuesday and Wednesday’s games against the Oakland Athletics, although those games followed the trend that the first 61 games established.)
Diamondbacks Hitting and Defense Report
This statistic is Wins above Average (WAA), not the divisive Wins above Replacement (WAR). The difference is that WAA compares players to the average player in the league in a particular season. WAR compares players to a mythical player with little to no talent. The Diamondbacks are first at catcher and sixth at third base and right fielder. They are ninth at shortstop with a rating of 0.0 — right at the league average. These four positions are the only ones where the production — both as a hitter and a fielder — is positive. Granted, their most talented players have spent significant time on the injured list, and they don’t have the depth to survive that, but we’ll get to that.
When looking at Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA) — a calculation of how many more runs a team scored with that player batting instead of the average hitter in the league — this further illustrates the first table. At catcher, third base, and right field, they are in good shape. Center field has inched above 0.0 again thanks to the return of Ketel Marte. Middle infield is sorely lacking in offensive production, although they are in much better shape defensively at shortstop than they are at second base.
A look at this table shows the few bright spots, but it also shows how badly injuries have hurt this team. (No pun intended.) There are only 10 hitters out of 22 (if counting all pitchers collectively as one hitter) who have a positive wRAA value. Ten. And one — David Peralta — is only 0.3 runs above average. Of the other nine, three — Marte, Carson Kelly, and Asdrubal Cabrera — have been on the injured list. A fourth — Kole Calhoun — has spent almost the entire season on it and will not return any time soon. The eighth-place player — Josh Reddick — has only been on the team for three weeks. Since this is not a rate stat but a “counting” (cumulative) stat, that’s saying something. The sixth-place guy — Andrew Young — fell into the coldest of cold spells and went back to Triple-A to straighten his game out.
Situational Hitting has been the team’s most glaring offensive problem in 2021. It’s not the batting average, however. There isn’t a huge difference: it’s .239 with the bases empty, .229 with men on, and .220 with runners in scoring position (RISP). The problem is not with home runs, either — the Diamondbacks have actually hit slightly more home runs with men on than the bases empty (32 with men on; 28 with the bases empty). The problem is with the doubles and triples — the Diamondbacks have hit 76 out of their 121 doubles and triples with the bases empty. That’s 63%. When that is followed by silent bats or a walk, the extra-base hit is rendered useless. Reverse the order — walk first, then extra-base hit — and it translates into runs.
Better versus the Windup
There are specific players who do far better with the bases empty than they do with runners on or in scoring position. Josh Rojas is one example. His batting averages with the bases empty and with men on base are very close (.261 and .253, respectively). However, the big difference is his extra-base hits. With the bases empty, he has seven doubles, a triple, and six home runs. When there are runners on base, he has five doubles and a homer. Of the five, three came with runners in scoring position. In other words, he has as many solo homers as he has extra-base hits with runners on. That’s the main reason why he’s batting leadoff and not in the middle of the order.
Rojas is not the only one, though. Nick Ahmed is slashing .266/.317/.415 (.319 wOBA) with the bases empty. This includes 11 extra-base hits: nine doubles, a triple, and a home run. With runners on, however, his slash line plummets to .178/.259/.219 (.224 wOBA) with three doubles. Asdrubal Cabrera is another one, although the drop is not nearly as pronounced. He has slashed .317/.431/.467 (.396 wOBA) with the bases empty, including three doubles and two homers. With men on, he has slashed .254/.292/.500 (.337 wOBA) with six doubles and two home runs.
Not All Bad
There are some players who have done more damage with runners on than the bases empty, however. One is Pavin Smith. With the bases empty, he is batting 38-for-147, slashing .259/.310/.388 (.306 wOBA, –0.6 wRAA) with seven doubles, three triples, and two home runs. With runners on, that takes a flying leap. He is 23-for-65 — a slash line of .354/.411/.585 (.423 wOBA, 6.6 wRAA) — with six doubles and three homers.
Another is Eduardo Escobar. With the bases empty, he is 26-for-112 — .232/.289/.429 (.311 wOBA, 0.1 wRAA). This includes seven doubles and five home runs. With men on base, he is 31-for-122 — .254/.292/.500 (.337 wOBA, 2.8 wRAA). In addition, he had a double, a triple, and nine home runs.
Diamondbacks Pitching Report
Highest ERA-minus in the National League. Most hits and home runs allowed. Thirteenth out of fifteen in WHIP. The current state of the injury-ravaged pitching staff is ugly, ugly, ugly. Brace yourself.
When looking at ERA-minus, some alarming trends show up. One is that only three pitchers have an ERA-minus under 100. For those unfamiliar with the stat, this means that only three pitchers have a park-adjusted ERA (as a starter) that is lower than the league average. They are Taylor Widener, Zac Gallen, and Matt Peacock, with 64, 74, and 94, respectively. This means that their park-adjusted ERAs are 36%, 26%, and 6% lower, respectively, than the league average. The fourth- and fifth-best starting pitcher ERA-minuses belong to Caleb Smith and Luke Weaver — 101 and 109, respectively.
Widener and Gallen’s ERA-minuses would be great news if it weren’t for the fact that they, combined, only have 10 starts due to injury. Furthermore, given Matt Peacock’s injury Wednesday afternoon in Oakland, Caleb Smith is the only one of the four who has not been injured. (Knock on wood.)
Although the fourth- and fifth-best starting pitcher ERA-minuses are over 100, at least they’re within 10% of the league average. The other Diamondbacks starting pitcher ERA-minuses are 124, 139, 179, 218, 224, and 227.
Quality Starts (QS) are another good measure of how effective a starting pitcher was. Some criticize the stat, but these come from a lack of understanding. The whole point of the stat — at least six innings pitched, three earned runs or fewer — is to say whether the pitcher pitched well enough to win if his offense did its job. Its sister statistics are Cheap Wins (win but not a QS) and Tough Losses (loss but a QS). The reason for the threshold is simple — when a pitcher does both, he usually gets a win. Diamondbacks starters have only put up a QS 25% of the time.
Game Score is another effective measure of a starting pitcher’s outing. Every pitcher starts with 50 points. Add one point for each out recorded, or three points per inning. Each inning completed after the fourth gets two points. Add one point per strikeout. For each hit allowed, subtract two points. Take away four points for each earned run allowed and two for each unearned run. Finally, subtract one point for each walk. The Average Game Score (GmScA) for Diamondbacks starters is 48. The top five in ERA-minus are five of the six who have a GmScA greater than 50, with the sixth being Madison Bumgarner. One starter — Merrill Kelly — has a GmScA of 48. The remaining four who have started a game — Riley Smith, Corbin Martin, Seth Frankoff, and Jon Duplantier — have a GmScA in the 30s.
Let’s look at the symptoms first. Diamondback relievers entered the game with a lead 65 times. The game was tied 32 times. They were behind 109 times. These numbers rank 13th, seventh, and first in the NL. Diamondback relievers have entered a game while behind more times than any other team in the league. Houses are already on fire when firefighters arrive, too, but they don’t pour gasoline on the it.
Now the problems. Some may think that the relievers are worse than the starters, but they’re about the same. The starters have a higher ERA, but the relievers have a higher WHIP. The starters are 15th in the National League in ERA-minus; the relievers are 11th. The relievers have done one thing very well. Their Inherited Runners Scored Percentage (IS%). Only 25% (as of Sunday, remember) of inherited runners have scored. This is the best percentage in the NL.
However, that’s the only piece of good news for the relief corps as a whole. They are 14th in WHIP (thank you, Colorado Rockies). With a lead, the results have been disastrous. The Goose Egg numbers — a more effective measurement of clutch, late-inning performance than saves — are appalling. They have the lowest Goose Egg conversion percentage (GE%) in the NL — 44.9%. The league-leading St. Louis Cardinals, by comparison, have a 73.6 GE%, and the league average is 63.9%. In Broken Egg Percentage (BE%), the Diamondbacks are 15th (dead last) in the NL — 38.8%. The 14th-place Rockies are at 31.5%, by comparison. Their Goose Egg/Broken Egg ratio (GE/BE) is also alarmingly bad. The league average (and historical average since 1921) is 3.0 to 1. For the league-leading San Diego Padres, it is 6.0 to 1. The Diamondbacks are dead last in the NL with (gulp) 1.2 to 1.
Illustrating the Statistics
Enough numbers. Let’s illustrate this. Say a Diamondbacks reliever takes the mound in the seventh inning or later. It is either a tie game, the Diamondbacks have a two-run or one-run lead, or the tying run is either on base or at bat. In that scenario, there is a nearly equal chance of the reliever to pitch a scoreless inning as there is of the reliever giving up an earned run. The average team in the league, on the other hand, is three times more likely to pitch a scoreless inning; Padres relievers are six times more likely.
It doesn’t stop there. Let’s look at another useful statistic, Average Leverage Index (aLI). Leverage Index looks at a situation — inning, outs, which bases are occupied, and the score — and determines how much effect it will have on the game’s outcome. It is given as a decimal. Anything below 0.7 is low leverage; 0.7–1.5 is medium leverage; higher than 1.5 is high. Bases empty with no outs in the bottom of the third and the home team leading by four is low leverage, for example. Bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game with two outs is insanely high leverage (10.9). aLI averages the leverage of every situation the reliever has faced during the season. The Diamondbacks have the lowest aLI in the NL — 0.842. In other words, on average, their relievers pitch in situations that will have a medium effect on the game’s outcome.
For teams with a winning record, that is good, because it means they typically win games by a comfortable margin. If the team is 20–41 like the Diamondbacks, on the other hand, it means they are typically behind by a comfortable margin when changing pitchers.
Of the 17 (when counting all position players who pitched as one guy) relievers who have thrown a pitch for the Diamondbacks in 2021, only five have a high aLI. They are Alex Young, Taylor Clarke, Stefan Crichton, Joakim Soria, and Chris Devenski. These are the pitchers the team depends on when they need outs with the game on the line. The collective ERA of the five is 4.56 (111 ERA-minus). They have a GE/BE ratio of 1.0 — 12 GE and 12 BE. In other words, when they do have a late-inning lead, there’s a 50–50 chance that they’ll give up an earned run.
This is a team that is stuck in the doldrums. After the Athletics series, they have now lost 19 straight road games. They are, after the Athletics series, 5–30 since May 2. The problems are many; the bright spots are few. Injuries are the main culprit, yes, especially in the pitching staff. However, the injuries wouldn’t matter as much if the Diamondbacks did a better job of hitting when there are baserunners to drive in. Regardless, so far it has been a season the Diamondbacks and their fans want to forget. In order to keep this from being 2004-level bad, they need to turn this around fast.
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Ketel Marte, David Peralta, Carson Kelly, Asdrubal Cabrera, Kole Calhoun, Josh Reddick, Andrew Young, Josh Rojas, Nick Ahmed, Pavin Smith, Eduardo Escobar, Taylor Widener, Zac Gallen, Matt Peacock, Caleb Smith, Luke Weaver, Madison Bumgarner, Merrill Kelly, Riley Smith, Corbin Martin, Seth Frankoff, Jon Duplantier, Alex Young, Taylor Clarke, Stefan Crichton, Joakim Soria, Chris Devenski