Diamondbacks Defense: From Strength to Liability
On Tuesday night at Chase Field, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Daniel Vogelbach took a lead off second while right fielder Avisail Garcia paced his way off first in the top of the sixth with two outs. Stefan Crichton took the signs from Daulton Varsho, kicked, and delivered the pitch. Brewers catcher Omar Narvaez swung, rolling a single into right-center. Vogelbach rounded third and headed home, but he came up limping. Pulled hamstring. With two already out, this would gift the Arizona Diamondbacks defense a way out of the inning.
Vogelbach hobbled more toward the Diamondbacks dugout than the plate but kept moving forward, slowly but surely. He was a dead duck — it was only a matter of time before the ball found its way to Varsho for an easy tag. Pavin Smith threw the ball to relay man Josh Rojas. Varsho and Crichton yelled “FOUR! FOUR! FOUR!” but the loud crowd, also yelling for him to throw it home, drowned the fielders out. Rojas jogged two steps and flipped to Nick Ahmed, who checked both Garcia and Narvaez but did not see Vogelbach.
Ahmed did not hear the instructions, either. In a microcosm of the Diamondbacks’ dreadful season so far, Ahmed held the ball as he searched for Crichton. A helpless Varsho — whose instructions went unheeded — and a frustrated Crichton — whose ERA had him in serious danger of being designated for assignment — slumped their shoulders as the injured Vogelbach crossed the plate.
More to Come
That inning had already seen a defensive gaffe, as the whole reason Vogelbach was on base in the first place was a throwing error. Rojas had rushed his throw to first, completely unnecessary given Vogelbach’s lack of speed, and pulled Christian Walker off the bag. But as bad as that inning was, the top of the fifth on Wednesday put it to shame.
The half-inning had two errors and a third play that may as well have been one. With no one out and left fielder Jace Peterson on second, Diamondbacks pitcher Caleb Smith whirled around and fired to second on a pickoff attempt. The ball sailed into center field, but Peterson did not advance. As the ball got past second, Rojas pulled Peterson to the ground by the shoulder. The resultant obstruction call (and error on Rojas) put Peterson on third. Two batters later, Luis Urias reached on a fielding error by Walker. He tried to run to first before he finished fielding the ground ball. His futile attempts to stab at the ball with his glove made for more groans.
But when Tyrone Taylor’s infield-fly-rule popup fell into right field uncaught, that was the coup de grace. It had officially become a half-inning straight from a blooper reel. The Diamondbacks should have replaced the Chase Field organ with kazoos, a slide whistle, a siren whistle, and some duck calls for good measure.
Historically a Strength
(Note: For this discussion, we will use Rtot, or Total Zone Defensive Runs above Average, to measure defensive prowess. Several modern-day statisticians prefer Defensive Runs Saved, but that stat was not around until 2003. Rtot goes all the way back to 1953. Therefore, to remain consistent across the years, Rtot was the only choice. It determines how many fewer runs a team would allow by having this player instead of the average player at his position. Rtot/yr extrapolates that total across 1,200 innings, or about 135 games.)
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Diamondbacks’ defensive ineptitude is how out of character it is. Throughout the history of the Diamondbacks franchise, defense has been a strength (see table). They have been 40 runs or more above average four times — 1999, 2001, 2007, and 2019. The 2001 and 2019 both had 49, the franchise season-high. Their Rtot has been in the 30s twice, the 20s four times, and in the teens three times. They have finished with exactly zero once (2014). Of the 24 seasons in team history — including 2021 — they have only finished in the negative nine times. In four of those, they were within 10 of zero. This means that they have only been in negative double digits five out of 24 times, with the franchise low of -31 coming in 2016.
This season, they already have -15. Since it is a cumulative statistic, they are on pace to break the franchise record for lowest in a season. However, if the last two games against the Brewers are any indication, they could shatter the record.
Tremendously Out of Character for Diamondbacks Defense
Of the 21 position players who have appeared in so much as an inning in 2021 — including three who are no longer in the organization — seven have a positive Rtot. Six have zero, and eight have a negative Rtot. The fact that more than a third of the team is below average is bad enough, but seeing some of the names that are on the negative list is alarming. For one, David Peralta and Kole Calhoun have won Gold Gloves. Seondly, three of the four team leaders in defensive innings — Eduardo Escobar, Peralta, and Rojas — have a negative Rtot, with Rojas (-10) being tied for the lowest Rtot on the team.
In the positive, five Diamondbacks — Tim Locastro, Josh Reddick, Stephen Vogt, Walker, and Asdrubal Cabrera — are on pace to have an Rtot for the season that is higher than their career average. Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, though, the other eight non-rookie position players are on a pace that is below their career average — Ahmed, Escobar, Carson Kelly, Peralta, Rojas, Josh VanMeter, Calhoun, and Marte. Ahmed, despite the held ball blunder, is the lowest concern — he’s only four below his pace, and that means he’s on pace to have an Rtot of 12 rather than 16. Most managers would kill for a shortstop with an Rtot of 12. The rest, on the other hand — yikes. Rojas, VanMeter, and Calhoun are on track to be in the negative 20s. Marte is on track for (gulp) -50.
The Third Side of the Ball
Ask any member of the Diamondbacks, whether he be a player or on the coaching staff, and he’ll say this is unacceptable. Manager Torey Lovullo, who normally admonishes his players only behind closed doors, verbally lambasted his team in Milwaukee in early June after a series of errors gave Narvaez a Little League home run. Lovullo’s patience with the gaffes is wearing thin, and it’s starting to show in his press conference answers. When it comes to the three sides of the ball — offense, pitching, and defense — defense is the one that a team has the most control over. It is also the area that is the least difficult to fix.
But so far in 2021, defense has been an embarrassment for the Diamondbacks. Zach Buchanan wrote a brilliant piece in The Athletic (subscription required) detailing the blunders. Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic compiled a list — complete with video clips — of 10 of the worst plays of the season (partial paywall). The scary part is that Nick’s piece could have been twice as long.
Even scarier is that we aren’t even to the All-Star Break yet — there could be more daffiness in store. In the meantime, something has to change. Errors are contagious, and right now, the illness is running rampant in the clubhouse. The team needs to find a cure, and fast.
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Daniel Vogelbach, Avisail Garcia, Stefan Crichton, Daulton Varsho, Omar Narvaez, Pavin Smith, Josh Rojas, Nick Ahmed, Christian Walker, Jace Peterson, Caleb Smith, Luis Urias, Tyrone Taylor, David Peralta, Kole Calhoun, Eduardo Escobar, Tim Locastro, Josh Reddick, Stephen Vogt, Asdrubal Cabrera, Carson Kelly, Josh VanMeter, Torey Lovullo