2022 Arizona Diamondbacks Season Preview: Improvement Looms

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2022 Arizona Diamondbacks Season Preview

Opening Day is Thursday, so that means that it’s time for another Arizona Diamondbacks Preview. This one comes on the heels of one of the two worst seasons in team history, a 52–110 stomach ulcer. Nothing went right in 2021. Catastrophic injuries to multiple key pieces, all at the same time, revealed how thin the roster depth was across the board. Historically bad late-inning relief doomed the team for much of the year. Competing in a division where the second-place team won 106 games, thanks to the champ winning 107, didn’t help matters.

But there is hope. The team strengthened its coaching staff, hiring the best pitching coach in baseball, Brent Strom. They brought in one of the league’s top assistant hitting coaches, Joe Mather, to be their new hitting coach. As their bench coach, they hired Jeff Banister, who has guided teams to the postseason both as a bench coach and as a manager. They addressed their reliever problem by signing two of the five best available free-agent firemen. The Diamondbacks are still in an incredibly competitive division, but they should see better results than they did in 2021. Let’s take a look at the players they’ll put on the field.

Diamondbacks Position Preview: Catchers

Carson Kelly

Carson Kelly returns for his fourth season as the primary backstop. He started 2021 with a bang, slashing .338/.491/.613 (27-for-80) over the first six weeks with four doubles, six homers, 19 RBI, 23 walks, 16 strikeouts, four HBP, and 16 runs scored. This gave him a whopping .459 wOBA and 13.2 wRAA.

An anvil hit on May 13. While catching in a home game against the Miami Marlins, a foul ball came down on his left big toe, breaking it. Kelly missed 12 days, and when he returned, he never truly found his timing again. The rest of the way, he slashed .205/.277/.339 (46-for-224) with seven doubles, a triple, seven homers, 27 RBI, 21 walks, 58 strikeouts, two HBP, and 25 runs scored. This gave him a .271 wOBA and -8.9 wRAA.

Defense and Pitch Calling

Defense is above average for Kelly. In Total Zone Fielding Runs above Average (Rtot on Baseball Reference), Kelly had two, which is also his total in Runs Saved (Rdrs). His Rtot was tied for 12th among NL catchers, while his Rdrs was 15th. One area where Kelly fell below league average was caught stealing percentage (CS%). The NL average was 25%, but Kelly’s was 23%. Take this with a grain of salt, however. Stolen bases are often more of a reflection of the pitcher than the catcher, and Diamondbacks pitchers did not hold runners on very well in 2021.

There are aspects of a catcher’s game that can never be quantified. Two are pitch calling and maturity. Reliever Sean Poppen said that Kelly, when it comes to maturity and knowledge of the position, seems way older than 27. He added, “(Carson) is a good pitch caller. He knows the right things to say to you.” If the pitcher isn’t throwing strikes, Poppen said, Kelly doesn’t just growl, “Throw strikes!” but approaches it instead from the standpoint of what the two of them can do to get there.

Trust

Poppen added, “He’s definitely a student of the game. If you’re a major league catcher, you have to be. You have to study the hitters. He definitely he does his homework and knows what he’s doing.” Poppen said that Kelly is the type of catcher every pitcher wants to have. Pitchers have a sense of what pitch they want to throw. “And 90% of the time,” Poppen said, “the pitch that you want to throw is also the pitch that the catcher wants to throw. But you want to have a catcher that, when they put down a different number, you pause for a moment and think, ‘Why is he putting down that number?’ And then (you’ll think), ‘You know what? I actually like that better.’

“There’s that level of trust there. Because at the end of the day, the pitches I throw are my decision. If I’m told the wrong pitch, it’s on me. It’s not on Carson. But if he puts down something different than what I’m thinking, it’s important to have a catcher where you value his opinion.”

Jose Herrera

The primary backup will be rookie Jose Herrera. Herrera has had a long road to the majors. The Venezuelan signed with the Diamondbacks in 2014 at the age of 17. He stayed in Rookie ball for three full seasons and part of a fourth. From 2018 to 2019 he continued refining his craft at the Single-A and Advanced-A level. He spent 2021 with the Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles and Triple-A Reno Aces. Herrera, now 25, will make his major league debut whenever he plays his first game in 2022.

Across both levels in 2021, Herrera slashed .258/.364/.422 (79-for-306) with 11 doubles, three triples, 11 home runs, 57 RBI, 51 walks, 81 strikeouts, 45 runs scored, a .349 wOBA, and 2.1 wRAA. He also threw out would-be basestealers at 33%, two percentage points higher than his (weighted) combined league averages of 31%.

Diamondbacks Position Preview: Infield

First Base — Christian Walker

Christian Walker had a down year in 2021. He struggled to stay healthy initially, which was a big reason why his batting average stayed below .200 for so long. The nagging injury was a power-sapping oblique injury, something that reoccurred. A surge at the end of June, when he finally healed, brought his average up to the .230 range. It remained there until the last five games, when a 10-for-21 burst brought his season average up. Overall, he slashed .244/.315/.382 (98-for-401), with 23 doubles, a triple, 10 homers, 46 RBI, 38 walks, 106 strikeouts, 55 runs scored, a .304 wOBA, and -3.9 wRAA. Walker has the potential to slug, as we saw in his 2019 rookie campaign, when he belted 29 homers and 73 RBI en route to a .346 wOBA and 13.3 wRAA. The Diamondbacks desperately need him to return to his 2019 form.

Defensively, Walker also had a down year in 2021, although he was still above league average. Walker takes pride in his defense, and it showed in 2019, when he had an Rtot of 10 and Rdrs of 9, both tops in the National League. In 2021, those numbers dipped to 1 and -3, respectively.

Seth Beer will see time as one of Walker’s backups, but his defensive skills are well below Walker’s. Beer had limited time in 2021, only batting five times in nine games. However, he homered in Seattle in his first major league at-bat, and his power has impressed during spring training. Due to the defensive skills being where they are, Beer likely will see much of his time in 2022 as the designated hitter. Pavin Smith, who will be covered in more detail in the outfield section, will also see some time at first base.

Middle Infield

Ketel Marte, the team’s superstar, returns to second base, the position he played when he started the 2019 All-Star Game. The 28-year-old Dominican is in the meat of his prime. Injuries limited his play in 2021, but when he played, he produced. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, he would have finished runner-up to Trea Turner in batting average, in fact. In 90 games, Marte slashed .318/.377/.532 (108-for-340) with 29 doubles, a triple, 14 home runs, 50 RBI, 31 walks, 60 strikeouts, 52 runs scored, a .385 wOBA, and 21.8 wRAA. His wRAA total is greater than the rest of the active roster’s 2021 big league wRAA combined. Defensively, Marte played 129 1/3 innings at second base in 2021. In that limited amount of playing time, he had an Rtot of one, but when adjusted for someone who played 1200 innings (c. 135 games; Rtot/year), it increases to 13.

Nick Ahmed, when he returns from the injured list, will be the primary shortstop. Ahmed is not in the lineup for his bat, but for his glove. A shoulder injury in 2021 affected his production, but even in a down year, he was still tied for eighth in Rtot among NL shortstops (three). His hitting production was the lowest since 2016. In 129 games, he slashed .221/.280/.339 (96-for-434) with 30 doubles, three triples, five home runs, 38 RBI, 34 walks, 104 strikeouts, seven stolen bases out of nine attempts, two HBP, 46 runs scored, a .269 wOBA, and -17.8 wRAA.

Third Base

If this preview had gone live on March 31, this section would have said Josh Rojas. However, he suffered a Grade Two oblique strain, so he will be out for the first few weeks of the season, minimum. Rojas slashed .264/.341/.411 (128-for-484) in 2021, with 32 doubles, three triples, 11 home runs, 44 RBI, nine stolen bases in thirteen attempts, 58 walks, 137 strikeouts, 69 runs scored, a .327 wOBA, and 5.8 wRAA. Defensively, Rojas played 66 innings at third and had an Rtot of one.

However, his and Ahmed’s injuries mean that third and short will be covered by two of the following: Drew Ellis, Geraldo Perdomo, or Sergio Alcántara. Perdomo has never played third base at the major league level but has played in 10 major league games at shortstop. Alcántara has played in nine major league games at third and 55 at shortstop. Ellis has played in 17 major league games at third base. Each of them had one Rtot at his primary position in 2021, and Alcántara had -1 as a third baseman.

Hitting-wise, Alcántara had more major league plate appearances in 2021 than the other two combined. He slashed .205/.303/.327 (45-for-220) with six doubles, three triples, five homers, 17 RBI, 30 walks, 74 strikeouts, 30 runs scored, a .279 wOBA, and -7.5 wRAA. Ellis slashed .130/.277/.203 (9-for-69) with two doubles, a home run, five RBI, 10 walks, 27 strikeouts, 10 runs scored, a .230 wOBA, and -5.8 wRAA. Perdomo slashed .258/.378/.419 (8-for-31) with three doubles, a triple, an RBI, six walks, six strikeouts, five runs scored, a .331 wOBA, and 0.5 wRAA.

Diamondbacks Position Preview: Outfield

Left Field

This conversation starts and ends with David Peralta. At the end of the 2021 season, that sentence would have been laughable. He slashed .259/.325/.402 (126-for-487) with 30 doubles, eight triples, eight homers, 63 RBI, 46 walks, 92 strikeouts, 57 runs scored, a .314 wOBA, and -0.1 wRAA. In the offseason, Peralta worked on his swing with friend Michael Brantley. It has paid dividends so far in the spring, as eight of his ten spring hits have gone for extra bases. Defensively, Peralta was his normal, dependable self in 2021, with an Rtot of seven. This was the third straight season of strong output in that category. In 2019, the year he won a Gold Glove, he had 11, and in 2020, he had six.

In reserve, the Diamondbacks have switch-hitting rookie Cooper Hummel, who came over in the Eduardo Escobar trade at the 2021 deadline. Hummel abused Triple-A pitching in 2021, slashing .311/.432/.546 (91-for-293) with 21 doubles, six triples, 12 homers, 52 RBI, four stolen bases in five attempts, 63 walks, 61 strikeouts, and 70 runs scored. This gave him a .418 wOBA and 25.8 wRAA. Triple-A pitching is, obviously, a different animal from major league pitching. Spring training has been a case in point, with his slash line dipping to .238/.429/.381 (5-for-21) with a homer and three RBI. He did, on the plus side, continue to walk more often than he struck out. But it is hard to predict rookie performance, so stay tuned.

Center Field

Daulton Varsho will be the primary center fielder, with Jake McCarthy backing him up. Varsho had a breakout second half in 2021. For the season, he slashed .246/.318/.437 (70-for-284) with 17 doubles, two triples, 11 homers, 38 RBI, 30 walks, 67 strikeouts, and 41 runs scored. This gave him a .322 wOBA and 2.0 wRAA. From July 11 onward, his stats tell a different story. Over that span, he slashed .289/.347/.539 (59-for-204) with 14 doubles, two triples, 11 homers, 33 RBI, 18 walks, 43 strikeouts, five stolen bases in as many attempts, and 33 runs scored. That stretch gave him a .370 wOBA and 10.3 wRAA. Varsho ended the season on fire, and the Diamondbacks are counting on him to continue this production into 2022.

McCarthy, who still has rookie status, played 24 games with the Diamondbacks in 2021. In 24 games, he slashed .220/.333/.373 (13-for-59) with three doubles, two homers, four RBI, eight walks, 23 strikeouts, and 11 runs scored. This gave him a .315 wOBA and 0.0 wRAA — right at the league average.

Defensively, however, McCarthy shone. He had an Rtot of one, but that was in only 103 innings. In Rtot/year, McCarthy comes in at 13. McCarthy had two outfield assists in his 103 innings, both from right field. The first came in his debut, which came in front of his friends and family in Philadelphia. McCarthy, who hails from Scranton, gunned down Bryce Harper at the plate after catching a fly ball for an inning-ending double play. The second came two games later, when a strong, accurate throw caught Jurickson Profar in a rundown on an RBI single. He’ll back up in center, where he has the speed to cover a lot of ground.

Right Field

In the third week of March, it was clear that Jordan Luplow and Pavin Smith would share this position. Luplow was the only right-handed hitter in the outfield. But on March 30, manager Torey Lovullo stated that Luplow had suffered a Grade One strain of his oblique and will miss “weeks, not days.” Now the job appears to solely be Pavin Smith’s until Luplow returns.

Both Luplow and Smith produced at a rate slightly above the league average in 2021. Luplow played 36 games with the then-Cleveland Indians and 26 games with the Tampa Bay Rays. He slashed .202/.326/.454 (33-for-163) with eight doubles, 11 homers, 28 RBI, 28 walks, 57 strikeouts, and 23 runs scored. This gave him a .337 wOBA and 3.7 wRAA. Smith played in 145 games. He slashed .267/.328/.404 (133-for-498) with 27 doubles, four triples, 11 homers, 49 RBI, 42 walks, 106 strikeouts, and 68 runs scored. This translated to a .318 wOBA and 1.7 wRAA.

Defensively, Smith outperformed Luplow in 2021, with five Rtot in 344 2/3 innings to -3 Rtot in 259 2/3 innings. When expanded to Rtot/year, Smith is leaps and bounds ahead — 16 to -15. For a coaching staff that values defense as much as the Diamondbacks do, this gives Smith a tremendous advantage. Consequently, Luplow could be a right-handed DH option.

Diamondbacks Position Preview: Starting Rotation

Lovullo announced the pitching rotation Tuesday morning: Madison Bumgarner, Merrill Kelly, Zach Davies, Caleb Smith, and Zac Gallen. (Gallen moved down in the rotation due to bursitis that he was recovering from when spring training started.)

Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner felt like two different pitchers in 2021. He had a horrific first three starts, going four innings in the first one and five in each of the next two. He surrendered six, five, and six earned runs, respectively, in those starts. For the next five games, however, he was terrific, with the crown jewel being his seven-inning no-hitter in Atlanta on April 25. But he struggled again in each of the next four games. Finally, after only lasting two innings against the New York Mets on June 2, he went on the injured list for six weeks.

When he returned on July 16, he began a stretch of seven terrific starts (46 2/3 innings, 1.93 ERA, 45 ERA–, 0.900 WHIP, 31 strikeouts, five walks). He had four tough ones after that before having one good one and two more subpar outings. Overall, after returning from injury he threw 86 2/3 innings in 14 starts with a 3.95 ERA (92 ERA–), 1.131 WHIP, 62 strikeouts, and 21 walks.

For the season, Bumgarner started 26 games. He had a 4.67 ERA (109 ERA–) with a 1.182 WHIP, 124 strikeouts, and 39 walks. He will start Opening Day for the Diamondbacks for the third year in a row. They need him to produce better than he has in the previous two seasons if they are going to be competitive.

Starters 2–3

Merrill Kelly was one of the team’s more effective starters in 2021, despite his high ERA. The 33-year-old, who agreed to a contract extension last week, started 27 games. In 158 innings, he had a 4.44 ERA (104 ERA–) with a 1.291 WHIP, 130 strikeouts, and 41 walks. Kelly has had a tremendous spring. In his first spring outing, he threw three perfect innings, striking out eight. The next one saw him pitch four innings of one-hit ball, striking out five while allowing one unearned run. He will start the season as the second starter in the rotation.

Zach Davies, a graduate of Mesquite High School in Gilbert, did not have a good 2021. However, Lovullo feels that 2021 was an outlier. Davies pitched 148 innings across 32 starts, with a 5.78 ERA (136 ERA–), a 1.601 WHIP, 114 strikeouts, and a league-high 75 walks. None of these were in line with his career average, and they were not in line with his combined totals from 2019 and 2020. In those two seasons, Davies pitched 229 innings in 43 starts. He had a 3.30 ERA (75 ERA–) with a 1.223 WHIP, 165 strikeouts, and 70 walks.

The Caleb Smith Enigma

Caleb Smith had a strange 2021 season. He was far better in relief than he was as a starter. As a reliever, he pitched 56 2/3 innings across 32 appearances. He had a 2.70 ERA (65 ERA–) with a 1.147 WHIP, 59 strikeouts, 23 walks, and a 2.5% home run rate. In 13 starts, he pitched 57 innings and had a 6.95 ERA (167 ERA–) with a 1.597 WHIP, 65 strikeouts, 40 walks, and a 5.3% home run rate.

This spring, he has had a 3.21 ERA across 14 innings in one start and four relief appearances. He has had a 1.214 WHIP, 13 strikeouts, eight walks, and two home runs. The high amount of walks is still a concern, but his WHIP is in a good place. Smith loves starting, so now that he has the chance, it will be up to him to stay in the rotation.

Zac Gallen

Zac Gallen had a 2021 season that was below the standards he had set in his first two. Injuries had to have played a role, although Gallen is not the type to say so. His first two seasons saw ERAs of 2.81 and 2.75, good for ERA-minuses of 65 and 60, respectively. They saw WHIPs of 1.225 and 1.111; 96 and 82 strikeouts; and 36 and 25 walks.

In 2021, Gallen had a 4.30 ERA (101 ERA–) with a 1.294 WHIP, 139 strikeouts, and 49 walks. This was most likely an outlier, given how his production has been in other seasons, but we shall see.

Relievers

This was the Achilles heel of the 2021 Diamondbacks. They were last in just about every meaningful category, as seen in this piece. To address this, they sent down every pitcher who needed more time in the minors. They released pitchers who should have developed by now. Pitching coach Matt Herges was reassigned to the minors, and in his place, they brought Strom. The team re-signed and avoided arbitration with the pitchers who were effective out of the ‘pen in 2021 — Caleb Smith (who is now starting), Noe Ramirez, and J.B. Wendelken.

But that was not all. The best available free-agent late-inning relievers were Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, Emmanuel Clase, Raisel Iglesias, and Ian Kennedy, in some order. Jansen asked for too much money and signed with the Braves. Clase and Iglesias each signed with their current teams. The other two, Melancon and Kennedy, signed with the Diamondbacks. This gives them a veteran presence they’ve been lacking. Yes, Soria and Clippard were veterans, but they were close to washed up. Melancon and Kennedy are not.

Middle Relief

This area has not been fully finalized. When asked about it Tuesday, Lovullo said they were still evaluating some guys. He added, however, that the reporters in that room “are smart” and have “seen who’s been going out there and when.” That means that the left-handed presence is Joe Mantiply. The righties are, at minimum, Sean Poppen, Noe Ramirez, Luke Weaver, and J.B. Wendelken. Humberto Castellanos and Corbin Martin are both still on the active roster, and since they’re not in the rotation, they must be in the ‘pen.

With the exception of Weaver, who made no relief appearances in 2021, every middle reliever listed (Mantiply, Poppen, Ramirez, Wendelken) had a higher scoreless outing percentage (ScOtg%) than the NL average of 69.4%. Mantiply had 71.9%, Poppen and Wendelken both had 75.0%, and Ramirez had 80.6%. Since a reliever’s job is to “put up a zero” in the inning he pitches, these rates are important. If they can all get even better at this, it should spell improvement in the win-loss column.

Late-inning Relief

The seventh inning has tended to rely on matchups, so Mantiply will probably pitch in the seventh rather often. Ramirez, Poppen, and Wendelken were all effective in late innings, so they all will have seventh-inning appearances. The eighth-inning setup man will be Kennedy, while Melancon will pitch the ninth.

Late-inning relief was historically bad for the 2021 Diamondbacks until Ramirez and Wendelken showed up. Poppen also pitched effectively, mostly in the sixth inning. All were mid-season pickups off the waiver wire, and all three worked out nicely for the Diamondbacks. But the Diamondbacks lacked a veteran setup man and a veteran, lights-out closer. They have that now. The question is how often they’ll get the ball while holding a lead.

Outlook

The hole at third base until Rojas returns is a concern. So is the lack of right-handed hitting in the outfield. But the team has improved their biggest weakness of 2021, late-inning relief. That cost the team at least 20 wins in 2021, and possibly as many as 30. Winning the games that they should win will be a big help.

For the Diamondbacks to even finish at .500, it will take a 29-game turnaround. The record is 28, so the likelihood of this happening is remote, especially given their division. Getting to 70 wins, an 18-game turnaround, could happen if a lot of things go right. While 70 wins would still equal a 92-loss season, it would be a tremendous step in the right direction.

Main Photo:

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Players mentioned:

Brent Strom, Joe Mather, Jeff Banister, Carson Kelly, Sean Poppen, Jose Herrera, Christian Walker, Seth Beer, Pavin Smith, Ketel Marte, Trea TurnerNick AhmedJosh Rojas, Drew Ellis, Geraldo Perdomo, Sergio Alcántara, David Peralta, Michael Brantley, Cooper Hummel, Eduardo Escobar, Daulton Varsho, Jake McCarthy, Bryce Harper, Jurickson Profar, Jordan Luplow, Torey Lovullo, Madison Bumgarner, Merrill Kelly, Zach Davies, Caleb Smith, Zac Gallen, Matt Herges, Noe Ramirez, J.B. Wendelken, Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, Emmanuel Clase, Raisel Iglesias, Ian Kennedy, Joe Mantiply, Luke Weaver, Humberto Castellanos, Corbin Martin