The Diamondbacks were terrible in the home run department last year. They tied for 25th in baseball in home runs hit in 2013 and were 23rd in home runs allowed. You don’t need any reminder of this if watched much D-backs baseball in last year, it was literally painful to watch. Giving up a lot of homers isn’t nearly as bad as long as you’re hitting them out, too, but that wasn’t the case and Arizona paid the price.
Kevin Towers actively tried to address at least half of this problem in the offseason, ditching an improving Tyler Skaggs and a finally healthy Adam Eaton for slugging first baseman turned outfielder Mark Trumbo. This move promised to improve the number of #DINGERZ hit, but came with the obvious trade offs of strikeouts and a low OBP, which the team already struggles with. All detraction aside, it was a success in the way that Trumbo was putting the ball over the fence with frequency before his injury, which has him on the shelf for a couple more weeks. So, in a distorted way, this actually worked before the injury.
There’s also been some natural regression and growth, much of which we hinted at last year. Miguel Montero has rediscovered his old ways and already has five homers in 2014. It took until June 29th to reach that mark last year and his current pace, given that he stays healthy, he should somewhere between 15 and 18 home runs before the year is out, besting the 11 he hit in 2013. AJ Pollock has grown into the player that scouts saw when he was drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft. He has six homers on the year and, coincidentally, hit his sixth home run in 2013 in the same game against Atlanta that Montero hit his fifth on June 29th. In case you’re wondering, the D-backs actually lost that game to Atlanta by a score of 7-5. AJ’s on a pace to hit his own 15-20 home runs, easily eclipsing the eight he hit last season. Swapping Chris Owings for Didi Gregorius was a no-brainer if the team was looking for more long balls. Owings has three already and should pass the 10-home run mark before the season is over. Didi hit only seven last year. Aaron Hill is finally healthy-ish and his homers are up over last season, so he has a great chance to hit 15 or so while he only hit 11 in 2013.
In sum, Operation Hit More Homers is going according to plan. Arizona ranks 18th in home runs hit, five spots better than where they finished last season. Had Trumbo stayed healthy, they could easily be in the top half of the league. When he returns and as long as guys continue to produce at a level near where they currently are, they should end up around the middle of the pack and get out of the bottom third in home runs hit.
This is where the good news ends, unfortunately. The pitching staff has given up the second most home runs in 2014, with the Rockies being the only team that gives up more. Of course, little has gone right for the pitching staff so far, but even as they’ve turned a bit of a corner lately, they’re still giving up the long ball with high frequency (1.16 HR/9). The rotation is actually to blame here as starters have surrendered a league worst 1.36 HR/9, which is significantly worse than the Brewers (1.23 HR/9) who are next on the list. Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley and Josh Collmenter have given up 29 home runs between them in just the team’s first 54 games, 31 one of which this trio has started. They rank 4th, 6th and 17th, respectively, in home runs allowed for all pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, a sample of 130 major league pitchers. Combine these staggering results with Addison Reed‘s six home runs allowed in less than 24 innings, and well, this all clearly not good.
I made light of it up above when referring to Operation Hit More Homers, but where was Operation Give Up Less Homers? While the front office was intent on adding more homers to the lineup, they clearly didn’t get the memo that they should do something about giving up fewer of them. Swapping out one fly ball-prone reliever (Heath Bell) for another (Addison Reed) wasn’t going to turn things around, and Bronson Arroyo is Bronson Arroyo, so his seven homers allowed should come as no surprise. For what it’s worth, home run allowed correlates more strongly to winning percentage than home runs hit from 2010 until present, meaning there is more likelihood of winning games by keeping the ball in the yard than there is in hitting it out when it comes to actually winning ball game. The difference isn’t that large, but it does exist and is a principle that you’d hope the front office would recognize.
The plot thickens, however, when we take a look at the staff’s ability to keep the ball on the ground. As noted last season, the Diamondbacks pitching staff has done a good job of generating grounders. They currently rank 8th in ground ball percentage, which is quite a bit better than you might expect given the homers. Along the same lines, they’re doing a good job as a staff of limiting fly balls with the 7th fewest allowed. This adds up to the D-backs having the 7th best GB:FB ratio in baseball. As you’re likely aware, it’s hard to hit home runs on ground balls so we’d typically think of this as a positive, but it’s clearly not working for the Diamondbacks. One possibility could be park effects, and the team has been more home run-prone at Chase this year. This is something that warrants further research, something we plan to embark upon in the very near future.
No matter the cause of this issue, the team has found themselves on the wrong end of the home run equation far too often yet again. It doesn’t appear to be an issue of generating grounders and limiting fly balls, at least outside of Addison Reed and Josh Collmenter. Simply hoping for more grounders isn’t enough. They need to start limiting the long ball, no matter what it takes, or they’re going to struggle to win games.
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