Over the weekend, we got a little taste of what Tony La Russa has observed over the last three months. In his new role, his first task has been to observe the organization. He’s been tight-lipped and said all of the right things so far, but this weekend he shard a couple of thoughts in an interview with the St. Louis Dispatch:
“Not major improvements, but just tweaking the base running or the defense or the type of at-bats we take. If we can take ‘x’ number of better at-bats and maybe win three or more games or if you run the bases better and maybe win three games, that’s six or seven games.”
Essentially, Tony sees room for improvement in the three departments: controlling the strike zone, playing better defense and improved base running. He’s seen enough to believe that these are areas for improvement, but I think it only makes sense to do what we do best here at Inside the ‘Zona: dig into the data and see if the numbers support what Tony’s seeing. So let’s dive right in.
Controlling the Strike Zone
- Team Walk Rate: 6.5% (28th in MLB)
- Team Strikeout Rate: 19% (8th in MLB)
- Percentage of Pitches in the Strike Zone: 48.2% (24th in MLB)
- In the Zone Swing Rate: 61.5% (25th in MLB)
- Out of the Zone Swing Rate: 30.9% (20th in MLB)
- Contact Rate: 81.1% (6th in MLB)
So, where to begin? I guess the first thing that jumps out is the absolutely abysmal walk rate, which is well below major league average. As we know, walks are directly tied to on-base percentage and on-base percentage is heavily tied to runs scored. In short, if you want to score runs, you’d better get on base, and walking is a key component of doing that. The D-backs, unfortunately, aren’t. They don’t strike out a ton, which seems great at first, but there isn’t a ton of difference between a strikeout and a infield dribbler, so don’t get too enthusiastic about the low strikeout rate. At this point, trading some K’s for more hard hit balls would surely be a worthwhile swap for the D-backs.
Looking at the PITCHf/x data about the strike zone and swing patterns, the Diamondbacks are clearly struggling. They see the 24th fewest pitches in the zone, yet they hardly walk. That tells us that they’re swinging at pitches out of the strike zone too often. And pitchers will continue to pitch them out of the zone since Arizona isn’t making them pay by taking free passes. Until they adjust, they’ll continue to see poor pitches to hit, and when the do swing, it’ll often be at sub-optimal pitches, often resulting in poor contact.
Part of this issue is that so many at-bats have been given to poor hitters, largely due to injuries. Young players like Ender Inciarte, David Peralta, Chris Owings, Didi Gregorius and Jake Lamb have chased a ton, and giving replacement players like Alfredo Marte, Jordan Pacheco and Tuffy Gosewich doesn’t help either. Some of that is a need for growth (with the young guys) and some of that is a need for quality depth and/or health from the regular starters. LaRussa’s right, this is an area that needs to change, although improving it may not be easy.
The Diamondbacks don’t rate terribly in either UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) or DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). By UZR, they’ve been above average by the slimmest of margins, meaning they’re essentially an average defensive team. By DRS, they’ve rated a little better, saving 17 runs above average. Either way, they’re far from elite but far from truly bad.
So in terms of improving defense, La Russa is going to have to look at individual performances rather than the larger picture as a whole. Left field has been the biggest trouble spot as Mark Trumbo, Cody Ross and David Peralta have rated as cumulatively poor. Second base has been poor as well, with both Aaron Hill and Didi Gregorius rating below average. The real surprises come in right and at first, where two perennially good defenders in former D-back Gerardo Parra and Paul Goldschmidt. I’m not sure how to judge those two, and most importantly, how to truly evaluate Goldy who’s been a strong defender in the past, winning the Gold Glove last season. It seems that if LaRussa wants to improve team defense, he’ll have to focus on left field and optimizing second. It sounds like Chris Owings will be seeing more time at second, so we’ll be able to evaluate that more properly at season’s end and the answer at left, at least in the short term, may already be on the roster in Inciarte.
The Diamondbacks are an average base running team. By both UBR (Ultimate Base Running) and wSB (Weighted Stolen Bases), the team finishes right in the middle of the pack. No one’s been amazing (Goldy’s been the best) and only two players, both of whom were never expected to be good in this department (Trumbo and Montero) have truly been “bad.” Otherwise, it’s a bunch of players right around league average, give or take a small margin. I’m not sure what La Russa is looking for here, and given the team has been okay, maybe he’s tipping his hand in that he’d like some more team speed. If that’s the case, it would fly directly in the face of what the team has tried to do recently in adding power. Either way, LaRussa seems to think this is an area that needs improvement, and while some improvement could be added, I’m not sure it’s a large priority.
We haven’t much from Tony La Russa since he joined the Diamondbacks’ organization, at least nothing really specific. This seems to be some of the first comments from him that really zero in on what he’s seeing and thinking. The strike zone is a problem, and the team needs to solve it. Whether that comes from coaching, getting players healthy or adding new players is yet to be seen, but it might take some combination of all of those elements. Defensively, there are some areas to upgrade, most notably left field. On the bases, the team is average, and sure there’s room for growth, but it’s probably a secondary priority at this point. At least we’ve got our first look into the mind of Tony La Russa and we’ll have to keep our ears open to look for other indicators of where this team is headed.
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