It’s funny how the outlook for the Arizona Diamondbacks largely depends on who you hear it from. By that I mean, the team clearly loves what they’ve done this winter. They should, they have some productive, shiny, new toys. The general baseball media has the team entrenched as a contender, but perhaps as one that’s still considered just a little ways back from the front of the pack. That’s okay, I’m sure fans will gladly take their chances if that means meaningful baseball games in August and September of this new year. The analytics crowd, on the other hand, well, they’ve certainly done their job as the proverbial killjoy for Diamondbacks fans. By the advanced numbers, the D-backs still look like they have some issues as compared to the teams around them. As a website that writes about the team daily and happens to focus on analytics, that puts this article in sort of a weird place.

Obviously I want the Arizona Diamondbacks to do well. I’m a writer first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. I root for this team even when it’s unpopular, which is pretty much always living here in Los Angeles (except in the press box at Dodger Stadium). But I have an obligation to keep it real, to remain as impartial as possible. The stats, the data, the numbers – these are the vehicles that help keep that perspective sharp and untinged. Numbers never lie, probably because they can’t. If they could, they’d manipulate themselves to impress the other numbers in class, get raises at their jobs and avoid state income taxes. But, as it stands now, the numbers can’t lie. Our interpretations of them aren’t ever completely perfect, but the numbers are just the numbers.

I bring all of this up because just yesterday I wrote about how the Diamondbacks have literally mortgaged the future for the chance to contend right now. Honestly, you knew that. The tune to which they did so might not have been common knowledge, though. Maybe I gave you some idea of just how much it’s cost to make this team a contender. It’s not what I would have strategically done, but that doesn’t mean that’s not what the organization should have done. It may just work, it likely won’t, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun to find out. There’s value in that.

The day before yesterday, Dave Cameron put out some numbers of his own. They pertain to each team’s 2015 Base Runs record and each team’s 2016 win-loss record based on Steamer projections. Base Runs calculate a projected record for each team based on a normalized distribution of inputs. They’re designed to strip out luck (in the form of sequencing) and give the reader a more-clear picture of just how good each team is and isn’t in the form of wins and losses. I’ve written about this before and you should read that analysis if you can spare a few extra minutes. Projections aren’t about to go away, so it’s never too late to start understanding them more fully.

It’s not just that those number were posted, though. That was just the beginning. Arizona finished with 79-83 last year. According to Base Runs, with a normalized distribution of events on the diamond, the team should have finished 80-82, one game better. Steamer projects the team to finish 79-83 in 2016 with the current crop of players [INSERT PICTURE OF MAN WITH SMOKE COMING FROM EARS]. That’s obviously where the rub is. After signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller, albeit losing Ender Inciarte in the process, Steamer sees the Diamondbacks as just as good of a team as they were $304 million ago (again, see yesterday’s piece). Steamer is not some shot in the dark, it’s a very well-respected projection system that utilizes thousands of inputs to arrive at these conclusions, far more than we could ever really take into account on a personal level.

With that said, I see some pretty immediate shortcomings. The system has a particularly difficult projecting playing time because it just can’t know how each manager will decide to play the matchups and who will and won’t get hurt throughout the campaign. Pull Paul Goldschmidt out of the lineup for half the season and there are sure to be some adjustments. How Chip Hale sorts out the middle infield playing time will also have an impact. For pitchers, the rate of injury is steeper and projecting innings is extremely difficult. Maybe Patrick Corbin will pitch more than 150 innings. Maybe Rubby De La Rosa heads to the bullpen as he should and Chase Anderson survives as an improved, no-sinkers-to-lefties fifth starter. Maybe Archie Bradley blows everyone’s doors off in Spring Training. You can’t project this stuff.

But as I discussed back in September, the imperfections of one projection system don’t invalidate projections systems and their goals as a whole. Instead, at the team level, I prefer to use them as a sort of short-hand for where everyone stacks up. And rather than counting specific wins and losses, it might be best to group teams into tiers. If we do this, I think we get a much more palatable situation. It’s infinitely early to be crowning the next World Series champ, but we now have an idea of where we should probably at least place out bets. The Cubs, Nationals, Red Sox and Dodgers all look really good. The Yankees, Astros, Giants, Cardinals, Indians, Mariners and Mets are all a little behind. There are some other teams, then Arizona. The Diamondbacks are from being the Brewers, Braves or Phillies, but they’ve got a way to go to catch the front of the pack.

If you don’t agree, you’re being unrealistic. I think this is a better than a 79-win team by a fair margin. But they’ve also got plenty of weaknesses. They essentially can’t have an regression from their stars, can’t afford to lose players to injury, need guys like Yasmany Tomas and Bradley to take big steps forward and have to hope that none of their fellow NL West counterparts catch lightening in a bottle as they’re already slightly behind the Giants and a little further behind the Dodgers. They can compete, but they’re far from a lock to win that competition.

The pecking order is already being laid out from a very sound mathematical perspective. Other projections systems will probably come to similar but technically different conclusions. That’s fine. The game’s played on the field for a reason. The Arizona Diamondbacks have some flaws, but they’re better than Steamer is giving them credit for. A large part of that is due to the limitations of projection systems in general, but that’s all we have right now in the middle of January, sadly. For now, that’ll just have to do. In the meantime, try not to get too carried away with the new-look Diamondbacks. I #lovetheteal, but the ball’s going to have to bounce their way far more often in 2016 than it has in the recent past for them to accomplish their goals. Stripping out luck is a great thing for analysis, but a little luck goes a long way on the diamond.

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22 Responses to The D-backs Are Better Than This, Right?

  1. Terry Miencier says:

    Thank you Jeff for your conclusion. Look at the Carolina Panthers record of 15-1. Ask any Panthers fan, did you think this season was possible? LOL

  2. Ben says:

    Are you going to do a writeup about ZIPS and PECOTA win projections. ZIPS liked us better at least.

  3. Larry Person says:

    So, Steamer projects Greinke to repeat his 2008 season with KC, when he went 13-10 with a 3.74 ERA, because that’s basically what they project him to do in 2016 (with the highest scoring team in the NL and the best defensive team in MLB behind him). And even though he has consistently produced 19-win, 17-win, and 15-win seasons since 2009. On what statistical planet are Geinke’s projections for 2016 supportable?

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Projection systems have a really tough time accurately projecting huge, MVP-type seasons, mostly because they’re so rare. Bryce Harper is projected for nearly three wins less than he produced last year for the same reason. That’s not to say these guys can’t repeat, it’s just to say that expecting them to repeat is maybe unrealistic to a degree.

      • Larry Person says:

        What did Steamer project for wins and losses for the D’backs for the 2015 season? I’m guessing they outperformed their projection by at least 10 wins, and did it with last year’s starting rotation! With this year’s starting rotation, I project they will exceed the Steamer projection by 15 wins.

  4. Larry Person says:

    I know I’m old school and this site is based on today’s analytics, but does it make any sense to anybody, old school or Steamer supporter, to say that a team that replaced it’s #4 & #5 starters from 2015, who had ERA’s of 4.65 & 4.67 with starters who had ERA’s of 1.66 & 3.02, and the rest of the team stayed intact with rising young talent, and that team will have the same losing record as last year’s team? I’m sorry, you can crunch all the numbers you want, the Steamer projections don’t pass the sniff test.

    • Rick D. says:

      While in the Cameron numbers mentioned in the article, the Red Sox added two pitchers and suddenly they are the best team in the AL.

      • Jeff Wiser says:

        The latest FanGraphs podcast with Cameron has some great commentary on the Red Sox. Basically, he’s not buying it either. Then again, there are a lot of good players on that squad who had down years last season, so bounce-backs could have them playing extremely well.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      This is where we have to sort of make our own internal adjustments. Remember, projection systems have their limitations and can’t take into account things like the defense behind a pitcher, players adding a pitch, manager initiated platoons, etc. They’re better than what the system is showing, but so are some other teams…

    • Greinke is not repeating his 2015 performance in 2016. The Steamer projections for him and in line with what he has done throughout his career.

      On the other side of things, the Diamondbacks gave up one of their strongest defensive weapons and a positive contributor to the offense in Ender Inciarte. Yasmany Tomas is an extreme downgradew on both fronts. So the defense and offense will both be adversely affected. Add in that Castillo has very little chance to remain as hot in 2016 as he was for a 6 week stretch in 2015, and it is not difficult to see where the projections come up as the team merely treading water despite the increased salary.

      • Larry Person says:

        Ok, Greinke might not repeat 2015, 19-3 1.66 ERA. How about 2014, 17-8 2.71? How about 2013, 15-4 2.63? How about 2012, 15-5 3.84? Which of those seasons represent Greinke “in line with the rest of his career” that you refer to? So, in your opinion, the D’backs gave up a HOFer and signed an average pitcher? Interesting analysis. I haven’t heard that from anyone else.

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          Keep in mind, Zack Greinke is 32 when pitchers tend to start to drop off and has logged over 2,000 career innings. I think the projections build in some regression/injury risk here. I’m not defending what they threw out there – I think it’s low. But I think expecting him to be the NL ERA leader again is foolish. There’s a happy medium here without a doubt and that’s probably where he ends up.

        • 4.2 fWAR is hardly a league average pitcher. Four times in his career he has kept his ERA under 3.00. No, I am not bullish on him doing it again next season, though I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he manages to squeak in under that.

          Nowhere do I mention giving up a HOF player. I’m not even sure who you are talking about.

          I would rather see the Diamondbacks gets 5-6 WAR out of Greinke, though I’m not holding my breath.Even if they manage it though, gain in WAR is offset by the loss in WAR from Inciarte to Tomas, a player I have very little faith in even reaching the lofty heights of 0.0 WAR.

  5. Sam says:

    Hmmmm, does Steamer really have Shelby Miller going 10-12 with a 4.09 ERA and just 1.7 WAR? I guess they always suspect regression, but if that’s all we get out of that mega trade, you can bet fans will be disappointed. Ray and De La Rosa aren’t far behind at 1.4 WAR; so much for an upgrade.

    • Larry Person says:

      I noticed that too. Shelby Miller lost or received a no decision in 16 games where he gave up two runs or fewer! They might happen with Atlanta’s anemic offense, but not with the most prolific offense in the NL.

    • I would be surprised if RDLR puts up 1.4 WAR in 2016. By the same token though, if Miller cannot put up 3+, the team is in trouble.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Steamer looks at Miller’s last three seasons, not just his previous one. As I noted in the Miller trade piece, he added a cutter and changed his repertoire last season, but Steamer can’t account for that. He’ll be better than projected, mostly because of the projection system’s blind spots.

  6. Dave-Phoenix says:

    My math is simple:

    1. The D-Backs were 2nd best offense in the NL 2015
    2. The D-Backs were near the top in defense in 2015
    3. The D-Backs were middle of the road in pitching in 2015

    We have the same guys playing offense and defense in 2016 (except one), and many of these guys are young and still have more room for improvement.

    The D-Backs pitching staff is “much” better this year.

    All that adds up to significant improvement in 2016.

    The only way you could project the D-Backs having the same record in 2016 is if your projections predict regressions by several offensive players.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      I totally agree. That said, I do predict some regression. Can we bet that Goldschmidt and Pollock will have repeat seasons? No, that’s not a totally safe bet. I could also argue that they are capable of doing that again or more. The projections take the safer side of the bet every time, and that does call for a little regression. That’s just logical. But these guys can be superstars and defy logic. Steamer is just trying to put the best odds on each guy and that does call for a little decrease.

      • Larry Person says:

        If everybody Must regress, whether they are on the upside of their career or the downside, then why is Kershaw projected to win more games and have a better ERA than last year? Why is Alex Wood going from a losing record and 4.24 ERA to a Steamer projection of a winning record and a 3.84 ERA? Why is Smarzdijia going from a 4.98 ERA to a 3.something and a winning record? Look at Cueto’s stats last year and Steamer projections this year? They are all non-sensical if everybody must regress. I think every D’back must regress, and every Cy Young quality starter who becomes a D’back must become an average pitcher by definition.

  7. […] – one that takes a million things into considerations and only gets us close. Like I said in the piece I wrote last week, it serves best as a sort of benchmark or shorthand for predicting the pecking order in baseball. […]

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