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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