No one ever said it was going to be easy and, well, it just got harder. The Diamondbacks will be without star centerfielder A.J. Pollock for the bulk of 2016 season, if not all of it. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a team that has postseason aspirations. Those aspirations are still intact, however. Don’t for a second think that Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke, Chip Hale or anyone else has changed their goal for the 2016 season. The towel won’t be thrown in. Arizona has enjoyed playing the underdog in the past and gets another chance this season. They won’t waste it.
But the goal they had set was lofty to begin with. In our initial predictions, Ryan had the team slipping into the playoffs by a win (88-74) while Jeff had them missing out by the same margin (87-75). With Pollock manning center every day, it was going to be the closest of races. With him manning the top step of the dugout all season instead, most will write the Diamondbacks off entirely. But a quick dismissal is too easy, because the Diamondbacks do still have a path to the playoffs. They just need more things to go their way than they did before the news of Pollock’s injury.
So we dug in to find out just what those things are — just how much extra production they’ll need. PECOTA projected the team to win 78 games with Pollock as an every day guy. Without him, we estimate that number was closer to 76. To make the playoffs, likely via the Wild Card, the team would need to win 89 games — 13 more than PECOTA forecast. Looking at the offense, defense, rotation and bullpen, we’ve identified which performances could combine for those 13 wins. It’s an admitted long shot, but one that has some surprisingly realistic upside.
With A.J. Pollock in the fold, the Diamondbacks’ offense was going to be very good. Even if PECOTA was bearish on some guys like Jake Lamb, Brandon Drury and Pollock himself, there was plenty of reason to think the team was going to continue to score runs at a prolific rate. With Pollock missing, there will be a mixed-effort to fill the playing time void left behind. Drury and Socrates Brito will likely be the biggest beneficiaries, while Chris Owings takes his efforts from the infield to the outfield (although he’ll still presumably play both). The new names, most notably Drury and Brito, will be under the microscope in terms of producing offense, but the burden falls on everyone to pick up the slack.
The most obvious place to look for that boost is first base. PECOTA likes Paul Goldschmidt for 6.0 WARP, but he was worth 9.2 WARP last season and shows no signs of slowing down. His projections call for his lowest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2012 for a .317 TAv (it was .348 last season). Even a slight regression from his MVP-caliber 2015 campaign makes him 2.5 WARP more valuable than what PECOTA sees.
Although his track record is far shorter, PECOTA discounts David Peralta in a major way just as it does Goldy. While Peralta will play more and face more lefties than ever before, he’s still a safe bet to exceed the projections and certainly has the skill set to help power Arizona’s run-scoring effort. Lamb will anchor third base and has seemingly made everyone’s “2016 breakout” list. The reasons for that are real: a new swing to compliment a rare ability to square up baseballs and hit them hard. There’s really no telling how much better he can be with these changes, but from everything we’ve seen this spring, anything but optimism seems to downplay the lefty. Even considering that these two will have the platoon advantage less often than in the past, their skills still suggests that PECOTA could easily be 3 WARP short combined.
There are nits to pick in other areas, but two “unknowns” that could very well turn out the Diamondbacks’ way are the aforementioned Socrates Brito and Brandon Drury. The amount of playing time they receive is still unclear as there will surely be plenty of shuffling going on, but both players will now see an increased role and have the tools to hit at a level that outstrips their projections. Brito is forecast for a .244/.269/.362 (.222 TAv) line while Drury projects for .254/.291/.400 (.242 TAv). While Brito may struggle to adjust to MLB pitching on a regular basis, he will have the platoon advantage often and can be closer to league average offensively than what PECOTA sees. Drury showed pop this spring, has always been a doubles machine and is capable of being a league average hitter in his rookie campaign. A couple of small-scale “breakouts” here could give the team a chance to make up for or exceed Pollock’s lost production at the plate.
There is a huge margin for increased production over PECOTA’s forecast for several Diamondbacks hitters just based on recent history or upside plays based on up-and-coming young players with difficult data for the projections to work with. The team could find an extra 5-6 WARP at the plate alone, making them one of the best offenses in baseball yet again, even without their star centerfielder in the lineup.
As observed on The Pool Shot yesterday, defense was a really big part of why the D-backs had a positive run differential in 2015, and even with the loss of Pollock, defense is still really important to the team’s playoff hopes in 2016. Depending on how you feel about Socrates Brito in center field, the D-backs could have as many as four players out of their starting eight playing positions they didn’t play last year on most nights, with Yasmany Tomas exiled to left, David Peralta hoping to showcase his arm in right, a mashup that now includes Chris Owings in center, and Jean Segura trying to play “backwards” at second base.
The pitching staff is still somewhat oriented toward ground balls, especially if Tyler Wagner ends up starting a lot of games in the majors. And in the infield, the D-backs could still field a defense that is truly elite, with Jake Lamb well above average at third, Nick Ahmed contending for a Gold Glove at the all-important shortstop position, Jean Segura potentially going from average to better at second, and Paul Goldschmidt continuing to work as one of the majors’ best at first base. The infield alone could help move the needle on the projections by as many as 3 wins, something the D-backs will count on.
The downside: the outfield defense will almost definitely take a step back with the loss of both Pollock and Ender Inciarte, and seems destined to end the season at least somewhat below average, defensively. If Yasmany Tomas doesn’t hit, he may not end up soaking up the vast majority of starts in left — and yet he will almost certainly end at least a little below average in the field. Even more importantly, the D-backs have no defense-leaning backups in the outfield, with Rickie Weeks leading the charge and Brandon Drury, Chris Owings and Peter O’Brien all likely to add some time out there.
Meanwhile, on defense, the biggest opportunity presented to improve on PECOTA’s projections is probably at catcher, with the system considering Welington Castillo a solidly below-replacement player mainly because of defense, and Chris Herrmann not exactly a defensive whiz. Mike Butcher’s Angels saw Chris Iannetta make a simple adjustment behind the plate that made a very meaningful difference in pitch framing; and while the D-backs seem destined to be one of the majors’ worst teams in that regard, there are lots of different levels of bad. Even a small effort toward better framing could end up almost making up for the drop in defensive production in the outfield, meaning the D-backs could net 2 or even 2.5 wins on PECOTA just through defense.
If the D-backs are going to outperform PECOTA enough to make the playoffs this year, there’s probably no part of the team that would need to outperform them more than the rotation. The bad news: most things need to go right for the D-backs rotation to go from 8.3 WARP to 13.3. The good news: that seems completely possible, and you could even see a possible outcome here that has the rotation at 14 or 15.
It all starts with the team’s new ace, Zack Greinke, who is projected at 3.2 WARP — the same man who beat the living hell out of the National League en route to a 7.6 WARP season in 2015. Even that 7.6 WARP figure may not have quite given Greinke complete credit for what looked like excellent contact management skills last season, and while that was much better than most of his work, 3.2 WARP would be his lowest total of the last several years. You could easily see an outcome here with Greinke finishing at 5.5 WARP, and 6.0 is not outlandish. For the D-backs to make the playoffs, a Greinke performance along those lines seems pretty much required.
But Greinke is not alone in having a 2015 season much better than his 2016 PECOTA. Shelby Miller simply re-made himself at the end of the 2014 season, which carried over into 2015 and helped him to that 3.02 ERA. We’ve looked, and the changes made by Miller to be more of a contact manager seem like something he could successfully lean on in 2015, especially if his very good Braves infield defense was replaced by an elite one at Chase Field. PECOTA has Miller projected for 1.6 WARP. As others have written, he could be the team’s “X factor” this season. And while he doesn’t have the power to alter the season as single-handedly as Greinke, even with a tougher home park, something much more similar to Miller’s 4.6 WARP season last year does seem possible — and ending at 3.5 WARP would go a long way to securing a D-backs playoff berth.
The D-backs’ other rotation pieces also have some room for improvement. Patrick Corbin is projected at 2.2 WARP, but was a much better pitcher than that for all but the end of 2013. Rubby De La Rosa was one of the majors’ worst qualified starters last year, and yet a projection of 0.5 WARP includes some room for improvement almost by definition. Meanwhile, just by pitching for more of the season, Robbie Ray would almost certainly improve on his 1.2 WARP projection — so long as he does in fact pitch more than 21 games.
In the end, whether the D-backs rotation truly does make up nearly half of the gap between PECOTA and playoffs has a lot to do with its depth. PECOTA only projects 0.6 WARP out of extra starters Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley, Tyler Wagner and Zack Godley, and if the front five pitch more games than projected, even that total might be hard to attain. Still, even PECOTA has no below-replacement performances from those guys. Would Shipley really be given the ball late in the season if needed? Is Godley as predictable and poor as his spring training suggested? A lot rides on the shoulder of Wagner in particular, but the D-backs only need a handful of starts from extra starters beyond Wagner and Bradley, there could be another half win there for the team.
The Diamondbacks’ bullpen is unique in that there are a couple of relievers who succeed by controlling batted-balls. One of those players will start the year on the DL in Josh Collmenter, but there’s upside in the ‘pen’s remaining assets.
PECOTA sees a 4.36 ERA for Brad Ziegler which, with all due respect, is totally absurd and highlights one of the system’s blind spots. Entirely similar is the 4.14 ERA projected for Tyler Clippard. Both players make their money by controlling batted ball outcomes, albeit in opposite fashions, and have a long, successful track record of doing so. There’s as much as 1 WARP above and beyond the projections between these two alone.
More conventional relievers Randall Delgado, Silvino Bracho and Daniel Hudson are forecast more realistically, but both Andrew Chafin and Jake Barrett are discounted. Chafin was very good last season and again this spring, while Barrett has seemingly turned the proverbial corner and could be an upside play. One could see another 1 WARP of improvement from these five over PECOTA’s initial forecast.
We know that things like FIP and WARP have a hard time capturing the value of relief pitchers. The Diamondbacks might be even more difficult to project given that they have some unconventional pitchers in important roles and/or young relievers with spotty track records that have seemingly improved. One can see 2 WARP of additional value here without having to stretch the imagination. That could grow with a breakout performance or two. Should a pitcher or two falter and need replaced, the “drop off” to Evan Marshall and/or Enrique Burgos looks nearly nonexistent. There’s plenty of young depth here with minor league options that should ensure that the bullpen stays productive and valuable.
A Glass Half-Full Look Through Sedona Red Spectacles
Are most Diamondback hitters going to rake? Can the outfield defense be competent enough not to sink a strong defensive effort in the infield? Is the rotation far better than most believe? Can veteran relievers maintain their track records while younger guys emerge? The Diamondbacks need to be able to answer “yes” to all of the above if they’re to accomplish their goal. The good news is that the projections are just so low that it’s hard to envision the team not beating their projection. It’ll ultimately just be a matter of how much they’re able to beat it by.
Using the reasoning above, there’s 5-6 extra wins (WARP) at the plate, 2-2.5 defensively, 5-6 in the rotation, and 1-2 in the bullpen. The high end of those adjustments culminates in 16.5 extra wins. The low end totals 13.0. Optimistically, there’s a way for the team to abandon the mid-70’s mark in win totals and climb back into the race. They need a bunch of things to go their way, but there are tangible reasons to maintain optimism. Losing Pollock is disappointing, but don’t think it ends the season for Arizona before the season even begins.
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