I’ve written about projections a lot here. To me, they’re fascinating. You’ve got to put them in the right context, of course, but the idea that you can project with a fair level of accuracy how a baseball team will perform, with all of it’s moving parts and personalities and internal issues, is pretty amazing. Projecting Bryce Harper to be good isn’t hard. Knowing whether Bryce Harper’s performance will be worth six or eight wins might be the difference between placing your bets on the Mets or the Nationals in the NL East, however. Teams have their own models, but our public ones are pretty good, too, and they told us not to buy the Diamondbacks heading into 2016.
Entering Monday’s contest, the team sits in last place of the NL West at 17-23. They’ve given up nearly 20 runs more than they’ve scored. Pythagorean expectations would have them at 18-22 while BaseRuns actually places the team at 20-20. The latter interpretation would tell us that the team has suffered from unfortunate sequences of events. Sure, they’re in the bottom third of teams in left-on-base percentage, stranding runners at a below-average mark. The team has absolutely stunk with runners in scoring position, putting up an apocalyptic 66 wRC+, besting only the Philadelphia Phillies. That sounds like bad sequencing to me.
Maybe you buy the team’s pitching as truly terrible and you expect runners to continue to come around and score at higher than average rates. While not incredible, I personally think they’re better than this and most career averages would back this assertion up. Maybe you think the team will always struggle to hit with runners in scoring position. If so, I’d caution you understand that these things almost never hold up over long samples, although getting back to average at this point would take some serious work for the team. It all points to a “they’re better than this” mentality and maybe they are. In fact, I’d bet on some positive regression if I were a person who did the betting, but alas, I’m not.
“Better than this” still leaves us asking: how much better? Before the A.J. Pollock injury, this team was forecast for a sub-.500 record. This seemed crazy — Ryan and I both predicted win totals in the mid-to-high 80’s. After the injury, the team was projected for 73-75 wins, depending on where you go for your #analysis. In fairness, Chris Owings has been a valuable replacement given Socrates Brito’s struggles, David Peralta’s lack of range and injury, and Chris Herrmann somehow playing center field. The latter of those is truly mystifying. With Pollock on the mend, we dropped our predicted number of wins to the low 80’s. Life comes at you fast when your All Star center fielder breaks his elbow.
But here’s the thing: this team was precariously placed from the outset. Dave Stewart went to great lengths to tell us how good this team would be and some of us even bought it. The numbers never agreed and while there were some very tangible reasons to believe the projections were slow-playing the D-backs, betting against the numbers isn’t a wise strategy. I did it anyways, fully recognizing that while there was a path to this team being very good, even with Pollock, that path was very narrow. The D-backs couldn’t afford a six-week slump from Paul Goldschmidt. Combined with even five disastrous starts from Shelby Miller, the margin for error would have been eroded at this point even with A.J. Pollock aboard. Without him, it’s hard not to feel like the Diamondbacks are already on the cusp of letting 2016 slip away.
The heat for all of this is falling on Chip Hale. Fair or not, that’s how these things work. But I’m not sure that’s where the blame should be directed — at least not at the rate that we’ve seen it levied. I’m as baffled as anyone about the Herrmann-in-center-thing, but this club was thin to start with and has seen either injuries or slumps or sluggish starts take place without enough support to carry the load. This would be true for most teams — almost no club has the depth to cover for an MVP candidate hitting .224, losing a star center fielder, the “ace” pitching like league average guy more than half the time and prized trade acquisition going from terrible to just really bad. But these things happen in baseball and the projections bake these things in. We, as optimistic humans being pumped up by the front office, generally don’t. It’s a GM’s job to make sure the organization has the depth needed to cover for these types of unpredictable-yet-routine maladies. Did we really think the team wouldn’t suffer adversity? It’s almost as if we thought the team was too good for it.
Still, I’d caution against throwing in the towel. The team’s been unlucky, some good players are way below norms and only Rubby De La Rosa has performed at a level way outside of what we expected (although it looks pretty damn sustainable to me so long as he can keep throwing strikes). Just as foolish as it was to think that Goldy would never slump, it’d be just as misguided to believe he won’t get back on track, that Zack Greinke doesn’t eschew more meh starts for good ones, that Shelby Miller doesn’t find his groove eventually, and that the whole team knocks in runners from scoring position at a rate that’s equivalent to swapping out the whole lineup for a bunch of AAA guys. In short, the team has played a tough schedule, they have a bunch of indicators due for positive regression and no one has really run away with the division yet. That said, time is not on their side, as long as 2016 may be. The team needs to save face against the Cardinals and Pirates while doing damage against the Yankees, Astros and Padres in their next five series, or it may truly be too late.
Maybe it already is. Maybe it always was.
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