There’s an axiom on the internet that simply states, “don’t read the comments.” I get that. Comment sections are littered with thoughtless, rude comments. Well, I should say most comment section, because here, things have been very good. I can’t even count the number of posts that have been born in the comments here. Readers have been a great inspiration at Inside the ‘Zona, and for that we’re very thankful. One comment last week, loosely in regards to the Diamondbacks’ currency issues, spurred this post. That comment read:

“Obviously, we were overly optimistic last off-season about this team. But we’ve become completely doom and gloom this off-season. How did all of last season’s potential dissipate into thin air? Maybe you guys were embarrassed about what you wrote heading into the year, so this year you’re going overboard to cover yourselves, but I’m not buying it.”

That’s not a bad comment by any means, and in fact, I’d say the commenter makes a valid point. We were overly optimistic last year. Ryan and I spat in the face of the projections in this space and on The Pool Shot. Why? We were optimistic that those projections didn’t properly peg a couple of role players who we thought would be better than what was forecast. We also thought David Peralta would play 150 games and A.J. Pollock would play 155. We thought Shelby Miller would keep throwing his three-fastball mix effectively. We thought Zack Greinke would pitch more than 158.2 innings. But here’s the thing: so did the projections, and they still thought Arizona would only win 78-80 games.

Of course, the team only won 69 games, which is nice, but was likely due in part to forfeiting some victories down the stretch thanks to trading away Brad Ziegler and Tyler Clippard. For the most part, the bullpen down the stretch didn’t do them any favors in close games. But guys like Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury outdid their projections as we thought was likely. And for the Pollocks and Peraltas who didn’t produce nearly what was projected, guys like Jean Segura and Robbie Ray popped up in big ways. Playing time got mixed up with the injuries and you had guys like Edwin Escobar making Zack Greinke’s turns on occasion. That’s the kind of stuff that happens in baseball and you just can’t project with any kind of certainty. Hell, if you’re projecting playing time for Edwin Escobar, you’d might as well quit watching your baseball team.

But before I answer the question posed in the comment, let’s take a quick look at just how those preseason projections stack up against what actually transpired. Here are the 2016 PECOTA projections versus each player’s 2016 WARP, all courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.


Based on what happened, you’d actually think the team would have won more than 78 games (PECOTA’s forecast). They found increased production on the offensive side, thanks to Segura, Lamb, Drury, Chris Herrmann and Chris Owings. They found increased production in the pitching department in Ray, Rubby De La Rosa, Archie Bradley, Ziegler and Zack Godley. Some of these gains are a simple matter of a guy getting more playing time than what was predicted thanks to in-season decisions and injuries. What the chart above doesn’t account for is playing time given to players at the very bottom of the roster, which were mostly not good. In fact, because of injuries and trades, the D-backs gave far too many at-bats and innings to replacement level (or below) players. That drags down the total production.

Is there a lesson to learn here? Sure, there is. We know projections struggle to project young players with limited, or even non-existent, track records. Lamb, Drury, Godley and Bradley exploited this deficiency. We were either right or lucky to call some of these before the season and lean on them en route to predicting the team would finish better than 78 wins (I called 84, for the record). The collapses and breakouts somewhat even out. No one thought the team would play the bulk of the season with their two best outfielders on the shelf, just like no one thought Robbie Ray would end up near the league lead in strikeouts and Jean Segura would set career highs in a bunch of categories after back-to-back poor campaigns. With the 2016 season in the rear view mirror, perhaps we should have seen a less predictable roster. You’re going to win some and lose some, you just don’t know which players will get bitten and which ones will thrive. The distribution of those outcomes, even though you can’t forecast them, is important.

So with all of that said, it’s time to turn the page. The earliest of projections are already out for 2017. With the current team in mind, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system has the team checking in with 72 wins in 2017, tied for last in the NL West (with the Rockies). What does that tell us? If we need to learn a lesson, we should learn that this team is still short on talent, a theme that I’ve mentioned a number of times here. It’s great that Brandon Drury was projected for 0.0 WARP last year and ended up with 1 WARP. But a 1 WARP player is not a good player. That’s below average, someone who probably shouldn’t be a starter (though I fully expect Drury to improve and a move out of the outfield would be a big help). Rubby De La Rosa seemed to finally turn a corner, but no one knows just how his elbow is progressing and whether or not he’s headed for another Tommy John surgery. Archie Bradley was better than projected, but is a long way from being a true asset. You get the idea. A guy can beat the projections (and their margin for error) and still not be a very good baseball player. The D-backs had plenty of that in 2016, and with the roster unchanged for now, it’s more of the same.

It’s easy to say that Pollock, Peralta, Greinke and Miller will remain healthier and/or be more productive next year, but it’s not a straight addition to the plus side of the ledger. Those guys will rob playing time from guys who contributed last year, and while they’ll be better, it’s not like you can say that the team will generate ten more wins with everyone back on track. You might get five, six, or even seven extra wins with the roster constructed the way it’s been designed, but that still leaves the team on the outside looking in. That also doesn’t account for whomever will get hurt or become less valuable in 2017. Are we really comfortable saying Jean Segura will keep producing offense like Paul Goldschmidt? Do you want to bet that Robbie Ray will be better than Zack Greinke again? I’m not comfortable with either of those things holding true, though I’m secretly praying Segura and Ray don’t see a massive drop off. This team needs to stay healthy and see multiple major bounce-backs from players that either had down years or just weren’t that good last year. And if they get those things, if they really are better across the board, that might just be enough to finish .500 again.

So how did all of last season’s potential dissipate into thin air? It’s a recognition of the baseline just being too low and understanding that the unpredictable will happen. There will be a key injury or two. If Patrick Corbin rebounds, who’s to say that someone else won’t collapse? The bullpen needs work and we’ve seen plenty of mixed results when acquiring bullpen arms to throw key innings in Chase Field. In short, last season was a huge blow to my confidence. Those young players that were hard to project last year are more accurately projected this year. There’s less room for growth with these projections than there were last season. The team is nearly 20 wins away from being a playoff caliber team, and even if those projections are wrong by five wins, that’s still 15. It’s next to impossible to add 15 wins in a single season. Some reinforcements in relief will help, and more health will, too. But with the baseline being what it is, Arizona will need a boatload of luck to make a serious run next year. The way our luck’s been going, color me less optimistic. It’s just too unlikely that 2017 is a complete reversal of the Diamondbacks’ fortunes. Instead, we should learn from 2016 that while good things will happen, some bad things will happen, too. This team can’t afford any bad things.

8 Responses to Were We Too Optimistic in 2016?

  1. Jim Ellis says:

    I’d have to say that a significant part of my enjoyment with your articles does come from comments and your envolvent in them. It’s often like a secret location on the web that trolls have yet to nest in. Kinda like 1990’s forums for Warcraft I with shitty wallpaper of something.

    So, gun shy with positive projections? Probability factors greatly into this narrative. Not jumping to say that a down year means that the probability is an up year is greater is important. Gamblers get that wrong all the time. A coin flipped heads 20 times in a row is no more likely to show tails than heads.

    So time for us to pour over the flipping of the coin in 2017 with Dbacks baseball.

    As to ZiPS, a huge factor in what happens with other clubs is a gigantic variable and meaningful for the fortunes of the diamondbacks. What can we show are possible tragectores of others in our division and beyond? Also, what is the likelyhood of new management? How do other teams respond which new coaches on the whole? What crappy 1990’s internet wall paper will make the year’s hottest tea shirt and theme night? There feels like many externalities that will be written mid season and end of next season that will illuminate why the ZiPS were wrong going into next season.

    Perhaps some of the fun of this predictive part of the year is that no matter how much we look at player performance, it’s only part of the puzzle.

    Still, I have to look at ZiPS and wonder what kind of a start the team gets and how fast the for sale sign goes up. It’s even difficult to imagine how the organization can continue to underperform and hold onto expensive or valuable trade pieces ripe for rebuild. Those that gave us so much hope last year may best live on in future building trades and not wins, sadly.

    Let’s go on and flip that coin again, 2016 wasn’t a vintage year for Earth anyhow.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      2016 has been pretty miserable, and you’re right that it’s incorrect to expect the team to now play wildly better than the projections. If the baseline is 72 wins and they’re better than that, it’s still not good enough. PECOTA predicted the five best team in the NL would be the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Nationals and Mets. All of those teams made the playoffs. In the AL, they had the Indians, Red Sox, and Blue Jays as playoff teams, and they made it. The Rangers snuck in on some crazy luck through sequencing, which has been covered ad nauseum, and Orioles just slugged their way past their pitching problems.

      The point is, the good teams were good, and the bad teams were bad, for the most part. It’s very rare that that the projections call for a team to be wildly good or bad and the opposite occurs. It happens, yes, but very rarely so. I’m not one to bet on very rare occurrences. The Dbacks will make tweaks, but other teams will, too. It’s hard to feel like this team will add two relievers, or even another starter, and be 25-games improved. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s just way too optimistic for my liking. 2016 brought me back down to earth in a big way.

  2. Legendopolis says:

    I’ll play devil’s advocate and suggest you weren’t overly optimistic for 2016. Adopting the “currency deficiency” lingo, I’ll also suggest that while the prospects might be lagging, the talent at the major league level is quite good, and that it’s unusual to have high currency simultaneously at both levels — not impossible, but rare. Which leads me to a question — is there a statistic/analytic for “coaching/managing”? I believe that’s been the real currency deficiency the last few years.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      This is something we don’t have, and something we don’t know. Ryan and I have advocated for using some player differently in the past, and hopefully a new leadership group will do that. There can be added value there, by just not playing guys in predictably bad matchups when you have a choice. How big is that effect? Probably not huge, but perhaps noticeable. There’s potential for growth in that area.

      • Josh says:

        Hopefully, as well, new management (both in the front office and on the field), will be able to not just utilize the players more effectively, but through coaching will be able to straighten out Miller, get Corbin back on track, etc. I would agree that the currency at the major league level is actually quite good (overall), but I agree with Legenopolis that I think the intangibles of the management have had a far more negative impact on the baseball operations as a whole.

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          Sorry if my first reply came off as dismissive. I think you’re both right, there’s something to this. We just can’t say what it is and how much it’s worth. Very good storyline as the season approaches.

  3. dcdbacksfanPSGODAK says:

    I do come here and read the posts every few days or so. Appreciate another Dbacks forum to read. I am not a stats person. I just don’t dig into the game to that degree nor do I have time for that. I am a very busy person with work. Some people take the projections way too serious. I know I do this on the Pit a lot but who predicted the Cowboys to be 8-1 this year after 9 games? Nobody. Even not being a stats person, I can see by your above charts that these so called experts “projections” were all over the place. Anyways, keep up the good work here and Go Dbacks!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Well yeah. The gut punch was Ender. The left hook was Aj. The right knock out punch was Miller. The kick in the nuts was Corbin, after he questioned Hale. that braves trade is why we are here.

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