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.
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