On Tuesday we checked in on one potential problem for the Diamondbacks: a bullpen that was expected to be terrible. Good news! They’ve been, well, not terrible. That’s not to say they’ve been really good either, but you get the idea, they’ve exceeded expectations. Tom Wilhelmsen gave up another run, but thanks to Shelby Miller‘s dominance and some more hot hitting from Yasmany Tomas, it didn’t really matter facing a mostly hapless Padres team. The D-backs cruised to their 10th win of the year on April 18th. Last year they didn’t reach double digit wins until April 25th and finished the month with just 11 wins total. They’re ahead of schedule, one could say.
But there is another issue early on: defense. The Diamondbacks were second in the majors in errors (14) to the Oakland Athletics (17) entering Wednesday’s game at PetCo. They committed another one last night. Six of those have been fielding errors while the other nine (the most in baseball) have been throwing errors. That’s not good. All of those errors have taken place in the infield, and while that’s not exactly rare, it’s also a poor sign. That’s led to eight unearned runs being scored, trailing only the Rays and Braves. Those unearned runs might have stolen an extra win from the D-backs already and defense clearly matters — even more so in today’s run environment.
Two of those errors came on a play that I’ve dubbed “Posey’s Revenge.” In case you don’t recall, Taijuan Walker hit Buster Posey in the head back in San Francisco. Later in the game, the Giants plated three runs on what amounts to a swinging bunt off the bat of Matt Moore. Walker and Jeff Mathis were charged with throwing errors on the play and it was one of the ugliest displays of baseball I’ve seen in a very long time.
But hey, that’s just one play and just two errors — the only errors on the year charged to Walker and Mathis on the year. So where are all of the other errors coming from?
Chris Owings has had his share of issues. He’s been charged with a league and team-high five errors. Yunel Escobar is second in errors with three. Owings has a comfortable lead, I guess. Here, against the Giants, what should have been an inning-ending double play became an extension of San Francisco’s lead.
Owings just whiffed on that one. It wasn’t an issue of his range, or his arm (in this case), but just a mental miscue that cost the team and didn’t allow Randall Delgado to escape the inning. That’s just one sample of Owings’ issues. He made two errors on April 9th and two more on April 12th. Those came after the error witnessed above on April 4th. Two of those errors were fielding errors, three were throwing (he’s tied with Tim Anderson for the lead in throwing errors) and all have come when Owings has lined up at shortstop. But it’s not like he can’t play the position. We’ve seen him make the plays before and he’ll inevitably make the plays in the future. He’s no Nick Ahmed, but that’s just part of the tradeoff for getting his bat in the lineup. And he can make plays like this:
The rest of the errors are scattered throughout the infield. Paul Goldschmidt has one and we know Goldy is plenty capable of playing a good first base. Daniel Descalso has two but he’s a part-time player. Nick Ahmed, Chris Herrmann, and Brandon Drury have each made one. Jake Lamb committed his second last night on a ball that he rushed. Part of that comes with the territory. Part of that comes with guys learning new positions, like Drury. These things happen, and without Owings’ surplus of E’s, the team would be within the normal realm of errors committed.
Of course, there’s a reason we don’t use errors to evaluate defense. We like to use things like Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) instead, not that those metrics aren’t without their flaws, but they paint a clearer picture of what’s happening. Unfortunately, UZR hasn’t updated for 2017 yet because there’s been such little baseball played and DRS is not super accurate for the same reason. Yasmany Tomas is still running around in the outfield and not making “errors,” but certainly not making plays at times, too. David Peralta is fine, but that’s about it. We can trust A.J. Pollock to do his thing. The outfield, for the most part, is what it is and we just have to make our peace with that. The infield should be adequate — probably below average but adequate — and that’s not about to change. Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury are going to have their issues and Chris Owings is going to keep playing so long as he’s still hitting.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Diamondbacks hung their hat on defense. Whether that was intentional or just the way it worked out, one can draw their own conclusions. They won’t reach that level in 2017 because they don’t have Ender Inciarte and Nick Ahmed appears relegated to a bench role, which is probably best if only by a little. Run preventions is going to be on the shoulders of the pitching staff, and as we’ve seen, they’ve held their own. But while errors are an old school way of evaluating defense, they have shone a light on a problematic infield. Things will need to improve or the pitching staff is going to have their hands full more often than is fair. Chris Owings, in particular, needs to find his footing because five errors midway through the first month of the season is an eye sore. This isn’t the type of defense, particularly in the infield, that we’ve been accustomed to, but it’s the type we may be forced to watch all season long.
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