The 2014-15 offseason hasn’t disappointed one bit from an entertainment standpoint. There have been some massive trades (thank you A.J. Preller) and major free agent signings (remember when Jon Lester held everyone captive for two days?). Some teams were expected to push for contention this offseason (Cubs) while other clubs have surprised people with their aggressiveness (White Sox and Padres). The Diamondbacks are in a hybrid category as they’ve used both trades and a major signing to change the make-up of the big league club. Out went Didi Gregorius, Miguel Montero and Wade Miley via trade. In came MLB-ready assets Yasmany Tomas, Jeremy Hellickson, Robbie Ray, Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster. In my estimation, the last two names in this list that deserve some special attention.
The trade of Wade Miley caught some by surprise. He was a productive, reliable, young, cost-controlled left-hander who had proven, at worst, to be an innings-eater of average quality. At his best, he could look something more like a high number or three or, in some instances, a low-end number two starter (which we debated on the Episode 9 of the Pool Shot). You’re free to come up with your own conclusion on that simply because I don’t wish to belabor that point. In reality, Miley was an asset of some higher than average value and he was affordable for a team under payroll constraints. His departure may have been effected by some behind-the-scenes factors, but the fact that he was traded at all further proved the thesis that the Diamondbacks are going to roll into 2015 with, by design, a drastically different ball club.
All offseason, and really before the season even ended if we want to go back that far, the club’s goal was to improve the starting pitching situation. The bullpen’s in good shape, but the rotation needed a shot in the arm as last year’s group was clearly not good enough to produce acceptable results. The new group might not be much better, but there’s some hope resting on one word in this sentence: “new.” A rotation with some younger, harder-throwing, fresh faces may or may not fair well in Chase Field’s dry environment, but at least there’s a chance that some of the newly-acquired pitching assets can continue to grow and improve. The Diamondbacks have done a reasonably good job in the past of putting themselves in a position to get lucky, and this could easily be another iteration of that premise.
Two-fifths of the projected Opening Day rotation came to Arizona when Wade Miley was flipped to Boston. In return, the D-backs received soon-to-be 25-year old righty Allen Webster and soon-to-be 26-year old righty Rubby de la Rosa. Both guys are sort of young, both have been top prospects at one point in time, both have limited track records in the majors and both are still cheap with a chance to take at least one more developmental step forward. They’re upside plays for Arizona when Wade Miley was, more or less, a known commodity. It’s a gamble for the Diamondbacks insofar as they shipped away a cost-controlled, productive asset for an unknown return. But, we can flip that equation and see that they also acquired two players for one, both cheap with a chance to become just as productive as Miley should they make the necessary adjustments to succeed, in some capacity, in the majors.
And receiving young prospects lends itself to turning to old scouting reports, prospect rankings and other such information about the past. I like doing that stuff and I do it pretty frequently, but I wanted to take a different tact this time around in trying to define who Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa have been most recently. Instead of looking for anecdotes, I instead opted to break out the ESPN TruMedia tools and take a look at the newest Diamondbacks starters. While there is no shortage of stats to look at, my attention was drawn to one in particular, and it’s one you may have seen here at Inside the ‘Zona in the past: hard hit average (HHAVG). This stat tracks the number of plate appearances resulted in the ball being hit hard. Those hard-hit balls are tracked by hand by people who are tasked with watching every single pitch of every single game and denoting the outcome of every single at-bat.
So why focus on hard hit average? Hard hit average, as it turns out, correlates very strongly with isolated slugging (ISO, .705 positive correlation). That means that as pitches get hit “hard” with higher frequency, more doubles, triples and homers occur. I don’t think that’s a revelation to anyone reading this as it’s pretty difficult to “softly” hit a home run. But taking it a step forward, we find that isolated slugging correlates very strongly with weighted on-base average (wOBA, .741 positive correlation). By looking at hard hit data, we can infer, to a non-official degree, what kind of damage should be done against a pitcher. In this case it would be pitchers, Webster and de la Rosa. In some small sample work, here’s how each pitcher performed and ranked out of 330 MLB pitchers with at least 50 IP in 2014:
Right off the bat (bad pun, I know), we can see that neither Webster or de la Rosa fared particularly well last season when the ball was put in play. They were below average in terms of surrendering hard-hit balls, with Webster having an edge over de la Rosa. That discrepancy was exacerbated in isolated slugging as de la Rosa was extremely poor in ISO allowed. Batters made him pay when the ball was put into play, while Webster, on the other hand, did a good job of limiting damage with just a .114 ISO allowed. In terms of overall damage surrendered, both pitchers were near the bottom of the 330-pitcher sample by giving up big wOBAs. Putting the whole picture together, de la Rosa got hit harder, but struck more batters out and issued fewer walks than Webster. The above data is in no way exhaustive, but you get the point: when the final tally came across, both had about the same impact for the Red Sox in 2014 as struggling young pitchers with better stuff than results.
And that’s right where this whole things comes to a rest; both guys are young, cheap and have above average offerings to throw. Both guys are young, cheap and have gotten hit hard (to varying degrees) when the ball gets put into play. So Arizona is betting on the stuff and not on the results to date, and that’s a good bet for the organization to take at this point in each player’s career. The velocity and movement throughout each pitcher’s repertoire would suggest that each can be a valuable major league pitcher, but it just hasn’t clicked yet, and the Red Sox got tired of waiting. The pressure is now on the Diamondbacks to figure out why they haven’t taken that leap forward and find a way to help Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa take that step.
For me, this will be one of the biggest storylines of the new season. It’s big because the Diamondbacks traded a valuable commodity for the chance to make either of Webster or de la Rosa into a valuable commodity of their own. To a small extent this will show us the team’s ability to guide a young pitcher though the developmental process, something that’s not gone well recently (see: Bauer, Trevor and Skaggs, Tyler). There are new people in place, however, so we have to be willing to wipe the slate somewhat clean while remaining vigilant about the organization making progress in this regard.
With four very legitimate, close-to-the-majors arms in the minor league system (Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley, Aaron Blair and Robbie Ray), now is the time for the D-backs to iron out the kinks and prove that they can take young, undefined pitchers and turn them into something of value (see Corbin, Patrick), succeeding in that regard more often than they fail. The franchise’s long-term viability largely hinges on their ability to pull this off. Webster and de la Rosa may be the first data points in evaluating how well the Arizona Diamondback organization can develop pitching talent. While I’d argue that all pitchers are all unique and offer their own challenges, this is a great place for the Diamondbacks to start refining young arms. There are several more on the way, but for now, our eyes will be on the newest members of Arizona’s rotation.
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