PHOENIX — A lot of times when an organization cleans house in the front office, the incoming baseball honchos start their new regimes by taking their own brooms to the playing roster. Arizona’s Mike Hazen decided not to do that and with the Diamondbacks about to host their first postseason game in six years, the status quo never looked so good.
Last season, the Diamondbacks sported the worst ERA in baseball at 5.09. Sure, playing at Chase Field didn’t help but even in a ballpark-adjusted metric like ERA+, Arizona’s ranking (28th) still stunk.
So what Hazen did was bring back most of the same guys. Voila! Playoffs.
“I felt strongly that we had a good nucleus of players,” said emergent managing star Torey Lovullo, Hazen’s handpicked guy to lead the team. “These were guys who had different levels of success, but we felt like there was a strong enough nucleus to build around.”
It’s pretty remarkable, when you think about it. Sixty-three percent of this season’s innings for Arizona have been thrown by pitchers who appeared for them last season despite the fact that Shelby Miller‘s season ended after four starts and Archie Bradley was moved to the bullpen. Yet Arizona’s ERA (3.66) ranked third in the big leagues this season and the ERA+ was second.
Context: Last year’s team ERA was the worst in Diamondbacks history. This year’s was the best.
“Last year, pretty much everybody underachieved,” No. 1 starter Zack Greinke said. “I think the first month we didn’t pitch that good and then as the season went on, it just kept getting worse. Maybe because we didn’t see the results the first month, we tried to change. I’m not positive. This year, it kind of worked good from the beginning and kind of continued.”
Last season was an all-around disaster for the Snakes. Arizona lost 93 games while allowing the most runs (890) in baseball. The short-term future didn’t look too promising. Payroll flexibility was limited, an unfortunate reality for a club that still had Greinke on the books for five more years and $172.5 million. ESPN’s Keith Law had the minor-league system ranked dead last over the winter, quelling hopes for low-cost, in-house solutions.
That’s what Hazen inherited when he took over for Dave Stewart as Arizona’s general manager and went about assembling his first roster for Lovullo. Tearing down seemed like a viable option, perhaps even a necessary one.
However, a full-blown rebuild would almost certainly need to be kick-started by dealing Greinke, which at the very least seemed like a possible salve for the constricted payroll. It was as terrible time to do so. Greinke’s 4.37 ERA in 2016 was his highest in a decade and everything was trending the wrong way: strikeouts, walks, homers, velocity and, as it does for us all, age.
So Greinke stayed, along with most of the starting rotation, and the Diamondbacks went about improving from within.
“We were going to present some new thoughts to them about how to attack and study, pay attention to different things,” Lovullo said. “And having catcher buy-in. We felt like the combination of the guys that we had, that had had success, if we could just give them a little extra twist, a little extra turn, about how to attack hitters that they might be something real special.
“I think by mid-May, there was real buy-in for the program that we have here. It’s not a secret. Everybody is doing this. Everybody is studying and paying attention at behind-the-scenes levels that are pretty impressive. It was the buy-in that was impressive. These guys did it, had success, and it’s gotten us here today.”
Saying that Hazen stood pat isn’t quite accurate, but his moves over the winter were more about tweaking the edges of the roster to support the existing core rather than juggling the core. The exception to that was the pre-Thanksgiving trade that sent shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Mitch Haniger and pitcher Zac Curtis to Seattle for pitcher Taijuan Walker and shortstop Ketel Marte.
Closer Fernando Rodney was signed to bring the bullpen picture into focus, and that group received a dynamic and unexpected boost when Bradley lost his bid to hold onto his rotation spot. Instead, he turned into one of baseball’s most dynamic relievers, ranking 12th among all bullpen hurlers in WAR, according to Fangraphs.com. Perhaps as important as any of this was Hazen’s decision to turn the catching chores over the veterans Jeff Mathis and Chris Iannetta.
“We felt confident that if we could fix some of those things around the edges,” Hazen said. “Some of them around defense, some around the edges that involved some different kinds of planning. Those were thing things that we felt if you could match that with the type of talent we had, it would be a regression back to what they’d been for a large portion of their career. Or, in some cases, had just shown in spurts.”
This all looks great in hindsight, but think of the pieces that Hazen needed to have fall into place. Greinke and Patrick Corbin (5.15) needed to have bounce-back seasons. Walker was coming off a two-year stretch of a 4.41 ERA and would be moving into a much harsher pitching environment at Chase Field. Robbie Ray missed bats but still needed to convert his stuff into consistent production. And then, after Miller was injured, Hazen needed another starter to emerge, while hopefully leaving the emergent Bradley to dominate in the bullpen. Unsung Zack Godley filled that role perfectly.
“We’re very fortunate that we walked into the starting pitcher group that we did,” Hazen said. “You win with starting pitching in this league and those guys have carried us all season long. We really looked at the pedigree for some of those guys, what they had done prior to this season in performance and stuff and otherwise.”
The result of all those instances of wish-casting was baseball’s third-best rotation ERA and what eventually became a solid bullpen behind them. The improvement didn’t come from any one pitcher. It came from all of them. Just look at the wOBAs allowed for every Diamondbacks pitcher who appeared in at least 10 games (with Arizona or not) both this season last season.
That’s improvement from nearly everyone, save for a couple of low-usage relievers. It leads one to look for the all-elusive commonality. Of course, there are lots of possible explanations, and all of them probably played a part.
For example, despite our concerns about Greinke’s aging curve and his indicators from last season, his 2017 campaign now looks like a regression we should have figured on. You can mostly say the same thing about Corbin. Also, Walker, Ray and Bradley were all on the right side of the aging curve and were working with excellent stuff. Godley, well, that one was hard to see coming.
“For some of us, I think we just needed to win a little bit,” Bradley said. “We needed to taste success and see what that was like. All of us kind of rose to the occasion and ran with it.
“The majority of guys in this clubhouse have been playing together for a long time. We’ve been together in the minors and for a couple of years in the big leagues. To start off the way we did, winning the first month of the season, I think we just realized that this is what we’ve capable of doing.”
More than that, Hazen and Lovullo, both strong on the analytics side of things, overhauled the team’s processes. The switch in catchers strong in pitch framing metrics was a reflection of that. Overall, the team’s defense went from minus-16 runs save to plus-12. And on a day-to-day basis, the pitchers were given different information with which to work.
“The defense has gotten a little bit better,” the always-pensive Greinke said. “And we have different game plans this year with the different person doing the scouting reports for us..”
The results have flowed freely. The team’s strikeout rate jumped by 18 percent, the walk rate dropped by eight percent, the home rate plummeted by 23 percent and the collective wOBA allowed went from .351 to .310.
“We felt confident that if we could fix some of those things around the edges. Some of them around defense, some around the edges that involved some different kinds of planning. Those were thing things that we felt if you could match that with the type of talent we had, it would be a regression back to what they’d been for a large portion of their career. Or, in some cases, had just shown in spurts.”
D-backs GM Mike Hazen
On the intangible front was the development of a group dynamic among the pitchers. Baseball teams, when they are going well, always swear this is a thing, even a sport in which by definition, each guy plies his trade all on by himself, one dude at a time.
Yet it does sometimes feel like there is something more that happens with surging teams, where a group becomes more than the sum of its component parts kind of like you see happen in football or basketball. You might not be able to prove that it happens, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, at least for the players.
“Hundred percent,” said Bradley, a true believer in the group dynamic. “It is a personal pride we take, whether it’s a starter or a closer or my job, that when we take the mound, we want to be the best all-around pitching staff in the big leagues.
“We kind of realized that early on, with the way our starters were throwing, with the way our bullpen was throwing. With the starters, every night out they’re trying to out-do the guy from the night before. For (the relievers), it’s the same thing; we’re trying to keep the lead where it is and not given up. I just think it’s a personal pride, where last year we were the worst staff in the big leagues, so let’s flip the script and be one of the best.”
And the Diamondbacks are one of the best and they have one game to prove it, for now, against the team we’re overlooking now, the Rockies.
Colorado has followed similar narrative threads. Its pitching staff stunk last season; this season it’s one of the best in franchise history. Though, in Colorado’s case, the improvement has been more fueled by an influx of rookies and bullpen additions than the collective improvement of the holdovers. And there’s a new manager in Bud Black, though he’s more of a veteran skipper than the upstart Lovullo.
Finally, there is the kinda-sorta conquering of a hitter-haven home park: both Chase Field and Coors Field have ranked in the top five in run scoring park factors pretty much every year of their respective existences. But this year, the Diamondbacks and Rockies have proven that even in extreme offensive environments, a team can win with pitching.
All those similarities aside, Wednesday’s showdown represents an intriguing and unexpected drama between division opponents who know each other really well. For all his foresight and good judgment in piecing this together for the long haul, for Hazen and the D-backs, it’s now all about the next nine innings.
“Over 162 games, you try to keep the long view as much as you can,” Hazen said. “Now that it boils down to one game, it’s like a seventh game, an elimination game. We’ll approach it as such. But at the same time, the fact that you’re playing October baseball means a lot. It’s the best time of the year.”