February 18, 2016
Life at the Margins
The NL's Gut-Punchiest Team Projection
Earlier this month a strange feeling came over me: I began to be intrigued by the Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s hard to say exactly why, in retrospect. Possibly it’s because, when a team decides to spend an amount equivalent to 2 percent of its home-state budget (yes, really) on a single starting pitcher, you begin to get the sense that it’s trying to say something.
When that same team also trades away the previous year’s no. 1 overall pick, a four-win center fielder, and a top pitching prospect in exchange for a perfectly competent but clearly second-tier starting pitcher, you begin to think that what that team is trying to say, precisely, is that it believes it has a real shot to win its division this year.
To which I say this, after some consideration: How in the world?
I mean, I get the case in isolation: it’s based around the stars folks see aligning in Arizona. Zack Greinke is a very good pitcher. He was a very good pitcher last year (7.6 WARP and a 2.17 DRA over 222 ⅔ innings pitched), and there’s no reason to think he won’t be very good this year as well. Shelby Miller, too, should be a fine addition to the D-Backs’ rotation. Paul Goldschmidt will probably continue to be the best first baseman in the league in 2016, and I’m as high on A.J. Pollock as anyone. All that, good.
But it’s not like Arizona’s divisional competition doesn’t have stars of their own. The four players I just mentioned? Their combined WARP projections for 2016 sum to 12.9 wins above replacement. That’s pretty good. But Los Angeles’s top four players by PECOTA (Kershaw, Grandal, Seager, and Puig) project for 16.9 wins between them, and San Francisco’s quartet (Posey, Bumgarner, Belt, and Pence) are projected for 16.3. Now, projections aren’t everything—Greinke’s, in particular, looks a little low to me, and words have already been written about Grandal’s projection possibly being a little high—but four wins is still an awful lot of ground to make up if you’re armed only with objections about how this player or that player is undervalued by PECOTA.
Of course, stars can’t fill all the spots in the roster, and so I thought, perhaps, that the rational case for Arizona might be made in the back-end of its 25-man roster. Perhaps its non-star regulars are better than its opponents’ at every turn? So I went digging. Here, for example, is how the back three in the Arizona rotation project relative to the competition in Los Angeles and San Francisco:
No joy to be found there—the differences are marginal, at best, and in any event not marginal in Arizona’s favor. Perhaps there’s ground to be made up at catcher, where Wellington Castillo might finally have found his power?
I would go on, but it would get tedious fast. I will tell you this: I looked carefully through the rosters of all three teams in contention in the National League West, and I could find only one position—first base—where the Diamondbacks clearly have the best player. Sure, there are spots—third base and center field come to mind—where you could make the case for Arizona as strongest at the position, but it’s not an overwhelming difference. And there are at least three spots—catcher, left field, and right field—where you’d probably conclude the Diamondbacks are in the worst shape, among the three contenders out West.
So if the case for the Diamondbacks is that they’ve got stars to drive their performance, well, so does their competition. Next. And if the case is, alternately, that Arizona’s scrubs are better than the other guys’ scrubs, that’s not true either. Which leaves the argument at this: that the Diamondbacks will, for some reason, be a whole lot better than the sum of their parts suggest they are capable of being.
Maybe. Smart baseball people run the operation in Arizona, and they might be targeting something in their players that PECOTA, and the numbers we’ve looked at so far, have missed. Greinke himself touched on something like this argument in his introductory press conference:
He’s not wrong on the facts. Arizona was tops in the National League in 2015 in BRR—the basic baserunning metric we use at BP—and thus appear to have netted themselves 14.7 extra runs last year by virtue of their talent on the basepaths. That’s 20 more runs than the Dodgers (-5.3) picked up that way, and about 16 more than the Giants (-1.4). And in terms of fielding, the Diamondbacks are in the top five in the National League in terms of defensive efficiency. So Greinke’s not wrong about what he saw. The Diamondbacks do indeed do the little things well, and it’s quite possible that that’ll continue in 2016.
But PECOTA takes all that into account when it makes its player and team projections. BRR, FRAA, and all those good “little things” statistics get boiled down into the bottom-line numbers we’ve just spent the past few paragraphs going over—they’re in the hitters’ WARPs and (as applicable) in the pitchers’ ERAs. And, as it turns out, they aren’t enough to make up the difference for Arizona. Twenty runs gained on the basepaths? That’s equivalent to about two wins, and it’s not enough to make up for Welington Castillo being a lot worse at hitting a baseball than Buster Posey, and not framing quite as well either.
All of which is to say this: If you want to make the case that the Diamondbacks are a solid baseball team, fine. You’re right. If you want to make the case that they’re a better overall team than they were last year, sure. You’re probably right there, too. You also would have been right one year ago if you'd said that the Padres were a better team, and the White Sox were a better team, than before they each went out and “won” the postseason. But after headline-grabbing offseasons, both teams’ preseason projections would have looked like letdowns—the Padres were projected 13 games behind the Dodgers, the White Sox three games behind .500. Like ocean liners, rosters often take a lot of time and a lot of transactions to change their directions, and the lie of the “won the offseason” narrative is often revealed even before the games are played.
“Going for it” is an inexact science. Given the way the L.A. roster and front office is constructed, there probably won’t be too many—if any—years in the near future where the division is wide open for the Diamondbacks to win, if they’d only just add one or two players. And yet, they obviously can’t just pack it in and decide not to compete every year. And so someone in the Arizona front office made a judgment call, decided this was the year to compete, and traded away a bunch of young talent in the hopes of winning the division. Maybe they will.
But I can find absolutely no evidence to suggest that the word “favorites”—even when prepended by the word “sleeper”—should come anywhere near Arizona’s big-league franchise. And yet, it seems to be happening with some regularity. Could Arizona win the Western division next year? Sure. But they would be beating the odds by doing so, not confirming them. And that makes their decision to go all-in on this 2016 season more than a little odd.