What's Wrong with the D'Backs?

January 11, 2011
 
I picked the Arizona Diamondback to finish first in the National League West in 2010. They finished last, at 67-95. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates saved them from being the worst team in the National League.
 
Obviously, this was not a great pick on my part. There are five teams in the NL West and I picked the worst one. Because I picked them, I thought I should give the team a second look. So: what was wrong with the Diamondbacks in 2010?
 
Their pitching was bad. The Diamondbacks had a team ERA of 4.81, which ranked 15th in the National League. They allowed the most homeruns in the league, by a wide margin. Their ERA+ was 89. Their pitching was a big problem.
 
It was the most noticeable problem, but it wasn’t the only one. The Arizona offense was also broken.
 
But…why?
 
The Diamondbacks hitters were third in the league in homeruns, and second in the league in walks. They scored 713 runs, which was more than every team in their division except the Mile High Colorado Rockies. Even taking into account the hitting-friendly confines of their ballpark, this was a team with some offense strengths.  
 
Looking at the team position-by-position, it’s even tougher to see the holes in the lineup:
 
-At catcher, the Diamondbacks had Montero and Snyder. They had a combined OPS+ that was better than the league average, and they hit 19 homeruns. They weren’tthe problem.
 
-Adam LaRoche played first: he hit 25 homeruns, drove in 100 runs, and had his typically insane August. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t killing them at first, either.
 
-Kelly Johnson was great at second base…Kelly 26 homeruns, led the team in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. He wasn’t hurting the offense.
 
-Stephen Drew played shortstop…his OPS+ was the second best on the team. The Diamondbacks had excellent production at shortstop, which is tough to find.
 
-And they had it at third base, too. Mark Reynolds hit a dismal .198, but he led the team in homeruns and walks. He wasn’t great, but as Earl Weaver will tell you, walks and homeruns have value.
 
-So it was the outfield, right? Except it wasn’t. Chris Young hit 27 homeruns and stole 28 bases. Justin Upton posted an OPS+ of 111. Leftfielder Geraldo Parra was a hole in the lineup: he had little power and a dismal on-base percentage. He was weakest member of the lineup, but plenty of teams in the NL have one or two regulars like Geraldo Parra’s…he was a clear problem, but he wasn’t the problem.
 
And even the pitchers were good: Dan Haren hit .364 on the season, and narrowly lost the Silver Slugger award. This team had a lot of guys who could hit.
 
But….their offense was terrible.
 
Run Element Ratio
 
Here’s the problem: the Diamondbacks were a team of Joe Carters.
 
You remember Joe Carter, right? He had six dozen seasons of 100+ RBI’s during the 1980’s and 1990’s? He hit the homer off Mitch Williams that ended the 1993 World Series…you remember him, right?
 
He was a good player. He wasn’t a great player, but if you hit 30 homeruns and steal 20 bases, you’re doing something right. A team with Joe Carter can certainly win baseball games: the Blue Jays won two championships with Joe Carter in their lineup, and he was a big reason why they won. But a team with eight Joe Carters can’t win a championship. The problem with the Diamondbacks in 2010 was that they had too many Joe Carters.
 
Bill figured this out a while ago. In the 1988 Abstract (the only one I managed to smuggle to New Zealand), Bill introduced "Run Element Ratio," a formula that divides a player’s offensive talents into those that are valuable early in an inning, and those talents that are valuable late in an inning.
 
The formula is:
 
(Stolen Bases + Walks) ÷ (Total Bases - Hits)
 
The split is at 1.00….if a player has a Run Element Ratio higher than 1.00, you want that player batting early in an inning. If a player has a Run Element Ratio lower than 1.00, you want that player batting towards the end of the inning.
 
Applying this to players: Rickey Henderson had 1408 stolen bases and 2190 walks, and he collected 4588 total bases and 3055 hits…his Run Element Ratio is 2.35, which means he’s best utilized early in an inning. As Bill put it in the 1988 Abstract, players with high RER’s are good at starting trouble, good at scoring runs.
 
Joe Carter didn’t walk a lot or steal bases on par with Rickey Henderson, but he had significantly more pop than Henderson. Carter’s Run Element Ratio is 0.44, meaning that you don’t want Carter to lead off an inning. He isn’t good at starting trouble, but as his eight 100 RBI seasons reflect, Carter was great at finishing the job.
 
Looking at them side-to-side:
 

 

Name
Walks
Steals
Total Bases
Hits
RER
Rickey
2190
1406
4588
3055
2.35
Joe C.
527
231
3910
2184
0.44

 

 
Carter, despite having a muchshorter career, has almost as many total bases as Henderson, 3910 to 4588. But Henderson destroys Carter in walks and stolen bases. Actually, Rickey Henderson destroys everybody in those categories.
 
Getting back to the D’Backs…here were their 2010 regulars, according to Run Element Ratios:
 

 

Pos.
Name
Walks
Steals
Total Bases
Hits
RER
C
Montero
29
0
130
79
0.57
1B
LaRoche
48
0
262
146
0.41
2B
Johnson
79
13
290
166
0.74
SS
Drew
62
10
259
157
0.71
3B
Reynolds
83
7
216
99
0.77
LF
Parra
23
1
135
95
0.60
CF
Young
74
28
264
150
0.89
RF
Upton
64
18
219
135
0.98

 

 
All of the Diamondback regulars were better at finishingtrouble than they are at starting trouble. They had an entire lineup of guys like Joe Carter, a lineup of guys who were really good at finishing the job. But they had no one to who could start trouble.
 
The team’s best leadoff hitters were Young and Upton, and they were the best leadoff hitters by a sizeable option. The other Diamondbacks who had 200+ plate appearances for Arizona weren’t any better:
 

 

Pos.
Name
Walks
Steals
Total Bases
Hits
RER
C
Snyder
36
0
83
45
0.95
UT
Ryal
8
0
72
54
0.44
IF
Abreu
4
2
61
45
0.38

 

 
Snyder was better at starting trouble than Montero, but the Diamondbacks sent Snyder to Pittsburgh.They got Ryan Church out of the deal…Church had a RER of 0.54 in 2010. Ryal and Abreu were absolutely superfluous to this offense.
 
The best trouble starter that Arizona had last year, the guy with the highest Run Element Ratio, was Conor Jackson:
 

 

Pos.
Name
Walks
Steals
Total Bases
Hits
RER
1B
Jackson
20
4
50
36
1.71

 

 
Jackson blew away everyone else on the team: he was the only guy on the ballclub who could be counted on to starttrouble. He was the best leadoff hitter on the club. And they traded him. In June. For a minor league player named Sam Demel.
 
I’m not trying to pick on the Diamondbacks: Conor Jackson was having a lousy year: he was not theanswer. But at least he was an answer. At least he gave them someone to balance the eight Joe Carters that they slotted in the lineup each day.
 
Solving the Problem
 
Two of the problems are gone. Adam LaRoche has taken his talents to Washington, and the Diamondbacks  traded Three-True-Outcomes superstar Mark Reynolds to the Baltimore Orioles. That’s a big chunk of the middle of their batting order: LaRoche led the Diamondabacks in doubles and RBI’s, while Reynolds led the club in homeruns and walks. But both players posted low Run Element Ratios, and they combined to strike out 383 times last year, matching Nolan Ryan’s single-season record. There is a good chance that the Diamondbacks offense will be better without Reynolds and LaRoche.
 
The D’Backs got rid of Rusty Ryal, too…from what I can tell they rode him out of town on a Ryal.
 
So there is a chance for improvement…this offense could be better. The team needs to replace those players with a few legitimate offense starters, a few guys who can start the ball rolling. Have they added those kinds of players?
 
Let’s see….the Diamondbacks came to terms with Xavier Nady. What is Nady’s career Run Element Ratio?
 

 

Pos.
Name
Walks
Steals
Total Bases
Hits
RER
OF
Nady
161
16
1145
713
0.41

 

 
Nady has a career RER of 0.41. That equals the worst mark on last year’s team. Arizona has replaced Adam LaRoche with a player who is…Adam LaRoche.
 
I’m not picking on Xavier Nady. He isn’t an awful player, but he’s an awful player for this team.
 
They signed Melvin Mora, who has a career RER of 0.74. He is also thirty-eight years old. They acquired Geoff Blum, born the same year as Mora…Blum has a career RER of 0.66. The team is talking about using Juan Miranda at first base. Miranda is twenty-seven years old and has played in 46 major league games. His RER in those 46 games is 0.53.
 
The team’s best prospects are Matt Davidson, a 19-year old third baseman who played in single-A last year, and Chris Owings, an 18-year old shortstop who was also in single-A last year.
 
Kevin Towers is the team’s new General Manager. He has spent the offseason trying to build up the Arizona bullpen. He traded Mark Reynolds for two young relief pitchers, and he signed free agent closer J.J. Putz from Chicago. I am reasonably sure Kevin Towers knows more about baseball than I do, and I am absolutely sure that he knows more about the Diamondbacks than I do. But…in focusing on the bullpen, Towers is ignoring the very obvious flaw in his offense. Actually, he’s not just ignoring it: he’s signing players that make is significantly worse. Xavier Nady makes the Diamondbacks offense much worse. So do Blum and Mora.
 
I like Mark Reynolds: he is one of my favorite players, one of the guys I root for. I like him, but I get why the Diamondbacks traded him….he was superfluous to that offense. I get that, and I applaud the team’s willingness to trade a popular player.
 
But…you should get something in return for Mark Reynolds. You should fill a substantial gap. Relief pitching, even good relief pitching, isn’t quite enough.
 
The 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks offense was dysfunctional….the 2011 version is much worse. A lineup cannot function with eight Joe Carters and a pitcher, and the Diamondbacks don’t have eight Joe Carters. What they have are a bunch of hitters who are reasonably good at finishing the job, and no one at all to start things off.
 
I made a mistake picking the Diamondbacks in 2010. I won’t make it again.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions both here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. He passes along his condolences to friends and readers in Arizona.
 
 

COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

ventboys
Biggio did well in the "little stats" like not grounding into double plays and getting hit by pitches so many times that it was statistically significant. That's not the same thing as situational stats, which are basic stats filtered by situations. I agree with you that situational stats are "little Stats", because they are smaller in number and they share an important characteristic: They are only statistically significant at their extremes, and in most cases the sample sizes are too small to measure with any confidence.
2:20 PM Jan 15th
 
MarisFan61
EVAN: I've been skeptical of that material on the unimportance of BATTING ORDER.
Particularly, I don't think Bill took into account (although I'm not sure) all the "geometric" aspects of offense, particularly situational hitting. You don't have to tell me that we know "situational" stuff is relatively unimportant; I've been a bit skeptical about that too -- and it seems that maybe more and more learned people are as well. Like, Bill's piece a few years ago on how BIGGIO's numbers to some extent reflect how well he did in situations of lesser-importance.....I don't mean any slam on Biggio, just that the piece seemed to show an awareness that "situational" stuff can be significant, more so than has often been appreciated by us sabermetric types.
12:37 AM Jan 14th
 
nhirschey
A team composition argument seems to imply that the results (Runs) are worse than expected by the team's raw batting (e.g., team OPS or team OBP). But the data doesn't suggest that Arizona was particularly bad at scoring runs given their team OPS and team OBP.

I regressed all MLB teams' runs scored on an intercept + team OBP + team OPS. A low residual means a team is underperforming. By this measure, the Royals, Orioles, Brewers, Indians, and Mariners underperformed more than the D-Backs.

What am I missing? Did Arizona score an unusually low number of runs given their raw batting numbers?
5:12 PM Jan 13th
 
evanecurb
Good analysis. Makes sense. So what lineup had the best mix of guys, and did they bat them in the correct order?

Hey I just thought of something. One of Bill's most interesting studies was the one in which he showed how unimportant batting order is in determining how many runs a team scores. Where does this play in to all of this? Seems like a team with the right mix of RER, placed in the right spots in the lineup, could add a few runs vs. the same team batting the guys in their wrong spots. But maybe it's the mix and not the order that makes the difference.

By the way, I hope you're enjoying your summer in New Zealand. It's really balmy here on the east coast of the US. Everything's white and bright.
12:49 AM Jan 13th
 
MarisFan61
Dave: Just one thing for you to do....join us in lobbying for an "Edit" function!
There have been times that I would have desperately paid good money to have that.... :-)
11:23 PM Jan 12th
 
Richie
You're welcome, Dave. And thanks for the new article.
4:46 PM Jan 12th
 
DaveFleming
Sorry guys...a LOT of mistakes in the initial post. First: the formula is Total Bases MINUS hits. I typed it in wrong, and used the wrong formula to give the numbers for Nady and Blum and Mora. They still have low RER's, but they're not quite as bad as I said.

Also: I have no idea where I got those numbers on the D'Backs pitching...their pitching was gawd-awwful...they ranked 15th in the league in ERA, not 11th. Their ERA+ was 89, not 101. They walked more batters than I originally stated, and they whiffed substantially less. I fixed those things, too.

I have no idea where I got those numbers, and I'm sorry they got posted wrong. I penned an earlier draft of this about a month ago, and then I left it sitting on the desktop. When I went back I didn't bother to re-check the stuff about the pitching. That was sloppy of me, and I'm sorry about it.

Thanks for the correction, Richie.
4:01 PM Jan 12th
 
metsfan17
The Giants won it last year due to their great starting pitching and has nothing to do with what Dave is talking about. Their offense stinks.
2:57 PM Jan 12th
 
MarisFan61
Don't feel too bad! Bill once wrote about how Sports Illustrated ("Cover" and all) picked the Indians to be the best team in baseball, and they wound up with the worst record. It's hard to do much better than that. :-)
1:39 PM Jan 12th
 
Richie
Looks to me like the D-Back bench was pretty awful. But that's just from eyeballing their stats from last year.
12:31 PM Jan 12th
 
Richie
ESPN stats show Arizona 2010 ERA at 4.81, 2nd worst in the league.
12:25 PM Jan 12th
 
those
Um Darren, I've seen a lot of potshots at Giants GM Brian Sabean on this site because of his non-sabermetric approach. He should read what's on here, too. Maybe they would have done better last season.
12:14 PM Jan 12th
 
rgregory1956
As a point of reference, the RER for the National League last year was .78, while Arizona's .74 came in a bit below average. here are the RER for all 16 NL teams:

.67 790 CIN
.78 772 PHI
.76 770 COL
.69 750 MIL
.89 738 ATL
.80 736 STL
.69 719 FLA
.74 713 ARZ
.65 697 SFG
.67 685 CHI
.84 667 LAD
.97 665 SDP
.87 656 NYM
.81 655 WAS
.82 611 HOU
.78 587 PIT

The 7 teams that scored more runs than the Snakes had a RER of .76, while those 8 that finished behind them in runs came in with a .80 RER.

Your analysis, Dave, was interesting. I just think you may have come to the wrong conclusion. The D'backs had a mediocre offense, a mediocre defense, a mediocre pitching staff and an atrocious road record. 'Course, getting a 52-year-old Rickey Henderson to lead off for them might actually help. He's probably playing somewhere in South America right now, waiting for the call.


12:13 PM Jan 12th
 
metsfan17
Do you think managers and GM's read Bill James Online. Maybe they should so that they can learn something.
11:42 AM Jan 12th
 
 
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