What’s the buzzword this year? Grit? Yeah, let’s hope that pans out better than the trendy catchphrase we all bought into last year:
Sarcasm aside, there is legitimate reason for optimism when looking at the 2013 Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s easy to argue that every part of the team — starting pitching, position players, bullpen, bench — has been upgraded. It’s easy to imagine young players like Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Eaton, Patrick Corbin, Gerardo Parra and company improving upon their 2012 showings, blossoming into the talents that many scouts projected them to be. And it’s easy to believe in a return-to-form for ace Ian Kennedy and offseason acquisition Cody Ross.
Even in a division that’s sure to be awfully competitive, there is decent rationale to be had for even the most optimistic Diamondbacks fan.
Nevertheless, there seem to be some common misconceptions — both good and bad, understandable and silly — about the team that Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers is fielding this season.
Misconception 1: The Diamondbacks will strikeout out far less frequently this season.
If you’re on board with Towers’ offseason grit gambit, you probably like to cite the team’s new emphasis on ‘putting the ball in play’ rather than striking out so much. You point to contact wizards like Martin Prado and Adam Eaton and make justifiable offhand claims that your 2013 Diamondbacks won’t strikeout as often as they did last season. You point to the riddance of Justin Upton (19.3% strikeout rate in 2012), Chris Young (21.8%), Ryan Roberts (18.8%), Chris Johnson (25.0%), and Ryan Wheeler (18.5%) to back your projection.
Not so fast.
First, the Diamondbacks are returning their three most frequent strikeout hitters from last season: Jason Kubel (26.4%), Miguel Montero (22.7%), and Paul Goldschmidt (22.1%). And you can bet that all three of them will take residence in the middle of manager Kirk Gibson’s batting order all season long.
Second, although Upton had the fourth-highest strikeout rate on the Diamondbacks last season, the guy who Towers acquired to replace him in right field, Cody Ross, struck out nine more times in exactly 100 less plate appearances in 2012 — earning him a 24.4% strikeout rate. So, unless Ross, an eight-year veteran, undergoes a miraculous late-career change of approach, the Upton departure — specifically — will only have a negative effect on the Diamondbacks’ strikeout struggles.
Now, to be fair, over the winter the Diamondbacks did manage to rid themselves of eight of the 15 players who struck out most frequently for them last season. And they did add players like Prado and Eaton to the 25-man roster. However, Ross isn’t the only strikeout-prone acquisition of the offseason. Shortstop Cliff Pennington struck out in nearly 20% of his plate appearances with the A’s last season. Pinch hitter and backup first baseman Eric Hinske, who has a lifetime strikeout rate of 21.9%, struck out in nearly 28% of his plate appearances with the Braves last season and 27% in 2011. Even veteran infielder Eric Chavez is coming off a year with the Yankees in which he struck out in nearly 19% of his 313 plate appearances — roughly the same as the oft-maligned Upton, who posted a strikeout rate of 19.3% in 2012.
|2012 D-backs||2012 K%||2013 D-backs||2012 K%|
|Aaron Hill||12.9||*Adam Eaton||14.6|
|Justin Upton||19.3||Martin Prado||10.0|
|Paul Goldschmidt||22.1||Aaron Hill||12.9|
|Miguel Montero||22.7||Miguel Montero||22.7|
|Jason Kubel||26.4||Paul Goldschmidt||22.1|
|Gerardo Parra||17.9||Jason Kubel||26.4|
|Chris Young||21.8||Cody Ross||24.4|
Kubel hit third or fourth in the Diamondbacks’ order for the vast majority of his late-2012 slump, which began on July 23. In fact, it wasn’t until September 19 — nearly two months into his struggles — that manager Kirk Gibson moved the left fielder lower in the order, and the lowest batting order position he’d see was sixth. For reference, Kubel had 34 hits in his final 193 at-bats of the season, good for a .176 batting average and a .633 OPS.
|2012 D-backs||2012 K%||2013 D-backs||2012 K%|
|Willie Bloomquist||16.3||Cliff Pennington||19.5|
|Ryan Roberts||16.1||Gerardo Parra||17.9|
|John McDonald||15.5||Willie Bloomquist||16.3|
|Chris Johnson||25.0||Eric Chavez||18.8|
|Stephen Drew||22.6||Eric Hinske||27.9|
*103 career plate appearances, all in 2012 season
While having Eaton, Prado, and Hill at the top of the order should be extremely advantageous when trying to cutback on strikeouts, the table above shows the high frequencies with which acquisitions like Ross, Pennington, Chavez, and Hinske strikeout. Last season, those four combined to tally 319 strikeouts. Meanwhile, the six Diamondbacks (above: Young, Bloomquist, Roberts, McDonald, Johnson, Drew) whose plate appearances they’ll be filling accumulated just 287 strikeouts.
Ultimately, the Diamondbacks should log a lower strikeout rate this year than they did last year. But expect the difference to be marginal at best.
Misconception 2: Rookie Adam Eaton is a sure thing.
The numbers Adam Eaton has posted in the 22 major league games he’s played in have been impressive. And his minor league splits are absolutely sensational. Heck, even his 2013 spring training stats are promising.
Those are worth noting. But so is this: Eaton is a prospect. By definition, his success is but a possibility — a likelihood at best, a chance at worst.
Prior to the 2013 season, Eaton ranked 73rd on Baseball America’s annual prospects list, 97th on MLB.com’s. And ESPN’s prospect pundit, Keith Law, tagged Eaton as the No. 1 “impact prospect” of the 2013 season.
When he returns from his elbow injury, Eaton is expected to play an important role for the Diamondbacks — leadoff man and everyday center fielder. That’s a heavy load for any rookie, even a guy with Eaton’s lower-level success and projected upside.
And what in baseball is predictable anymore? The A’s won the AL West last season. The Orioles made the playoffs. And the Diamondbacks, the trendiest World Series pick in baseball last March, finished 81-81. Moreover, Law — the same guy who predicts Eaton to be the most impactful prospect of 2013 — was among the many, like myself, who picked Justin Upton to be the 2012 NL MVP. Even the most consistent careers go awry. Guys who have played in thousands of more games than Eaton’s 23 — even perennial All-Stars — have down years. How much more volatile, how much less foreseeable, is the success of a 24-year-old rookie?
Eaton could be the next Michael Bourn just as easily as he could be the next Tony Womack. Here’s the point: some measure of hype is definitely justifiable, but there seems to be a lot of expectation on an unproven, unexperienced rookie.
Misconception 3: The Diamondbacks will be more ‘clutch’ in 2013.
This may or may not be a misconception for you. If you expect the Diamondbacks to improve with runners in scoring position, you’re probably misguided. But if you expect the Diamondbacks’ offense to improve in the late innings of close games, you may have hope.
There’s not a set criteria for ‘clutch’ as it relates to playing the game of baseball. For our purposes, I’ll use the following criteria in this article: hitting with runners in scoring position, hitting in ‘late and close’ situations, and hitting when one’s team is behind in a game.
There’s a perception that the Diamondbacks were “un-clutch” last season. That’s only partially true.
2012 Arizona Diamondbacks – clutch hitting
|RISP||.264||.775||2 – AVG; 3 – OPS|
|RISP, 2 outs||.247||.762||5 – AVG; 4 – OPS|
|*Late & close||.199||.594||16 – AVG; 15 – OPS|
|Behind||.236||.675||T12 – AVG; 11 – OPS|
*Late & Close is defined by Baseball-Reference.com as plate appearances in the 7th inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.
If you’re table illiterate, allow me to interpret the above data. Last year, the Diamondbacks were actually pretty effective with men in scoring position — ranking in the top-third of NL teams, regardless of the RISP situation. Yet, when it came to ‘late and close’ situations (defined above), the Diamondbacks dwelled at the very bottom of the NL rankings, their only company being the Astros. For reference, the NL average team splits in these situations is found to be a .239 batting average and .685 OPS.
Obviously, improving upon the RISP successes of 2012 will be a tall order for the Diamondbacks. But bettering their late and close performance — that should be a cinch, right? Isn’t that what Cody Ross is for?
For one, the transformation the Diamondbacks underwent from 2011 (led NL in late and close situational hitting) to 2012 testifies of the fact that this is one area of baseball that’s incredibly difficult to project.
But there is this:
Key Diamondbacks – ‘Late & Close’ in 2012
Key Offseason Diamondbacks Acquisitions – ‘Late & Close’ in 2012
Clearly, Prado and Ross bring significant, much-needed late and close effectivity to the roster. And Upton’s departure will yield some progress in such situations.
However, the data shows some surprising splits for a few Chase Field mainstays. Goldschmidt, Hill, and Parra all struggled in late and close situations last year, combining for just 39 hits in 213 at-bats (.183 AVG). Paired with the poor late and close hitting by Chavez, Hinske, and Pennington — who should see a fair share of playing time, given Willie Bloomquist’s injury history and age — the Goldschmidt, Hill, and Parra splits are awfully disconcerting. And they’re especially so if you’re one who thinks the arrival of Ross and Prado, along with the departure of Upton and Young, will cure the Diamondbacks’ late and close deficiencies. Expect improvement, but don’t expect a 2011-to-2012 type of transformation.
Misconception 4: The mere absence of Justin Upton does not mean higher on-base percentages and less swinging for the fences.
Martin Prado logged a .359 OBP last season. That was a career high for the third baseman (only 81-plus game seasons qualified) and 14 percentage points higher than his career clip of .345.
In a down year, meanwhile, Justin Upton recorded a .355 OBP, two percentage points lower than his career OBP of .357, which is 14th-highest among active NL players.
Newly acquired starters don’t fare all that well in this department. Cody Ross has a career OBP of .324. Cliff Pennington has a career OBP of .313.
Let’s get back to Upton, who was often criticized for being free swinging and undisciplined at the plate. Less than 27% of his swings last season were at out-of-zone pitches, which finished him in the top-15 tier of disciplined NL hitters (only players with more than 400 plate appearances qualified). Of Diamondbacks with 250 plate appearances or more last season, only Chris Young and Ryan Roberts were more disciplined.
Every major league offseason acquisition by the Diamondbacks has a higher out-of-zone swing rate than Upton.
Kevin Towers has been bold, trading for culture and intensity while selling off top talent. But any sports decision that revolves around intangibles — starting Tim Tebow because of leadership, citing a ‘gut feeling’ for an in-game decision, ascribing value to grit — is going to get its fair share of criticism.
Furthermore, if the Diamondbacks attain success this season — something they’re more than capable of, even in the NL West — it won’t be because they made a drastic cut in their strikeout rate, had a preseason lock for NL Rookie of the Year on their roster, acquired a handful of ‘clutch’ players, or ridded themselves of a so-called selfish player in Justin Upton.
Actually, it will probably be because of the chemistry that comes with the compilation of like-minded — dare I say “gritty” — baseball players.