DAN BICKLEY

Are Diamondbacks hitters suffering from information overload?

May 25, 2018, 12:45 PM | Updated: 1:11 pm
Arizona Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt walks back to the dugout after striking out against the Milw...

Arizona Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt walks back to the dugout after striking out against the Milwaukee Brewers during the eighth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Phoenix. The Brewers won 8-2. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Analytics have murdered the mystery of Major League Baseball. There is too much information and not enough gut instinct. No room for chaos and nothing left to chance.

So why are there so many baffling questions in Arizona?

The 2018 Diamondbacks are the new Rubik’s Cube, a new-age puzzle. Their epic struggles can be easily explained by injuries to A.J. Pollock and Jake Lamb. Or maybe they reflect a team suffering from information overload, a franchise that might’ve strayed too far from old-school methodology.

You know, the stuff we once mocked.

Start with the most shocking development of all, at the crumbling corner of Arizona’s Mount Rushmore. In August 2017, Paul Goldschmidt was a perennial MVP candidate and Valley treasure. Today he seems lost in his own head. The problem must lie between his ears. What else could it be?

Goldschmidt is only 30, always prepared, in his prime. He’s not hurt and never in the trainer’s room. But in 2018, he’s been taking too many pitches, striking out frequently, watching fastballs zoom by. He seems locked up, a half-step behind the pitcher. One of the game’s best fastball hitters has turned into the worst. His struggles have permeated the team, where his body language and lack of confidence have sapped our collective confidence.

Even more alarming, a highly-intelligent front office can’t fix the problem because they still haven’t figured out its origin. Their confusion has led to uneasy speculation, starting with this:

The Diamondbacks changed their hitting philosophy late last season, adopting a concept described as “tunneling.” In theory, hitters retrain their eyes to gauge the angle of the ball when it leaves the pitcher’s hand, no longer focusing on where the pitch crosses home plate. The team’s hitting coach, Dave Magadan, said the Diamondbacks shifted their strategy and preparation techniques in the closing months of 2017.

That’s an odd time for a dramatic shift in strategy, especially for a team in playoff contention. And it seems to coincide with the deconstruction of America’s first baseman.

The concept of tunneling spawns from science and is gaining credibility across MLB. During spring training, Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed championed the new approach. There was no reason to think otherwise in April, when the Diamondbacks clicked off nine consecutive series victories to start the season, posting the best record in the National League.

A lot has changed since then. The team’s offensive production ranks among some of the worst clubs in Major League history. Ahmed, a defensive ace not known for his hitting, is saddled with a .204 batting average. That’s not a surprise.

But Owings is hitting .187, struggling like never before. And sensory overload seems like the best explanation yet for Goldschmidt’s gruesome struggles.

Manager Torey Lovullo recently broached the subject of data fatigue in his clubhouse, where hitters are presented with reams of daily information on opposing pitchers, ranging release point, spin rates, velocity and pitch movement. He wondered if his players were like math students encountering calculus for the very first time.

To the contrary, he said his players were craving and embracing the information.

But that doesn’t explain the Goldschmidt conundrum. As a veteran with a great track record, he could’ve easily rejected the new approach, sticking with what’s worked for him in the past. He’s also the consummate professional and team player, not the type to buck a cutting-edge program unveiled by his bosses.

These are just guesses, and there are no easy solutions. The conversation has moved into the realm of the comical, and whether Archie Bradley should shave his beard in an attempt to change the team’s fortunes, or if Lovullo should assemble a batting order by pulling names out of a hat.

But the team’s struggles have continued on the road. Unlike their anemic performance at Chase Field, there are no excuses for the dramatic decline in offensive production. Rarely do you see an entire lineup slumping at the same time.

That suggests it’s not the humidor in their heads. It’s the offensive approach in Arizona, where too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com.  Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Are Diamondbacks hitters suffering from information overload?