Skip to main content
Menu
The Diamondbacks Are Turning Back The Clock

Welcome to Full Count, our weekly baseball column. Have anything you want me to write about? Email or tweet me at neil.paine@fivethirtyeight.com or @Neil_Paine.

The last time the Arizona Diamondbacks won this many games this early in a season, the team was in the midst of defending a world championship, powered by a group of talented veterans taking one of the their last shots at glory before parting ways. That Arizona team was a bit different from its modern-day descendants, but if you strip away the star power and hideous jerseys, the old-school Dbacks also had a lot in common with today’s version (to the surprise of many analysts, including yours truly). Is it possible the franchise is finally set up for its first truly sustained run of success since that championship era?

The 2001 Diamondbacks team remains the oldest one ever to win a World Series, and the follow-up edition was (unsurprisingly) even older. Mainly propelled by a stable of power arms — Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the rotation, plus Byung-Hyun Kim in the bullpen with a host of other deceptive relievers — Arizona ranked second in pitching wins above replacement1 (WAR) that year, second in strikeouts per nine innings and second in fewest walks per nine. Feeding opponents a healthy dose of nasty sliders all season long, the Dbacks allowed the league’s second-fewest park-adjusted earned runs, cruising to 98 wins and the NL West crown in the process.

This year’s version cuts a similar profile on the mound, albeit with more youth and much less star power. No. 1 starter Zack Greinke is by far Arizona’s most experienced and decorated pitcher; going into the season, he had over 40 more career WAR than anyone else on the roster. And Greinke has certainly been doing his best Big Unit impression in the early going — Johnson was the last qualified D-Back pitcher with a better K/BB ratio than Greinke’s current 6.0 mark. But the rest of the staff is pulling its weight as well. After adjusting for park effects, seven of Arizona’s top nine pitchers carries an ERA better than league average. As a result, Arizona ranks second in pitching WAR this season — just like it did back in 2002.

PITCHING
TEAM WAR DEPTH*
1 Rockies 9.3 4.0
2 Diamondbacks 8.3 3.3
3 Dodgers 8.1 3.0
4 Red Sox 7.7 2.7
5 Yankees 7.3 2.7
2017′s deepest pitching staffs

* We derived a team’s WAR depth by giving more weight to the WAR contribution of pitchers ranked deeper into a team’s top 10.

Through May 29.

Source: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference.com

In just two months, the Dbacks have gone from merely hoping Greinke could bounce back from his disastrous 2016 season to counting up the pitching riches beyond their ace. “Pitching depth” is a nebulous thing to measure, but if we give more weight to the contributions of pitchers deeper into a team’s staff,2 the Dbacks have enjoyed the second-deepest well of pitching value in baseball this season, trailing only the division-rival Colorado Rockies.

So Arizona’s pitching is doing its best job to recall the glory days. And the team currently ranks eighth in position-player WAR, roughly where its championship precursor placed 16 years ago.3

But not everything is a carbon copy of the past. The 2017 Snakes have achieved their offensive success in a very different way than the Diamondbacks of yesteryear did. Those teams walked a lot, but they didn’t burn up the basepaths or mash opponents into submission with homers, no matter how many memories you harbor of Luis Gonzalez crushing fastballs deep into the Arizona night. This offense might be the opposite: It has more glaring weaknesses (with the league’s seventh-worst strikeout rate and its 10th-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio), but also a unique combination of strengths, the likes of which has seldom been seen in baseball history. Not only does Arizona rank second in the majors in Bill James’s power-speed number,4 but pro-rated over a full schedule, the Dbacks’ number would rank 31st-best since MLB’s expansion era began in 1961. They’re an all-or-nothing lineup in the mold of, say, Buck Showalter’s Orioles, but with the added twist of stolen bases and opportunistic baserunning.

The surprising catalyst for all this is 6-foot-3 first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.5 As the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg recently pointed out, Goldschmidt steals an incredible number of bases (65 in 77 attempts over the past three seasons) for a player so, well, slow. Instead of using pure speed, he’s been able to strike on the basepaths with a combination of smarts and sneaky lead-taking. And he’s not alone — a handful of Arizona’s regulars are positive baserunners (according to FanGraphs’ measurement, which includes steals, extra bases and double-play avoidance) despite dubious foot speed.6 Then, throw in some hitters who do have wheels to go with their pop — such as Chris Owings, A.J. Pollock and even Jake Lamb — and Arizona has an offense that can hurt you with its power and its speed, sort of like a lineup full of Junior Spiveys would have done a generation ago.

Of course, for a team coming off a 69-win season, the usual caveats apply to Arizona’s early record. Our Elo ratings, for instance, remain unconvinced that the Diamondbacks are much more than a .500 team that has won a few extra games to start the season, an assessment echoed by other forecasts. Despite the similar statistical profile so far, this year’s Dbacks are probably nowhere near as good as the early-2000s version was. But they’re much younger, playing a style that might be more entertaining (if not as effective).

It’s also worth noting that Arizona made its big splash the offseason before last, gearing up for a run just like the one they’re currently on, only to be wrecked by more injuries than almost any team in recent memory. Although the flurry of deals made by former GM Dave Stewart were roundly derided (and not without cause) it’s hard to deny that the Diamondbacks are now living out the future he envisioned — even if it came a year too late to save Stewart’s job.

In other words, there is real talent blooming in the desert. What remains to be seen is whether this is merely another one-year blip, like so many before in the franchise’s post-championship era, or the start of something more long-lasting.

Trout out

Amid the fallout from Mike Trout’s injury Sunday (which will shelve the L.A. Angels star for 6 to 8 weeks), one of the least-pressing concerns was what it will potentially do to his place in the all-time WAR pantheon. But since that’s a topic I’ve covered ad nauseum here, let’s dive right into it.

According to Baseball-Reference’s version of the stat, Trout has never ended a full season without being the all-time WAR leader for a given age. (Let that sink in for a moment.)7 Before he got hurt, Trout already had 3.5 WAR this year, so he just needed to produce 3.7 over the remainder of the season to keep pace with Ty Cobb as the all-time leader through age 25.

Even a conservative estimate would have called for Trout to generate something like 5.5 WAR in the last four months of the season, which would have enabled him to clear Cobb with ease. However, losing half of that remaining time would put Trout’s G.O.A.T. trajectory in real jeopardy. He’d have to return from injury without a hitch (no guarantee) and play slightly better down the stretch than he’d done over the season’s first two months — when he posted new career highs in virtually every hitting category. That’s a tall order!

However, Trout could also come back in only five weeks if he follows the accelerated recovery path of teammate Andrelton Simmons, who suffered the same injury last season. If so, Trout would “only” need to play at an 8.3-full-season-WAR pace (which, comical as it sounds, is something he’s done in four of his five full MLB seasons) to catch up to Cobb.

That’s the best-case scenario; in reality, Trout will probably face a real struggle to keep his title as G.O.A.T. at every age. But there’s still a chance.

Franchise milestones

In the day-to-day grind of a baseball season, it can be tough sometimes to zoom out and see the bigger picture of where a team stands in the context of its own history. That’s where something like the FiveThirtyEight Elo ratings come in handy, since they try to estimate how well a team was playing going into (and coming out of) every game in franchise history. I tracked where each team’s current Elo8 ranks relative to past seasons9 for the team (measuring that using its percentile ranking) through the same number of games, as well as an Elo “milestone” — how deep in history we have to dig to find a season where it had a higher or lower Elo rating, depending on which number takes us further back in time:

TEAM GAMES ELO FRANCHISE PERCENTILE MILESTONE
1 Astros 53 1573.9 100th Best ever!
2 Dodgers 53 1571.1 98 Best since 1974
3 Nationals 51 1554.5 100 Best ever!
4 Indians 50 1548.0 91 Best since 1996
5 Cubs 51 1544.7 89 Worst since 2015
6 Red Sox 51 1537.9 78 Worst since 2015
7 Yankees 49 1531.7 40 Best since 2013
8 Blue Jays 52 1520.9 63 Worst since 2015
9 Rays 55 1515.2 68 Best since 2015
10 Rangers 53 1513.2 71 Worst since 2015
11 Diamondbacks 54 1512.1 68 Best since 2013
12 Mariners 53 1511.9 88 Worst since 2015
13 Rockies 54 1511.7 83 Best since 2010
14 Mets 50 1509.5 65 Worst since 2015
15 Cardinals 49 1505.7 39 Worst since 2008
16 Angels 55 1501.3 55 Best since 2015
17 Orioles 50 1498.2 59 Worst since 2011
18 Tigers 52 1496.3 30 Best since 2015
19 Giants 54 1494.2 16 Worst since 2009
20 Brewers 52 1492.7 52 Best since 2014
21 Pirates 53 1490.5 31 Worst since 2012
22 White Sox 51 1488.1 22 Worst since 2015
23 Marlins 50 1483.8 42 Worst since 2015
24 Twins 48 1480.4 34 Best since 2015
25 Athletics 51 1474.0 33 Worst since 1998
26 Reds 51 1472.6 12 Best since 2015
27 Royals 51 1467.2 10 Worst since 2007
28 Braves 50 1467.1 22 Best since 2015
29 Phillies 50 1442.7 12 Worst since 1962
30 Padres 54 1438.9 6 Worst since 2003
Each team’s 2017 season, in context

Percentiles are calculated from franchise seasons since 1901, including the same number of games the team has played so far in the 2017 season. Milestones are determined by finding the last time the team had a higher or lower Elo rating through the same number of games as in 2017. Stats are through May 31.

Sources: ESPN, Retrosheet

Some teams — like the Astros and Nationals/Expos — are playing the best they ever have at the third-of-a-season mark. Others are in down cycles: amazingly, the Phillies haven’t had an Elo lower than their current rating through 54 games of a season since 1962!

Platoon power!

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of platooning, using the natural benefit of facing an opposite-handed pitcher (or a same-handed batter) to help a team become greater than the sum of its parts. Granted, different teams are constructed to use it better than others, so it’s not always up to the manager to play for the platoon advantage. Nevertheless, here are the teams who’ve had the lefty-righty edge in the highest percentage of their plate appearances (both batting and pitching), according to Baseball-Reference.com:

* A team has platoon advantage when its hitters face an opposite-handed pitcher or its pitchers face a same-handed batter.

Through May 29.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Footnotes

  1. As always, averaging together the versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

  2. Specifically, giving 100 percent credit to its 10th-best pitcher’s WAR, 90 percent to its ninth-best pitcher’s WAR, 80 percent to its 8th-best and so forth.

  3. And better than the team’s 14th-place finish in 2002.

  4. Which measures how well a team combines hitting home runs and stealing bases.

  5. Who’s already just 1.6 WAR shy of passing Gonzalez as Arizona’s greatest-ever position player by WAR.

  6. The team’s second-best baserunner (behind Goldschmidt) is the 250-pound Yasmany Tomas, he of the seven career steals.

  7. This isn’t quite true if you use FanGraphs’ WAR, which considers Mel Ott better through age 20. And regular readers will know that I prefer to average B-R and FG’s WAR numbers together anyway, to smooth out discrepancies between the two methods. But for the purposes of this exercise, let’s stick with B-R, just to see whether Trout can keep up the feat in the eyes of at least one WAR system.

  8. Using the version from our interactive, which accounts for the starting pitcher in each game, rather than the version from our Complete History of MLB interactive.

  9. Starting in 1901, the first season of the American League.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments