Shagging Flies in The Desert
by Jim Silva
There has been one sheriff in Phoenix for a couple years now, and that has been Paul Goldschmidt. Not that the Diamondbacks didn’t have any other good players, but none of the youngsters had reached star status until last season. A.J. Pollock took his game to another level in 2015 and became the deputy to Goldy’s sheriff. Pollock has been an underrated centerfielder for the last couple of years. In 2015 – his age 27 season – he put it all together saving his team 14 runs according to DRS (defensive runs saved), and putting up a 7.4 WAR season.
Pollock’s previous two seasons had been good by most measures. In 2013 and 2014 he put together 3.5 and 3.9 WAR seasons respectively, while also saving his team 12 and 8 runs according to DRS. Pollock won a Gold Glove last season and actually deserved it if you believe the defensive numbers. A couple of factors turned him from a good player into a star last season. First of all, A.J. increased his walk rate and decreased his strikeout rate. It wasn’t a huge change, but the 53 walks combined with his .315 average drove his on-base percentage from his previous high of .353 to .367. He spent more time hitting in the two hole, but he also was the leadoff hitter 48 times. That .367 on-base percentage would make him a good candidate to bat first on most teams, but his power and batting average might make him a two or three-hole hitter on a team with so many high on-base percentage candidates. Pollock also showed excellent speed and the ability to steal bases with a high success rate – 39 steals at 85% last season. This represented a big jump for Pollock who had stolen 27 bases in his previous 862 major league plate appearances. A move to the two hole in front of Goldschmidt might decrease Pollock’s stolen base totals, but he will still steal at a high success rate.
One of the other pieces that came together for Pollock last season was a swap of some doubles for home runs. He reached double digits in home runs, with 20, for the first time in his career. He still swatted 39 doubles and chipped in six triples for 65 extra-base hits on the year. His slugging percentage didn’t change from 2014, staying at exactly .498 again, but it was achieved by a decrease in doubles and an increase in home runs. As Pollock was 27 and experiencing his first full season’s worth of at-bats, it is reasonable to expect the homer spike to stick around and maybe even increase with experience and health, especially if his walk rate/strikeout rate growth continues. Pollock’s growth is real and should be the new normal for the next few years giving the Diamondbacks two hitting stars who can also pick it with the best of them.
ESPN reports that David Peralta will move to right field in 2016 to accommodate Yasmany Tomas. Peralta should get close to 600 plate appearances this season after the Diamondbacks dealt away Ender Enciarte. The 2015 version of David Peralta did an excellent job in his 517 plate appearances with a slash line of .312/.371/.522. That’s quite a slash line for his second season in the majors. Peralta showed excellent bat control making contact with 86% of the pitches he swung at that were in the strike zone, where about 80% is average. He also showed good strike zone discipline offering at just under 33% of pitches outside of the strike zone, which was an improvement from 2014, and well below the average, which was approximately 46%. With 53 extra-base hits in 517 plate appearances, he showed excellent power, hitting 26 doubles, 17 home runs, and leading the league with 10 triples. The one area where Peralta showed weakness was against lefties. His slash line against freaks who throw from the wrong side was .250/.311/.375 – pretty anemic. More at-bats against lefties will either drive down his batting average below .300, or he will make adjustments and become even scarier at the plate. Peralta batted in the four hole more often than not in 2015, so there will be many chances to drive in Goldschmidt and Pollock if they bat in the 3rd spot and 2nd spot respectively.
Peralta’s glove is a little harder to call after two seasons in the majors. Last season, he saved 15 runs with positioning and cutting off extra-base hits but gave them back plus a few with mistakes and poor throws. He is a converted pitcher so you would expect a canon for an arm, so perhaps the issue is with accuracy. His range was above league average at all three outfield spots, so if the throwing issue was a one year aberration, then he should be a plus defender with a power bat in 2016.
Yasmany Tomas defected from Cuba in 2014 and signed an enormous contract with Arizona – six years for $68.5 million. He is 25 ,and had played for the Cuban national team but didn’t have much minor league experience when the Diamondbacks brought him up to the big league team – 21 at bats at Reno. Perhaps it was the big contract that inspired Arizona to rush him to the majors. Tomas is a big man, and looks like he could crush the ball just by looking at it. Unfortunately that isn’t what happened last season when he was called up.
His showing in spring training had many believing that he could not hang at third base and his work there in 31 games proved it as he cost his team six runs, according to DRS, and showed below league average range. He also made six errors in his limited time there for a .918 fielding percentage. In an attempt to give his bat a chance to shine without his glove detracting so much, the Diamondbacks shifted him to right field where he cost his team yet another six runs.
Considering the fact that the Diamondbacks had three excellent outfielders last season (they traded Ender Enciarte during the off-season), a lot of trouble was made to try to keep Tomas on the field, so you would think that he must have raked like a beast. In fact, his slash line was .275/.305/.401 – not exactly raking. With only 31 extra-base hits in 426 plate appearances he didn’t deliver the thump that would have made up for the lack of on-base skills. With 110 strikeouts to go with only 17 walks, he didn’t get to exploit pitchers needing to throw strikes when they got behind. His swing rate was high – he swung at 57% of pitches thrown to him, and his contact rate was low – he put his bat on only 72% of pitches thrown. Subsequently, pitchers threw him strikes only 44.75 percent of the time, which is below average. He makes good contact when he swings at strikes, but flails when he chases pitches out of the strike zone.
The Diamondbacks are clearly invested in Tomas, so he will have every opportunity to fail or succeed in 2015 as the starting left-fielder. Having Enciarte around to be his caddie next year would have helped, but since that won’t happen he will face all comers and sink or swim on his own. He hits lefties harder but wasn’t hopeless against righties so a platoon isn’t necessary. More disconcerting are his splits – first versus second half of the season. His slash line in the first half was an encouraging .313/.351/.448, but whether pitchers figured him out or something else happened to Tomas, his second half slash line plummeted to .208/.228/.325. Those are reserve middle infielder numbers, not big, lumbering corner outfielder numbers. The Diamondbacks should be scared that their $68 million investment might be a half-season wonder. His 2016 spring training was encouraging, and a hot start will put to rest fears that he can’t adjust to big league pitching. But if he struggles in the first half or has similar second half woes, what is to be done? Arizona has invested a lot of money in the Cuban star and they pushed him directly to the majors with no adjustment time. Should they send him down and work with him on what to do when pitchers discover a weakness? Unless he stops chasing, he will never realize his potential at the plate, and if he doesn’t have that, well, he doesn’t have anything.
With Ender Enciarte gone, who will play the outfield when the guys mentioned above are at a baby shower or driving their mom up the coast to a wedding? The Diamondbacks are not afraid to push their young prospects fast, so it would not be a surprise to see Socrates Brito make the team out of spring training as the fourth outfielder. Old Socrates has a few things going for him, aside from his cool name, that make him a reasonable pick to be the guy. He is reported to have a good arm and sound glove and his very small sample size in the majors last season support this as he saved the D-Backs three runs (DRS). He also showed tremendous range in right – again small sample size caveats apply here. Brito is clearly fast, as evidenced by his 21 steals in 27 attempts last year, and his 118 career steals. It is not a stretch to envision him playing center to spell Pollock and he can clearly handle either corner. The two big issues with the husband of Xanthippe – oh wait, that’s the other Socrates – is that he doesn’t walk enough, and he doesn’t hit home runs. In defense of the fleet young outfielder, he hits for a high average (.303 in his cup of coffee in the majors to go with a career .288 mark in the minors), and he musters enough doubles and triples to avoid being labeled a slap hitter. Another thing Brito has going for him is that he is the best option. The Diamondbacks system was ranked 24th by Keith Law in his annual prospect rankings, and Socrates Brito was the only D-Back outfielder ranked in the organization’s top 10. There is some risk as Brito jumped from AA to play in 18 major league games last season, so he might be overmatched, although he looked good in his very limited debut.
It’s hard to get excited about the 5th outfield spot, unless of course you are the one occupying the 5th outfield spot. In the case of the Diamondbacks, one possible winner of the “last spot on the roster” derby could be Peter O’Brien. You can read more about him in the Diamondbacks Catching article entitled, “Beef and Tuffy Catching for The Rattlers?”, but suffice it to say he will spend a lot of time on the bench and get his at-bats as a pinch hitter. O’Brien is a butcher in the field but can “play” left field, first base and possibly stop the ball from skittering to the backstop when the pitcher throws. What O’Brien does that gets him on rosters is hit balls to the moon – a nice skill to have on your bench. If he doesn’t get the bench spot, and instead gets sent to the minors, it will be because the Diamondbacks need someone who can field acceptably, and because Arizona still wants to try to turn O’Brien into a complete player who can field acceptably somewhere.
The Diamondbacks lack depth in the outfield and have some uncertainty with Tomas. If he fails, then they are into very risky territory with a talented, but raw youngster just up from AA in Brito, or a powerful free-swinging statue in O’Brien. But Pollock and Peralta give them a solid to spectacular profile in center and right, and if Tomas pans out to be at least decent, then the Diamondbacks will have one of the better all-around outfields in the West.