Putting Your Chips On Red, 2016
by Jim Silva
Pitching in Arizona is not fun. It’s probably more fun than pitching in Colorado, but it is clearly challenging. Last season, the Diamondbacks pitchers finished in the bottom half of the majors in earned run average (4.04), WHIP – walks plus hits per innings pitched (1.33), batting average against (.258), and most telling, and likely the reason GM Dave Stewart made some of the moves he made in the off-season, quality starts (25th). It must have been fun to go to D-Backs games because the ball was flying all over the place! Of the six men who started most of the games for Arizona last season, five of them gave up an average of more than a home run per nine innings. Their ace, Rubby De La Rosa gave up 32 long balls all by himself, one dinger away from tying for the league lead. Only two NL teams gave up more home runs than Arizona – The Rockies (of course, I mean they play in Coors Field!), and the Phillies, who were, and still are in a complete rebuild. But even with starting pitching that gave up a lot of home runs and finished 23rd in all of baseball in ERA, the Diamondbacks finished 3rd in the West only two games below .500. In other words, the team had a championship caliber offense, but was undermined by a sub-par pitching staff. It was pretty clear what Dave Stewart needed to do, although how he achieved his goal will likely be talked about for years to come.
The Diamondbacks made the biggest splash this off-season by signing free agent starting pitcher Zack Greinke, who would have been an ace, except he pitched on the same team as Clayton Kershaw. Greinke was coming off his best season and nobody expected him to sign with Arizona – it looked like a two horse race between the Dodgers and the Giants – but 6 years and $206.5 million got the deal done, making Greinke a Snake. But Stew wasn’t done there. He went out and got another starting pitcher by trading away a package that included the guy they got with the very first pick in last year’s draft, Dansby Swanson, who many think is as “can’t miss” as prospects get.
Zack Greinke is 31, has a Cy Young Award (2009 with KC), a pair of Gold Glove Awards, three All Star game appearances, and a handful of MVP votes. He also has an impressive .604 career winning percentage bolstered by his 19-3 record last season for the Dodgers when he finished second in the Cy Young voting. The won-lost record last year was amazing, but he did some other things even more amazing in what was probably his best season ever.
Greinke’s control is excellent. Last season he struck out 200 batters while only walking 40 in nearly 223 innings. Those numbers are in line with Greinke’s career numbers, but his league-leading 0.844 WHIP was his best mark by a good stretch. He also led the league in winning percentage at .864, ERA+ (park adjusted ERA relative to the league) with 225, ERA with a sterling 1.66 mark and possibly, most babies saved from a burning building. While not a league-leading mark, Zack also was stingy with the long ball, allowing only 0.6 home runs per nine innings. That last number will be a welcome sight in Arizona if he can come even close to replicating it. Granted, he amassed that in one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball. Another category that Mr. Greinke led that makes him a perfect potential savior for the Diamondbacks starting rotation, was quality starts – he made 30 to best even Jake Arrieta (the Cy Young Award winner), who had 29, and pitching god, Clayton Kershaw who made 27. So yes, Zack Greinke is within acceptable parameters as a starting pitcher. If the Diamondbacks have anything that should keep them awake at night, it might be that there is almost no way he can repeat his last season – not just because it was such a great season, but also because his new home park is hard on pitchers. Will fans in Arizona be disappointed if Greinke’s ERA “blows up” into the threes? What if it touches 4.00? Greinke has pitched in a hitter’s park before (Milwaukee in 2011 and 2012) and managed to keep his ERA below 3.00. Regression to the mean, however, is a beast (or something else unpleasant that starts with a ‘b’).
Shelby Miller has started at least 31 games in each of the last three seasons – led the league with 33 last season – and he is only 25. The D-Backs paid a hefty price to pry him away from the Braves. The obvious question, “Is he worth it?” is already being asked and written about exhaustively. Miller did something last year that he has done in each of his three full seasons in the majors. He kept his hits per nine innings right around 8.0 (7.9, 7.9, and 8.0). This is important because Miller has walked between 3.0 and 3.6 batters per nine innings – 3.2 last season – so he has to limit the number of hits in order maintain a WHIP in the 1.2s. He also took an important step last season that portends well for him in Arizona. The 6’3” righty kept the ball in the park better than in any previous season, limiting hitters to 0.6 home runs over nine innings. In his first two full campaigns, he had allowed 1.0 and 1.1 jacks per nine innings, so if this is real growth, Miller has a chance to succeed in Arizona. If it is an aberration, then his ERA is likely to jump quite a bit in the dry air of Phoenix. One note of caution: his splits are cause for concern as his WHIP and ERA both jumped in the second half. Temper that caution with the knowledge that he threw more innings last year than in any season of his career so maybe he was just tuckered out.
With a 94 MPH average fastball and a nasty change that he throws about 20% of the time, you would think Rubby De La Rosa would fool more batters than he does, but based on his numbers from last season, which are in line with his career numbers, it’s Rubby who is getting fooled. Starting with his ERA+, which hasn’t bested 100 since his rookie year of 2011, to his home runs per nine innings mark (career: 1.3, 2015: 1.5), there isn’t much, other than durability to recommend him. At some point your “stuff” has to translate into results and that hasn’t happened for the 26 year old Dominican. There were two positive notes for Rubby last year. His WHIP dropped again last year from 1.500 in 2013, to 1.485 in 2014, down to 1.357 in 2015. Still way too many baserunners – especially for someone who gives up 32 home runs – but consistent improvement nonetheless. De La Rosa also saw a slight improvement in his strikeout to walk ratio from 2.11 in 2014 up to 2.38 in 2015, mostly on the back of an increased strikeout rate as his walk rate remain largely unchanged (3.1 per nine in 2014 to 3.0 per nine in 2015). Still, he is far too hittable and gives up way too many baserunners as well as home runs. With the diminished pressure that comes from having more quality starters ahead of you, perhaps De La Rosa can improve enough to make him more than a consumer of innings (188.67 in 2015) for the Diamondbacks, his 14 wins notwithstanding.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have one part of your body replaced with another part of your body? You know, put your left leg where your right arm used to be – that kind of thing? Well, Patrick Corbin is one of the increasing numbers of humans who have done that via Tommy John surgery. The lefty from Clay, New York had his surgery in 2014 and made his mostly triumphant return in July of 2015. This season he will come to spring training after a relatively normal off-season where no doctors tried to swap his right eye for his nose or anything, and more recovery time under his belt. Corbin was looking like an ace in the making before he hurt himself, and his return last summer showed that he could still pitch. Corbin managed 16 starts last season and actually showed some improved numbers, even from his All-Star 2013 season, before his elbow popped. His FIP (ERA independent of fielding) dropped a touch from 3.43 to 3.35. Corbin increased his strikeouts to walk ratio from 3.30 to 4.59 by increasing his strikeout rate by just over a half-k per nine, and dropping his walk rate by a half walk per nine. Two concerns (other than no longer having his actually elbow ligament in his throwing elbow anymore) were a slight bump in his home rate from 0.8 to 1.0 and a substantial jump in his hit rate. He gave up 9.6 hits per nine innings bumping his WHIP from his 1.166 rate in 2013 to 1.271 in 2015. Corbin was more hittable last season as his 2013 rate was 8.2 hits per nine innings. Corbin looked like an ace in the making in 2013 based on his results and his workload. Not many starters notch 200 innings anymore, but Corbin did in 2013. As a 25 year old with Tommy John surgery in his past, it is probably unwise to try to get 200 innings out of him again, at least not right away. Replacing quality with quantity though – now that’s a good trade! If Corbin can stay healthy and put up numbers comparable to what he did last year, then he slots in nicely behind Greinke, either in front of or behind Miller. Corbin’s fastball/slider combo has worked quite well, even in Arizona, so having him back for a full season – even without the addition of Greinke and Miller – makes the Diamondbacks a better team.
Arizona has a very young team – the youngest in the majors by a year – which should scare the rest of the league. Their likely 5th starter will be 24 year old Robbie Ray. Ray threw his fastball a lot in 2015 – 72% of the time, mixing it with his slider, and change-up. The 6’2” lefty had the lowest ratio of home runs allowed per nine innings of the six most frequently used starters for Arizona in 2015 at 0.6. He also allowed the fewest hits per nine innings at 8.5, and struck out the most batters per nine innings with 8.4, so by some peripherals he was the best starter in the group. Where he fell back to the pack was his control. Ray gave up 3.5 freebies per nine – even worse than De La Rosa, inflating his WHIP to 1.332. The walk rate was below his career rate of 4.0, so Ray improved while making strides elsewhere in his game. He’s tough to hit, and if last season is any indication, he is becoming tough to go deep on. He could very well climb over De La Rosa in the rotation if he can hold onto his gains and take the next step in his growth.
For a brief, shining moment, it looked like Archie Bradley was going to have a stellar debut fitting of a top prospect. He was making headlines with his excellent start and then made a headline of another sort when he took a line drive to the face off the bat of Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies. There is a history of pitchers suffering a similar fate who could not get past the terror and get back to pitching fearlessly – understandably so. Bradley is, you know, young – just 23. The line drive off his face didn’t dramatically change his control as he had just come off a six-inning start where he put five guys on. Also, his minor league career walk rate is 4.7 free passes per nine – untenable. What did change was his hit rate. After giving up only seven hits in his first 18.66 innings, Bradley came back three weeks later and gave up 27 hits in his last 15.67 innings. Small sample size caveats apply to all of these numbers – lots of guys start off hot and then cool down – but he was quite awful after his return, so a wait-and-see approach is advisable when young Archibald next appears on the mound. Keep in mind that our guy has been around the top of the prospect ranks since he was drafted so he will get more chances than you would if you were to walk into a tryout camp in say, Rancho Cucamonga. He is likely to be the first option should one of the top five starters blow up.
A converted shortstop, Braden Shipley will start his 2016 pitching for the triple-A Reno Aces. After succeeding, for the most part, in his full season at double-A in 2015, the Diamondbacks will be keeping a close eye on Shipley to see if he is ready in case of an injury, or just plain crappiness, in the major league rotation. He has already jumped over Archie Bradley and is now the top ranked prospect for Arizona. Double-A is tough, so a slight increase in his walk rate while keeping his home run rate at 0.4 is good news. The fact that his strikeout rate (6.8 k’s per nine) dropped is something to keep an eye on. It was his first season under 8.0 k’s per nine, and indicates that he wasn’t missing as many bats as he had in the past. Depending on how he handles triple-A batters he is likely to see what Arizona looks like in the summer or at least in the early fall of 2016.
Increased depth, a better top of the rotation, and two youngsters almost ready to jump the rotation who are working on it at triple-A will push the Diamondbacks toward the top of the NL West this year. They gave up a ton of resources (money and prospects) to pull in an ace and a number two starter who are now locked up for a few years. If Greinke is Greinke and Miller is close to what he looked like last season, the Diamondbacks will be greatly improved in 2016. Will it be enough to best the Dodgers and Giants? I mean all three teams have studs at the top of the rotation. Their fortunes might be decided by the back of the rotation, and of course health. It should be a great race though.