After shipping their best player to the Cardinals, do the Diamondbacks, who were in the NL West race for most of 2018, have a defining strength like great starting pitching or a terrifying offense? And moving forward, should the team work to shore up their weaknesses this season when they aren’t expected to seriously contend or should they double down on their area of greatest strength in an attempt to get the most out of what they have? Let’s examine what the Diamondbacks were actually good at last year and whether we can expect that to change.
4th in the league in Defensive Efficiency – what does that even mean? The simple version is that the Diamondbacks were really good at turning batted balls into outs. “DE” is a nice measure of team defense although like most defensive stats, it isn’t perfect. Still, it is good to see a measure that matches the widely held perception that the Diamondbacks were good at defense for the last few seasons and for the purpose of our discussion, in 2018. Understanding how the Diamondbacks became one of the best defensive teams in baseball matters when you are trying to decide if they are likely to be that again in 2019.
Nick Ahmed was a big piece of the defensive puzzle as the Diamondbacks primary shortstop in 2018 and has been considered somewhat of a defensive whiz in his time in the majors. Ahmed hit 16 homers last year which was a bit of a surprise considering he had never reached double figures in long balls in his professional career. Run production isn’t really what Ahmed does. Even last year when his wRC+ was 84 (a career high), he was well below league average as a hitter. The main problem is that he doesn’t get on base enough (.290 OBP playing his home games in one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball), so while the homers are cool and everything, even in his best season by far he hurt the team with his bat. To be clear, Ahmed is there for his excellent glove work. 5.5 UZR/150 and 21 DRS are both really good defensive numbers that support his 11 dWAR – Defensive Wins above Replacement. On balance, Ahmed ended up producing 1.7 WAR which is a bit below what you want from your starter, but fine for a placeholder. He will be back in the same spot unless he gets off to a really rough start with the bat and the Diamondbacks get tired of all the outs and give up on Ahmed.
Paul Goldschmidt is obviously a great hitter averaging 144 wRC+ for his career. But Goldschmidt is not a one trick pony – he is a great baserunner and a really good first baseman with three Gold Glove awards in his last six seasons. dWAR for first basemen is tough because the positional adjustment is extremely steep costing them around 12 runs. You can go look at how dWAR is calculated on Fangraphs.com, but let’s use DRS and UZR/150 to look at Goldy’s glove work. So far, Goldschmidt has saved 50 runs (DRS) and 1.5 runs (UZR/150) as the two measures disagree about how good he is at first base. It is safe to say that Goldschmidt is at worst a good defensive first baseman and possibly more. Losing him is devastating to the offense and at least bad for the team defense. We will circle back to his replacement and what he will bring to the team.
The Diamondbacks second baseman for most of 2018 was Ketel Marte, a converted shortstop who contributed 104 wRC+ with the bat in 2018 as a 24 year old and had a 7 DRS season (1 UZR/150) at second with additional contributions at shortstop. He was a good middle infielder and a particularly good second baseman if not quite at Gold Glove quality. Interestingly, the Diamondbacks have announced that Marte will be their center fielder next year because they couldn’t find anyone else good enough to play the position in their organization and they thought he would be able to make the conversion. Marte is an excellent athlete so he may very well be able to make the conversion and turn into an above average center fielder, but there is certainly a risk. You are essentially letting go of a quality second baseman in exchange for a center fielder who will be learning on the job. It comes down to who the replacement will be at second, as well as how quickly Marte can learn the intricacies of his new position. There is likely to be a drop off in production at both spots at least for part of the season and that will hurt the defense.
The reason Arizona needs a center fielder is because A.J. Pollock, their primary center fielder for the last seven seasons, left via free agency this off-season. Pollock has averaged 113 wRC+ for his career and contributed 50 DRS and 5.9 UZR/150 as a center fielder. The new LA Dodger leaves the D-Backs with “only” one Gold Glove to his credit, in part because of his injury history that has placed him on the DL, costing him a lot of playing time in his career. Still, Pollock’s loss will be felt on offense and defense.
The replacement for Ketel Marte at second base is almost certain to be newly acquired Wilmer Flores. Flores is 27 and has been with the Mets his whole career. He was primarily a shortstop for the Metropolitans, but has played first, second, and third as well. Defensive metrics are a bit conflicted about Flores as a second baseman with DRS seeing him costing the Mets 9 runs over his career and UZR/150 at a more optimistic positive contribution of 1.5 runs. Flores is more loved for his bat than his glove with a career wRC+ of 99 and a career dWAR of -0.3. He will probably benefit from playing everyday, and from playing the same position everyday, so if he can at least be a push defensively at second and a 100 or so wRC+ guy, then that’s not a disaster for the Diamondbacks even if it degrades their defense slightly (which is likely).
Third base was the domain of Jake Lamb since his debut in 2014. Lamb is only 27 and was an All Star in 2017 and has two seasons of 29 and 30 home runs (2016 and 2017 respectively), but lost his job to Eduardo Escobar as Lamb struggled through a horrible season at the plate. His wRC+ of 78 was only slightly offset by his DRS of 5 and his UZR/150 of 3.6. Lamb has never put up good numbers with the glove so if this improvement on defense is real, it might help him resurrect his career as a starting third baseman although maybe not with Arizona as the Diamondbacks have extended late season acquisition Eduardo Escobar through the 2021 season. It is an interesting move in that Escobar is 30 and has only breached 100 wRC+ once in the last three season (2018 where he put up 117 wRC+). Escobar has played literally everywhere including pitching and catching, but has primarily been a shortstop and third baseman. He is solid defensively on the infield and should be a touch better at third than Lamb, unless you see Lamb’s defensive development last season as real improvement. The Diamondbacks might choose to make Lamb the regular at third and use Escobar everywhere in an attempt to rehabilitate Lamb’s profile so they could trade him. They could also keep Lamb as the starter at third and capitalize on Escobar’s versatility, unless there is something we don’t know about Lamb and they don’t think he can return to his previously level or ever get to where they thought he would before last season’s debacle. Either way, it doesn’t appear that there will be much of a change defensively at third base over what they saw in 2018.
If the Diamondbacks make Lamb the regular first baseman then there will almost certainly be a drop off at the position from Goldschmidt. Lamb has played a total of 9 games at first base as a professional and while he will likely be able to make the conversion, even the best case scenario doesn’t have him turning into an elite defender like Goldy in 2019. Arizona has a few other internal options to play first if Lamb struggles or they move him back to third. Christian Walker had a huge 2017 at triple-A and a pretty good 2018 back in the same spot, but has been largely blocked at the major league level and is now 27 with 99 career plate appearances in the Bigs. Walker isn’t a hidden star, but based on his ability to hit home runs and take walks, he could contribute to the lineup given regular playing time. In his limited time in the majors he has put up ugly defensive numbers but the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions about his defensive ability at first base. His minor league numbers show him to be able to play first base cleanly at least. Kevin Cron’s offensive profile looks similar to Walker’s, but he is two years younger and has more power but walks less often. Cron hasn’t tasted major league food yet so the same caveats about minor league defensive numbers apply. Cron is a better prospect than Walker and deserves a chance to show what he can do with major league pitching. He probably won’t be a star but he could be a decent late middle of the order bat, but won’t get a chance if Escobar is at third and Lamb at first. The bottom line at first base is that there will almost certainly be a defensive decline no matter who they use there and there will definitely be a huge decline in offensive production.
One of the returns for Goldschmidt was catcher, Carson Kelly. Kelly has been the understudy to Yadier Molina for a couple seasons now and has put up good pitch framing numbers in his limited playing time. Jeff Mathis is gone after putting up 87 DRS at catcher for his career including 17 last year. Unfortunately, Mathis hit like a wet piece of paper with a career wRC+ of 50 – ack! Alex Avila, who split time with Mathis last year, is a bat first catcher with poor framing numbers but good power. Avila will probably see the light end of a platoon and some time at first base. The defense won’t be as good at the catcher’s spot but the offense should improve significantly with Kelly taking Mathis’ spot.
We have already looked at center field, which will likely see a drop off from Pollock’s defense to Marte’s at least at first, but what about the corner outfield spots? David Peralta will return in left after a huge comeback season here – he put up 3.8 WAR driven mostly by his 130 wRC+ and a career high 30 home runs (his previous high was 17). His defensive numbers show him to be a solid defender with career DRS of 4 in left field and 0.3 UZR/150. His defensive reputation is better than his numbers so he is probably somewhere between excellent and solid. He is 31 so even a slow decline will probably take a little shine off his glove. Still, left field should remain stable from a defensive standpoint.
In the other corner (wearing the snakeskin trunks) is Steven Souza Jr. who is coming off an unmitigated disaster of a 2018 season. Souza Jr. is 29 and was coming off a breakout campaigns with the Rays in 2017 where he hit 30 home runs, contributed 120 wRC+, and saved 7 runs via DRS or 5.4 if you like UZR/150 better. Either way, it looked like he had finally turned into a low batting average/high walk total home run hitter who could play excellent defense in right and probably win all your bar fights for you as he is 6’4/225 and looks like a fast linebacker. Last year he battled multiple arm and back injuries that started in spring training, and struggled to a wRC+ of 84 and saw his defensive numbers drop below zero. If he comes back healthy, then the Diamondbacks should expect a big bump on offense and a slight bump on defense from Souza Jr..
For a team to have one of the best defenses in baseball for multiple seasons takes some intention and a commitment to a philosophy. They have to make a statement with their actions that they will put people in the best positions to succeed defensively and potentially sacrifice some offense to make that happen. With the trade of Goldschmidt, the departure of Pollock and Mathis via free agency, and moving Marte off second base, they are still making a statement – that they no longer believe in fielding the best defense they can. While there are many different ways to win, losing Goldschmidt, Pollock, and Patrick Corbin (their best starting pitcher last season) makes it look like they are rebuilding. So far this isn’t a typical rebuild where they trade everyone of value for youngsters as they still have Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Peralta, and valuable bullpen arm, Archie Bradley. If they aren’t rebuilding but just resetting somehow then this current state of diminished defense could be temporary as they prepare for their next state whatever that may be. Looking at the lineup as it stands today, less than a week before pitchers and catchers report, it seems that there is almost no way the Diamondbacks are a top five defense in 2019. It isn’t as though they have just shifted ponies and will now be a great offensive team because Pollock and Goldschmidt haven’t been replaced with elite hitters (or really replaced at all). If the Diamondbacks trade some of the aforementioned veterans, then their intentions to rebuild will be clear. If they hold onto them and make some acquisitions to improve at first base or center field then that would seem to indicate that they are just changing direction. Take note during spring training and the first half of the season to see what the Diamondbacks are to become next.