The Diamondbacks Surprisingly Effective Starting Rotation
by Jim Silva
Every year there is a team – usually one that makes some big moves in the offseason – that becomes the pick hit to make the playoffs. Sometimes they do and often they don’t. Last year the Diamondbacks were that team. They had just added 9.2 of starting pitcher wins – the WAR kind – by signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. By now I’m sure you know that it didn’t work out according to plan as they lost 93 games. Everyone moved on this offseason and the new “surprise” team was the Rockies. Now an afterthought, the Diamondbacks are doing what people thought they would do in 2016 – they are playing winning baseball currently tangled with the Rockies and Dodgers atop the NL West and all within two games of each other. It isn’t because of Shelby Miller who lasted four starts before blowing out his elbow and undergoing TJ surgery. Greinke on the other hand – well that guy is pitching the way they thought he would when they paid him over $206 million (through the 2021 season) to start wearing all 87 of their funky-cool jerseys. But it isn’t only Greinke making the Diamondback’s rotation hum and that’s what we will be talking about starting with their ace Greinke.
It isn’t easy leaving a pitcher’s park and moving to a hitter’s park like Greinke did last year, especially when you are carrying the expectations of a franchise on your shoulders because of a monster contract. But Greinke was 32 when he arrived and had played in some big markets with hefty expectations. There is no way I am going to make the argument that performance anxiety, (in spite of his early history of being derailed by anxiety issues) caused the lanky righty to give up a half a homer a game more than his career average or strike out a half a batter fewer per game. You might want to blame it on the half mile per hour he lost off his fastball, but then how would you account for his improvement after he lost another mile an hour off his fastball this season? Greinke is a smart cookie and saw that his approach last season wasn’t working. It makes sense that he would make some changes, right? So far this season he has swapped some four seamers for some two seamers and started throwing way more sliders and fewer changeups (and slower changeups to match his slower fastball). His strikeout rate is up a lot from last year and his walk rate is down, so even though he is still getting taken deep more than once per nine innings, he is succeeding. His ERA is down more than a run from last season although that is likely to correct a bit as his BABIP is .279 about 20 points below his career rate, so there is probably some luck involved. Greinke isn’t dominant anymore but he is a good starting pitcher. He can probably continue to adjust as his fastball continues to become less fast, but at some point his wizardry might come face to face with time. For now that inevitability is in the future and the Diamondbacks can still count on Greinke to continue his winning ways at the front of their rotation.
As I mentioned already, Shelby Miller was expected to be a good starting pitcher for the Diamondbacks slotting in just behind Greinke. But last season was a train wreck for the then 25 year old Texan. He had escaped the Braves and landed on a team expected to compete in part because he would be taking the ball 32 times and keeping them in the game. Miller got off to a horrible start and never really looked like the beast he had been with the Braves. His ERA when April ended was 8.69. By the time June started he was sitting at 7.09. His ERA at the end of June was 6.79 – you get the idea. He ended up with an ERA of 6.15 – definitely not what the Diamondbacks thought they were getting when they traded the cow AND the magic beans to the Braves to get him. The best stretch of Miller’s season was his last two starts where he strung together 11 innings of shutout ball. So at least he had that to look back on during the offseason – the feeling that he had found how to succeed in Arizona. This spring it had to be on his mind and on manager Torey Lovullo’s mind – what would Miller contribute to his team in 2017? For three starts in April – especially his third start where he lasted into the eighth inning and only yielded a run on four hits and a walk – it looked like maybe Miller had found his old form and that had to thrill the Diamondbacks. Then came start number four against the Dodgers. Miller lasted into the fifth, went walk, walk, double and his season was over. Miller will not throw a baseball in anger for quite some time after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While losing Miller, who was looking at least solid, has to be heartbreaking for the Diamondbacks (and certainly the Miller family), Arizona hasn’t missed a beat. The big question is whether or not they can keep it up.
Do you remember the last time you had a blister on your hand? I don’t, but it probably involved a rake and a pile of leaves, or a shovel and a mound of dirt. Blisters are pesky little things for the weekend gardener, but for pitchers they are an impediment to doing your job. Dodger’s pitcher Rich Hill has had such a frustrating time with blisters on his pitching hand that there was speculation that he might move to the pen in spite of his status as the number two guy in the Dodgers rotation. The Diamondbacks have their own blister sufferer in Taijuan Walker. Walker has two full seasons under his belt now and in this, his third season, the man projected to be a star finally looks like he might be breaking out. Sorry, I know he is 24, but this is his 4th season up and third as a rotation stalwart hence the “finally”. The Diamondbacks gave up a lot to get him, but their rotation was in dire need of help so losing a starting middle infielder who might perennially challenge for a batting title seemed like a reasonable price to pay. Walker is due to come off the disabled list this week and hopefully his blister woes are a thing of the past. His peripherals looked good last year with a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.70 and strikeouts per nine innings of 7.97. What has killed Walker’s ERA each of the last two seasons has been the long ball. In 2015 he gave up 1.33 home runs per nine and in 2016 it was 1.81. Not many pitchers can survive those kinds of home run rates for very long. This season has been a different story for Walker. He has cut his home run rate dramatically so far allowing only 0.69 per nine leading to a 3.46 ERA. Walker has been a very valuable addition going at least five innings in all but one start and lasting at least six innings in four of his first nine starts. If Walker can get to 30 starts with an ERA under 4.00 then this season would be considered a big step up. It’s hard not to get ahead of yourself with a tall, athletic pitcher like Walker who throws a mid-90’s fastball, but if the D-Backs can keep in mind that he is only 24 then they should be able to temper their expectations at least for now.
Robbie Ray is a year older than Walker and has been pitching in the majors since 2014 when he debuted with the Tigers. Ray has always thrown hard, doubtless starting in the crib tossing high heat at teddy bears, based on how badass he looks with his mean guy beard. Last season Ray struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings, which is crazy good especially for a starting pitcher. He also limited the home run to 0.87 per nine which was under his career rate of just over one. What he didn’t do was go deep into games averaging about 5.33 per start. Something changed for Ray this season and it has pushed him to a new level as a starting pitcher. Even though his fastball hasn’t lost even a tick off last year’s velocity he has thrown it much less often dropping over 11% from 2015 and another 4% from 2016. He has also almost completely ditched his changeup and has started throwing his curveball harder and a lot more often – almost 20% of the time (0.2% in 2015). So far in 2017, he has not only maintained his strikeout rate, but increased it a bit. More importantly Ray is going deeper into his starts. He is averaging 6.33 innings each start meaning the bullpen isn’t working so hard in his starts, and he is getting more decisions. He is already at 7 wins – one shy of his career high for an entire season. Between his changed pitch mix and the effectiveness of his curveball – his most effective pitch based on a little stat called Curveball Runs Above Average – he is looking more like the ace of the staff than the number three guy. It could be argued that Ray’s increased effectiveness has been even more important than Greinke’s return to effectiveness. Either way you look at it, unless both events continue to occur simultaneously – the resurgence of Greinke and the development jump of Ray – then the Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere.
The four pitchers we have talked about so far are the four the Diamondbacks were counting on to anchor their rotation. But no rotation can make it through a season without someone dropping – just doesn’t happen. So teams need depth if they are going to last 162 games and have a winning record at the end. Patrick Corbin has filled a role in the rotation and in the pen since he made his major league debut for the Diamondbacks in 2012. He has served as the swingman moving back and forth between the rotation and long relief. In his best season so far – 2013 – he made 32 starts and was chosen for the All Star team at 24, looking like he might become an anchor in future Arizona rotations. Unfortunately, Corbin’s elbow went ‘sproing’ and yet another young pitcher had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Based on pitch velocity, Corbin is all the way back from the injury, but he has not had the results he had before the surgery. Is that a reflection of the injury, a change of approach, an indication that 2013 was a fluke, or some combination of some or all of the above? In his excellent 2013 Corbin was getting the best effect from his two-seam fastball and slider. Back then he threw the 2-seamer 51% of the time, the slider about 23% of the time, and the change about 10%. Last season, Corbin gave up a lot of hits, a multi-pass full of walks, and a space taxi’s worth of home runs leading to the auto-eject activating on his rotation spot in August. He was throwing the two-seamer 33% of the time although he was no longer having the same success with it. The slider was his most effective pitch and he was using it about 27% of the time while his changeup usage was back up to 10% in spite of it generating the worst pitch values of his career.
Corbin started 2017 back in the rotation full time and has hung in there so far in spite of his numbers trending even worse than last season. Now he is throwing his two-seam fastball only 25.5% of the time, his change about 9% of the time, and his slider more than 34% of the time. None of the pitches are receiving positive values from the pitch effectiveness tool, and I wonder if the mix or order of use is making everything, including his once excellent slider, less effective. I can’t imagine Corbin lasting in the rotation past the All Star break if this continues unless the Diamondbacks feel like they have no other choice because of injuries. He has value because he can eat innings and pitch from the pen, but if he continues to give up hits (.304 average against) and home runs (1.75 per nine) at the same alarming rates then a contending team like the Diamondbacks will no longer have time for his shenanigans.
With Miller’s injury and Corbin’s flame-inducing tendencies, Arizona had to call up Zack Godley from triple-A to make a start or two. Godley put up decent peripherals leading to awful results in 2016 in his second attempt at sticking in the majors. 2015 was a better experience for the right-hander so the Diamondbacks knew he had a chance against big league hitters even if he failed to show it in 2016. Desperation can be a nice motivator, and so far it has worked out well for the Diamondbacks as Godley has forced his way into the rotation with seven starts producing an ERA under 2.5 and a WHIP under 1.00. Godley induces an ungodly number of ground balls. With a ground ball rate around 61% he is close to the league lead in killing worms and in a hitters park where homers happen with decent if not alarming frequency, that is a trait to crush on if you are in Diamondback management. So even if there is some regression to the mean, if Godley can just be league average, the Diamondbacks will be thrilled and their rotation will continue to be a huge asset.
One other reason why Godley’s success is so important is because it allows Arizona to keep struggling starter turned dominant reliever, Archie Bradley in the pen. Bradley was the Diamondbacks top prospect not long ago, but struggled with control when exposed to the rigors of starting. Bradley has been nothing short of a revelation since he joined the pen. His walk rate is 2.12 which is about half of his career rate in the majors. Bradley is also striking out about 11 batters per nine innings and inducing ground balls – so keeping the ball in the park reasonably well. His ERA of 1.21 got people excited and there was a clamor to put him back in the rotation when Miller went down. But one reason the Diamondbacks pitching has improved so much is because they have Bradley coming out of the pen to get three outs and kill rallies. There is no guarantee that a return to the rotation would translate for Bradley for a couple of reasons. First of all, his fastball is four MPH faster than it was when he started – up to 96 from 92. Secondly, his slider velocity is also up as is the pace on his change, so everything he throws is coming in four miles an hour or more faster. He is able to rely on his four seam fastball and knuckle curve a lot more, which is great because they are his most effective pitches. He can throw his change or slider every once in awhile, but doesn’t have to show those two less effective pitches as often since he doesn’t face the same batter twice in a game. Bradley is only 24 so maybe he will hone one of his other pitches and find his mojo in the rotation again, but for now if the Diamondbacks can keep his wicked fastball-curveball combo in the pen, their starters won’t have to worry about leaving the game in the 5th or 6th.
Like the Rockies, the Diamondbacks weren’t exactly expected to find success through a revamped rotation, but here they are with a team ERA sitting at third in all of baseball. A lot of things can go wrong in the course of a 162 game baseball season, but with some luck and possibly a trade to add rotation depth, the Diamondbacks look poised to win a playoff spot – quite a step up after losing 93 games just last year. Do they have the horses to go deep into the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but for right now it’s a good time to take your hat with the fan on it to Chase Field – don’t forget your spray bottle or sunscreen either – and drink lots of water as you watch your Diamondbacks starters go deeper into games and your team go deeper into the postseason.