How Much Have the Diamondbacks Improved?

The Arizona Diamondbacks are more experienced than last year, ostensibly healthier than last year, and they've replaced Livan Hernandez with Dan Haren. How can they not improve on what was the National League's best overall record last season?

You've certainly heard that the Arizona Diamondbacks should have only won 79 games based on the number of runs scored and runs allowed last season.  But it gets worse.  Baseball Prospectus developed a stat called Third Order Wins that accounts for the components of runs (walks, hits, stolen bases, etc.) as well as the strength of opponents to determine how many wins a team would have won playing a completely balanced schedule with no luck involved.  The Diamondbacks actually finished with the fewest third order wins in the National League West last year by a hair.

Now, I don't believe for a minute that the Diamondbacks were worse than the San Francisco Giants last year, but I also don't buy that they were really the best team in the National League, or even the second best team in their division.  The Diamondbacks clearly took timely hitting to a level of unrepeatable proportions, and may have finished in fourth place more often than any other if the season were replayed 100 times.

But again, these Diamondbacks are much better than last year's baseline now.  Stephen Drew and Justin Upton almost have to hit better than they did last season.  Randy Johnson and Orlando Hudson could each play more games than last year.  Conor Jackson and Micah Owings are both excellent breakout candidates.  Dan Haren might be overrated, but he is an upgrade over Livo.

The trouble is, the Diamondbacks aren't the only team in the NL West that has improved.  There are a lot of young players in the division who promise to improve in 2008: Kevin Kouzmanoff, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley, Tim Lincecum, Kevin Frandsen, Jeff Francis, and Ian Stewart just get the list started.  Jim Edmonds, Tadahito Iguchi, Hiroki Kuroda, Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand, and Kip Wells headline some of the new talent in the division.  

Consider that the National League West had a pathetic aggregate winning percentage of .459 in 2005.  That mark improved to a respectable .499 in 2006 and to an impressive .520 figure last year.  If this division continues to improve at this rate, it will become the toughest division in all of baseball this season.

"We saw very early in the season last year that our division was going to be very competitive," manager Bob Melvin said during the offseason.  "The starting pitching in our division, the one-run games, how it ended up in the end with three teams right there, one game swinging either way on the outcome at the end of the season."

"All of those clubs have good systems," continued Melvin.  "The Giants have good running young pitching. Colorado has them here now and coming. We feel like we do, as well. The Dodgers have a great system and younger guys there, too, and probably some more resources. The Padres have won it two out of the last three or whatever it's been. Very good division top to bottom."

Speaking of top-to-bottom, the Diamondbacks had better make sure that their timely hitting does not take that path.  Last season, the Diamondbacks led the majors in pinch hit homers, RBI, and slugging.  Tony Clark, now departed to San Diego, was responsible for the majority of those numbers.  Miguel Montero, who looks as though he will begin the season on the disabled list, provided the rest.  This pinch-hitting success played a big part in the Diamondbacks' major league-leading 32-20 record in one-run games.
"Those one-run games again this year are going to be very important," Melvin admitted.

Besides timely hitting, a lights-out bullpen helped the Diamondbacks scratch out so many close ones.  That bullpen isn't likely to be as strong this year with the departure of Jose Valverde and his major league-best 47 saves. 

If the Diamondbacks had been merely average in one-run contests last season, it would have cost them six games in the standings, dropping them from best record in the NL to a tie for sixth with the Braves.  Unless Trot Nixon and Chad Qualls perform well beyond expectations in filling in for Clark and Valverde's roster spots, there's no reason to expect the team as constructed to perform better than .500 in close contests.

Prediction: Even though the Diamondbacks are a better team than they were last year, they will not improve upon their fortunate mark of 90 wins from last year, and even run the risk of falling 5-10 wins short of that total if the injury bug continues to bite.

Disagree?  Send questions or comments for Keith Glab to future_backs@yahoo.com 


Want to write for FutureBacks.com?  FutureBacks is now opening internships for the upcoming 2008 season.  If you live near one of the six Diamondbacks minor league affiliates, know baseball, and have a writing background, send your resume and two sample pieces of writing (at least one of which must be a journalistic piece about baseball) to future_backs@yahoo.com.   Applicants must be able to attend a minimum of three games per homestand, and students looking for course credit must get approval from their instructors. 

 

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