D'Back Struggles Prompt Change In Leadership

With a young core seemingly ready to take the next step, Arizona entered the season with high expectations in a wide-open division. So far, though, the master plan has not exactly worked out in Phoenix.

According to sources, the Arizona Diamondbacks plan on firing manager Bob Melvin on Friday. Former catcher A.J. Hinch is expected to move out of the front office and take over the reigns. Melvin has been on the hot seat for the past week in the aftermath of the Diamondbacks' poor 12-17 start.

Ownership is frustrated with the rough opening month, prompting the change.

With a young core seemingly ready to take the next step, Arizona entered the season with high expectations in a wide-open division. Anything is possible in the weak National League West, of course, but especially for a team with two legitimate frontline starting pitchers in ace Brandon Webb and Dan Haren.

So far, though, the master plan has not exactly worked out in Phoenix.

Webb, who felt discomfort in his shoulder during his only start, is currently on the disabled list and will likely not return until the first week in June.

The loss of the former Cy Young award winner, however, is just the tip of the iceberg of the problems facing the D'Backs, who have allowed 22 more runs than they have scored and are currently nine games back of the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers.

Hitting is where the real issues lie. Arizona has plated just 102 runs overall, averaging a paltry 3.64 runs per game; only the San Fransisco Giants have scored fewer runs as a team.

The offense truly has been terrible so far, combining to post a line of .225/.297/.385, for a .683 OPS and anemic 73 park-adjusted OPS+, in 921 at-bats over 28 games. As a point of comparison, the National League team average line is .256/.337/.408 in 911 at-bats.

It is extremely difficult for a team to produce runs when its lineup does not generate enough base runners. The D'Backs, relying on many hitters with free-swinging tendencies, have certainly proven that. Arizona is the only team in baseball with a sub-.300 on-base percentage; the lack of runs is not a coincidence, ladies and gentlemen. Not to mention, its offense also rounds out the rear on the circuit in batting average while ranking 25th in the majors in slugging percentage. Only two teams, the Giants and Oakland Athletics, have put a lower wOBA than its .302 mark as well.

Perhaps most telling, the Diamondbacks have produced a -2.7 VORP--yes, negative!--as a group. The majority of starters have underperformed significantly. In FanGraphs' batting runs feature, the entire offense has a whole has produced -34.5 runs below a lineup made up of replacement-level hitters.

Justin Upton (130), Mark Reynolds (122), Felipe Lopez (115) and Augie Ojeda (101) are the only regulars on the roster with a league average or better OPS+.

Upton, who was nearly sent down to the minors after a terrible first few weeks, has picked it up to provide one of the few bright spots. He is hitting .284/.363/.556 with six home runs, putting to rest any talk about a demotion to Triple-A. He is one of the few hitters doing his job as of late.

Losing emerging stud shortstop Stephen Drew to injury hurt a lot, but, outside of Upton, nearly every young position player has really struggled at the plate.

None more than Chris Young, who has struck out in 32.3 percent of his plate appearances, produced a poor 5.9% walk rate and is batting .177/.233/.333 with a 42 OPS+. Young has pretty much been someone who can almost be penciled in for an out before he steps into the batter's box; seriously, he is still only 25, but when will he mature as a hitter?

Arizona is also getting nothing from two positions normally expected to provide plus offensive output: first base and left field.

Conor Jackson has practically been a guaranteed out so far while providing below-average defense in left field, producing a line of .177/.233/.333 and 31 OPS+. Not exactly ideal numbers at the position, one could say; Carlos Quentin would be a good fit right about now, huh?

First baseman Chad Tracy has not been much better, though, with a .224/.256/.395 clip and .651 attached to his name.

The Diamondbacks' contact issues in recent past have been well documented, with so many high strikeout hitters on the roster. The trend has continued, as the club has struck out in 24.0 percent of all its plate appearances, good for 29th in the entire league. Arizona has produced a 9.0 BB% rate, on the other hand, and also sits near the bottom with a 0.41 BB/K ratio.

Pinning all of these failures on Melvin is misguided, obviously. Something really has to give, though, and the aforementioned hackers need to make adjustments and mature as professional hitters. A change in leadership could make a difference, but the problems seem to be more of a result or personnel, at least offensively.

Even in the absence of Webb, the pitching has been solid for the Snakes.

Haren has pitched brilliantly, posting a 1.47 ERA, 315 ERA+ and 2.16 FIP in six starts. The 28-year-old right-hander has been a victim of bad luck and received almost no run support, though, and is thus only 3-3; that record is only more proof that wins are fairly worthless when it comes to evaluating pitchers. He has produced excellent peripherals as well, with rates of 1.5 BB/9, 9.8 K/9 and 6.71 K/BB.

The rest of the D'Backs' starting rotation has also been productive. Doug Davis (131), newcomer Jon Garland (115) and flamethrower Max Scherzer (137) are pitching at well above average levels, yet have not received much run support, either. Number five starter Yusmeiro Petit is the only rotation member with a sub-100 ERA+, so getting Webb back and pushing him out of the mix will help a lot; he has been lit up for 18 earned runs, 20 total, in 20.2 innings pitched. As a staff, though, they have posted the third-lowest starters' ERA (3.74) in the bigs.

Led by closer Chad Qualls, Juan Gutierrez and Tony Pena, the Arizona bullpen has also been an area of strength. Qualls has continued to miss bats, producing a 12.27 K/9 rate in 11.0 innings pitched. He has yet to surrender a home run, either, and is sporting a nifty 188 ERA+ and 1.27 FIP through Thursday.

Gutierrez has also been a high strikeout guy and effective weapon in high leverage situations. The hard-throwing right-hander, averaging 94.6 MPH on his fastball this spring, has punched out 12.0 batters per nine innings and is pitching to the tune of a 154 ERA+ and 1.72 FIP.

Pena, relying on his mid-90s heater, has also been lights out, going 3-0 with a ridiculous 351 ERA+.

Arizona pitchers have been worth 3.9 value wins and $17.6-M overall, according to FanGraphs. Only four teams, it is worth mentioning, have received more value out of their pitching staffs. The D'Backs are also third in the National League in pitcher VORP.

As well, Arizona has been a bit above-average in the third leg of the run prevention equation, team defense. The club ranks 13th in baseball, and ninth in the N.L., in defensive efficiency, having converted 69.5 percent of batted balls hit into play into outs.

Clearly, putting up--and not preventing--runs on the scoreboard is the major reason why the D'Backs have gotten off to such a poor start. Melvin, of course, is not the sole reason for the losing, but he will fall on the sword. Perhaps a change in the clubhouse and dugout will spark a surge, but the hitting issues need to be addressed, and while the sample size is still small, many players need to pick it up soon or potentially be replaced.

A little regression to the mean--in a positive way--will undoubtedly occur for Arizona offensively. Drew will return at shortstop, and, after his impressive 2008 campaign, seems poised to enforce his place among the top offensive middle infielders around.

Also, Jackson, Tracy and Young cannot possibly be this bad.

Each player will improve. Hopefully a lot.

The D'Backs' league-worst .264 batting average on balls in play--.280 was the lowest BABIP team total in '08--is also only going to go up.

Add Webb back into the mix and the Snakes will more closely resemble the ball club that Baseball Prospectus projected to win 88 games before spring training.

With that said, the firing and the PlexiGlass principle might be too little, too late. Despite the fact that it is still only May 7.

The Dodgers, even after losing Manny Ramirez to a 50-game suspension, have a commanding lead on the division that will be difficult to unlock. As the D'Backs proved themselves last April, a team cannot win a division in the first month. Similar to the clichéd opening round golf tournament analogy, though, a team can certainly lose it.

Regardless of who the manager is, the Arizona Diamondbacks may have already done exactly that.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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