Winning Close Games

The Dbacks are coming off a tough loss to the Rockies.  Here, I will share how I believe they need to learn to win these types of games if they want to be a playoff team.

First, the Rockies look really good as compared to past seasons.  They’ve been great offensively and defensively for years.  I knew Bud Black would change the way they pitch.  He did that well in San Diego.  I thought it was foolish for San Diego to make him the scapegoat because it wasn’t his fault the front office built a bad team, taking away his defense.  But the Rockies built well for his first season.  They’re going to win a lot of games, even having a decent home record, if they get even average starting pitching because their defense and offense are already among the best and their relief looks excellent too.

It’s tough to lose these types of games, but they should feel a lot better losing to the Rockies than they would losing to a weaker and more beatable opponent.

However, the best teams make adjustments and learn to win most of these types of games, even against tough opponents, as the season develops.

These types of losses happen to the best teams, but they need to learn how to manufacture runs on these days.  I know Luvello is on the record saying he doesn’t like to play for a run because you usually only score a few runs if you’re playing for a run.  That’s true to an extent and you need more runs than you often think to win at Chase.  However, there’ comes a time in the game when you need to shift and manufacture a few runs as the innings develop and you realize it is going to be tough to score.  So there is an in game adjustment where you take productive outs and can’t tolerate a strikeout.

Macho Bracho and Defensive Mistakes

After last night, my heart says I’ve had enough of Bracho, but my head says different.

First, let’s recount his recent failure and then move on.  Bracho comes in after Greinke in the 7th inning.  Although the results were bad, the video replay tells a different story.  Bracho should review and learn, but he only has two at bats that really teach him anything because he did well in the other at bats.

This lesson is more for the defense and those calling the pitches.

Bracho walks the first batter: Blash.  This was probably where Bracho and Luvello (whoever is calling pitches) can learn the biggest lesson.  He should have been painting his cold spots (holes in his swing) with regularity.  You have such a big lead, who cares about a solo home run.  Don’t be afraid to just go after a guy when you have nasty stuff!  Bracho didn’t need his secondary stuff to get him out because Blash could not touch his fastball.  The sequence should have been: off speed, fastball, fastball, fastball.  Not what it was: off speed, off speed, fastball, fastball, off speed, fastball.  Blash could not touch his fastball!  Bacho and Butcher should study this at bat and learn a better sequence.  Unfortunately he got cute and could not throw strikes, and a walk is probably the worst thing for a guy trying to get comfortable in the big leagues.

Next, Bracho gets the hard hit ground ball that could have easily turned into a double play!  Herrmann, who rarely plays 1st, made an error and everyone is safe.  Like Luvello said, good teams need to regroup and not let mistakes spiral into runs.  Unfortunately, that’s what happens with mistakes when someone like Bracho is on the mound.  That’s not to say he’s bad.  He’s still trying to break into the big leagues.  I know it’s taken awhile (going back into last season), but he hasn’t found his comfort zone.   He’s not an established big league reliever.  He doesn’t need defensive mistakes.  He needs his team to pick up the baseball!

Well, the next play wasn’t a mistake, but it was a play that could have been made.  Chris Owings gets a hard hit grounder in the hole up the middle.  He did a good job getting to the ball, but the ball squirts away.  Again, it hurts not having Nick Ahmed because Ahmed gives a higher probability of making that play.  You can say Owings saved a run in the moment, but it’s not a run saving play because a double play is what saves a bunch of runs.  Everyone is safe and the bases are filled.

There should have been three outs in several different ways.   What happens next?

Then the next hitter hits another ground ball.  This time they almost turn two.  It was a close play at 1st that they barely lost on review.  Again, they could have been out of the inning!  That’s at least four extra outs!  Padres were trying to give away the inning, but we wouldn’t let them out without a few runs.

The lesson here is too familiar and must be learned as the season rolls on: Good defense is more important than offense.  I hope Hazen isn’t distracted by the good record.  While Owings hit a grand slam, he could have prevented four runs.  It’s a wash and wasted energy having him at SS.  That’s the way I see it.  It’s much harder to get a Grand Slam.  He might never hit one again in his career!  I love Owings as a player.  He does so many things well and is actually a plus defender.  But he’s not Nick Ahmed at SS.  That should be obvious.  Ahmed is elite, while Owings is league average.  The Dbacks cannot rely on their offense to win the pennant.  They’re getting really lucky right now.  Eventually it will catch up to them and they will only be as good as their defense, which is league worst right now.

That’s when it really hurt because Will Myers hits the homer.  The defense put him in a tough spot but this is Bracho’s second lesson.  Myers is their best hitter and the one you bet on to do that.  However, the pitch sequence wasn’t very good.  They allowed Myers to time him because they kept it the same speed.  He fouled off the slider and then he just kept throwing it.  He should have thrown the high and tight heat.  Perhaps just pitch him carefully and let Hoover pitch with the bases loaded.

The person calling pitches has as much to learn as Bracho’s ability to make pitches.  The defense needs to also reflect on how they made this game difficult and it would result in a loss if the offense didn’t provide as many runs.  Better teams will beat the DBacks if their defense plays like this in a similar situation.  The Rockies have a better offense and a better defense.  We’ll see how the Dbacks match-up this weekend!

Second, regarding Bracho’s ability, he should get more opportunities.  I knows he’s got good pitches and the ability to throw strikes (the latter is as important because late inning walks lead to defeats).

While my heart says I’ve had enough of Bracho, my head knows he’s got a lot of potential (12.7 K/9 is elite through 188.1 minor league innings).  He also has the ability to throw strikes (1.7 BB/9 is also elite).  I know these are minor league numbers, but they do tell us something about his ability.  Minor league hitters are still professional baseball players.  Almost all of them would be All-American type college players.  It’s a high level, although not the highest level of baseball.

It’s a long season, and we need bullpen depth to win games.  Hoover and others have performed and got big outs, but they’ll need even more to do this over the season because they’ll have close games that require 4 innings of relief, which means several will need to come up big against a tough opponent like the Rockies offense.  Thankfully we also have Barrett and Rubby getting ready.  I think those guys will be huge.  But Macho Bracho can also make the team better.  I am a fan who gets emotional at times, but fans need to look deeper into what he can do and think objective about what is best.  No one should care about Bracho’s ERA.  We want him to get to the point where he is getting crucial outs as a shut down pitcher.

In conclusion, Bracho has the ability to be a very good reliever and needs more opportunities in low leverage situations.  They need a plan of attack that will be more effective.  The defense needs to play well behind him, knowing he’s a guy who needs their support right now.  They’re a better team if he can transition his stuff to the big leagues.  It gives them more options and more depth as an organization.

At least he didn’t cost us the game.  It’s a great time to learn.

Line-up Construction

My response to people who say they need to stop messing with the line-up is THEY DO run out a core of players nearly every night: Goldy, Pollock, Lamb, Peralta, Drury, Owings, and Tomas play nearly every night.  Lamb and Peralta have played against a lot of lefties.  The order is essentially the same or at least varies less than prior years.

I don’t think people raising these concerns have a foot to stand on, especially since Lamb and Peralta were strictly used against righties in the past.  There’s even a good argument for Tomas sitting against more righties, but he has played.  So, Luvello does believe in a consistent group of regulars and general line-up consistency.  We’ve heard from player responses that they appreciate how Luvello communicates things in advance.

Furthermore, someone made the point that managers can win either way, deploying many different rosters, like Maddon, or not as many, like Yost.  They’re trying to say it doesn’t matter, but that would make their whole point irrelevant if that were true.  I also think this falsely assumes that Ned Yost doesn’t believe in splits.  Like he never hits left on right or right on left.  That’s simply wrong.  He just plays what he has, which is actually more split focused this year with guys like Brandon Moss where he had a switch hitting Morales.

Maddon, on the other hand, is a classic example of the perfect blend of old and new school.  I love the way his mind works and how he deploys a roster.  That’s why Epstein pried him away from Tampa Bay as soon as he could.

I don’t think people who raise this issue realize how much Hazen and Luvello use data to make line-up decisions.  That is to say, the decisions are more thought out than picking out of a hat or going with a hunch, as we saw a lot of previously.  The line-up decisions have to do with how the roster was constructed–specifically how they attack certain teams and certain types of opposing pitchers.  They can’t tell you exactly why one guy starts against another (type of pitch recognition) because that would give it away to other teams but Hazen and Luvello have said their decisions are thought out and made with as much data as possible.

That means Tomas will sit verses some righties and Peralta will sit against some lefties.  It also means Herrmann and Descalso are preferred against some righties.  Iannetta is preferred against some pitchers, even if you want him in there against more when he’s hitting well.  We’ll see if the strategy pays off.  I think these guys know what they’re doing, but things are still working themselves out with this particular roster.

I make these points because I’ve heard so many argue against changing anything about the line-up from night to night and I think these people fail to see the bigger picture.

Collective Offensive Slump

I want to stay positive, but I need to comment on something that I think is difficult for Hazen and Luvello to see because they haven’t watch all the games over the years.

I love this core group of players (Goldy, Pollock, Lamb, Peralta, Owings, Drury, Ahmed).  However, I’ve watched every game for years and I’ve noticed that they are prone to a collective offensive slumps.  They’ll average out way above league average but they’ll also have a series where they struggle to score runs because they strikeout way too much  and fail to have enough productive at bats that score runs with outs.

Yesterday was one of those games.  It wasn’t the return to greatness of Matt Cain.  They made him look good, just like they did several times with the Mike Bolsinger types.  Some offenses average out worse than the Dbacks but are less streaky.  I think the Giants offense is like that because they have a core of players (Posey, Belt, Pence, Crawford, Panik) that take walks and don’t strikeout as much as a whole.  The Giants are the kind of club that relies on preserving close leads.  They’ve played that way for a long time.  It’s actually a reason they were so good in the playoffs.  They were accustom to that style of play throughout the regular season.

Case in point occurred in the sixth inning.  Lamb off with a ground-rule double.  Tomas actually took a walk!  That was amazing.  I thought for sure they were going to score.  Then they had three consecutive strikeouts.  Of course Bochey deserves credit for making a crucial pitching change.   Gearrin also deserves credit for making decent pitches.  But they could have scored with two outs!

While Luvello said data proves against playing for a run (in general), sometimes it helps win a game (or even “a moment” as he likes to say), especially since they would have tied the game later if they didn’t give up an additional 3 runs.

We haven’t seen it yet this season, but the Dbacks have a long pattern of going into collective offensive slumps.  It’s such a pattern that I’d bet on it.   It will hurt their record as the season progresses if they rely so much on the offense and they can’t win when the offense is in a collective slump.  As much as the offense bails out the pitching, the pitching and defense need to bail out the offense.

I am not saying the offense is the problem.  Their offense is way above league average.  They have one of the best offenses in baseball.  While they could learn to scratch out runs, and I’m sure they can do that, I am saying they need to win close, low scoring games and preserve those types of leads.  They need to get good at that too.  It’s important to have a good record but it’s also important to them becoming a good playoff team.  Learning to be good in that situation is practice for October baseball.

Shelby Miller starts 2017 well!

Shelby was probably the most eager to get on that mound in 2017.  He was the main guy I was looking forward to watching.  I am curious what version we will get this year (https://dbackfanmlb.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/what-version-of-shelby-miller-and-patrick-corbin/).  Yesterday he showed us something we never saw last year: mental focus and preparation.

We should celebrate that he has what it takes mentally!

Shelby obviously has tremendous talent, even front of the rotation stuff, which was on display as he kept one of the best line-ups to 3 runs.  His mental game will make all the difference.

Although he started rough, and we were reminded how it felt last year, it actually turned out ideal because it showed us he is mentally prepared and focused to snap out of struggles.  That’s important through a long season.  He showed that he is capable of making in game adjustments, which is a very difficult thing to do, especially against the Indians.

While it’s reasonable to remain cautiously optimistic, some fans are stubborn when it comes to praise.  Some still say, “well, he had a shaky outing, and I’m waiting till I see something truly outstanding.”  They’ll still bash him if he’s pitching like an All Star through May.  True, we want starters to go deeper in games.  However, a lot of fans expect greatness without appreciating the difficulty.

I believe most fans get it.

Shelby’s past will be forgiven and he’ll have many loyal fans as he turns it around because most of us appreciate the work it takes to get his career back on track.  The same can be said of Corbin, although we probably give him more slack because he’s homegrown, and he’s battled through Tommy John.  We hope both get back on track this year, and there are positive signs so far.

All in all, our pitching has been good through 5 games.  Corbin even had a chance for a win if Owings fields that ball cleanly.  The bullpen is particularly surprising.  There’s a long way to go, but we’ve got a lot to be excited about so far, especially in Shelby Miller!

Brandon Drury (Dback 2 baggers) and Streamer Projections

Sorry to say, but Fangraphs has it wrong on Brandon Drury.  They have him as the 2nd worst 2nd basemen in baseball.  That’s ridiculous!

They obviously didn’t research his 619 minor league innings at 2b.  That’s not a small sample, and he had a 98.3% fielding percentage.  That means he had 6 errors in 362 chances.  That’s not bad, probably at least as good as Daniel Murphy.  While it’s not wise to bet he’ll be an elite defender, it’s foolish to think he’s a terrible defender.  They must have him as a terrible defender because he’s above average offensively–actually top 10 in slugging.

I understand how WAR is the most difficult stat to project because it involves all the stats compared to an imaginary replacement level player.  However, some stats are easier to project.  Brandon Drury might get more doubles and less home runs, but he will hit for more power than half the league’s 2nd basemen.  Regarding minor league numbers, it is difficult to say a player will be the same at the major league level.  But infield defense seems to be pretty consistent whether fielding a ground ball in the minors, majors, Japan, Venezuela, or anywhere that has a regulation sized baseball field.  Minor league fields might actually be less kept than major league fields.

The fact is that Brandon Drury is not a bad 2nd basemen, which is why Mike Hazen immediately announced him there after the Segura trade.  He wouldn’t have done that if he thought Drury was bad because he was trying to improve the defense at the time he made the deal.

While I am a Dback fan rooting for greater production, it’s more reasonable to think Bradon Drury will be at least middle of the league in projected WAR.  He’s got the ability to be 3+ WAR, but I’d feel a 2+ is a safe bet.  He’s certainly not going to be 2nd worst and I hope he takes that as an insult!

That’s not the worst of it.  Fangraphs overlooks the fact that the Dbacks have depth at 2nd (Chris Owings and Descalso).  They projected the Dbacks as 2nd worst as a team.  Well, they overlook the fact that Chris Owings and Descalso provide good depth, especially compared to other teams.  Maybe he is underrated because he was playing out of position last year, but Chris Owings can be understood by putting 2015 and 2016 together.  He’s at least average offensively and above average defensively.  Those are safe bets, not thinking idealistically as a fan.

We’ll see, but I think Fangraphs is way off with this prediction.

The “If” Factor

Every team has an “if” factor.  It goes like this: “If A, B, C, then X team will have a winning season.”  It’s easier to call it an factor, but there are many “if” factors.  While commentators usually give playoff teams greater benefit of the doubt, especially the larger market teams that have many interested fans tuning in, but even the best teams have “if” factors.  For instance, even the Cubs have “if” factors.  Of course, the best teams control their “if” factor better than others.

The following considers many “if” factors and assesses the Dbacks chances of controlling their “if” factors.

What “if” factors are the hardest to control?

Health and individual performance are probably the hardest factors to control.  Players get hurt every year.  Everyone hopes it doesn’t happen to their team or to their most valuable players, but no one is immune.  The injury bug hits a playoff contender every year and only a few teams can rise above it.  For instance, the Dbacks probably didn’t have a playoff team before the injury to AJ Pollock, but we’ll never know because that injury hurt the Dbacks tremendously, more than we can possibly know.  It only compounded the problem that the Dbacks never had a healthy Nick Ahmed or David Peralta.  That handicapped their defense, which made the pitching especially vulnerable.

Secondly, while individual performances are more predictable than injuries, it is still quite unpredictable.  Even the best players have down years.  Only hall of fame players are still good during their relative down years.  While the Dbacks had an enormous amount of underperformance, people fail to realize that underperformance hits someone every year.

For instance, underperformance makes me think of Justin Verlander.  He rebounded in a big way last year.  I was actually surprised and need to give him credit because I thought he would never pitch at that level again.  He was rightly the runner-up CY Young.  But he wasn’t very good over the previous two seasons, while he was one of the highest paid pitchers.  The Tigers still won 90 games because they had Max Scherzer and David Price in the Mike Illitch era, but Verlander’s underperformance hurt their chances of being a contender.

So many have written the Dbacks off because of last year.  However, it’s more indicative of sports media schizophrenia of overhyping big trades and acquisitions and then overreacting in the opposite direction when it doesn’t work out.  It’s also their failure to reasonably weigh a perfect storm of injury and underperformance.

Several have written off the Dbacks because of their 2016.  While I like them as the underdog, it isn’t reasonable to predict anything close to last year’s win totals.  It’s reading into the underperformance too much, as though these young players are on the decline of their careers.

While any team can suffer injuries and underperformance of individuals, some factors are more reliable.  For instance, teams with great defense tend to pitch better.  Good defense is probably the most reliable factor that doesn’t change from season to season.  Where do you see good pitching without good defense?  I can’t find an example.

Teams that have defensive depth have less concern about injuries.  For instance, the Pirates are going to be okay in the outfield because they have two above average centerfielders.  It’s the same amount of outfield, but the pie is shared differently with Marte in CF.  Even McCutchen’s defensive numbers won’t look as bad with less room to cover.  Polanco can switch to CF if Marte is hurt, and they have minor league options that are pretty good too.

Here, the Dbacks went from the best defense in 2015 to one of the worst in 2016 because of so many injuries and a key trade.  That is a very odd development that doesn’t happen very often.  I know everyone talks about the Dansby Swanson trade, but Ender Inciarte had a more immediate impact.  He won the Gold Glove for the Braves!  No one could predict Pollock’s injury, but it makes the case for defensive depth because good defenses pitch well.

Furthermore, some factors are also controlling factors.  For instance, a good manager and catcher will influence a team beyond what statistics can measure.  The Giants will be competitive because they have Bochy and Posey.

The principle here is leadership in general, with more impact in specific areas of leadership.  Great coaching helps the players stay mentally sharp, while also deploying the team effectively.  We see effective bullpen use making a difference in the playoffs, but it also makes a difference in the win totals throughout the season.  There’s also how a manager paces his team throughout the season with use.  I believe the best managers have excellent communication styles (not someone that loads players with pressure)–Joe Maddon is probably the best example of this-where many often joke about his Zen style.

As far as positional players, catching leadership probably has the greatest impact on a winning season.  We’re getting better at measuring performance beyond traditional statistics like caught stealing percentages, but effectiveness is beyond what numbers can show.  Yogi Berra was a great player with all the numbers to prove it, but he was also a great leader beyond the numbers.  People have joked about this Yogisms, which shows he was a cerebral player in his own way.  Pitchers liked throwing to him because they had a great deal of trust.  He’s a big reason they won so many championships.  There’s a lot of leadership skills in order to effectively work with the strengths of a pitching staff to attack so many opposing line-ups.

That’s why Hazen immediately changed the catching situation.  He felt it was an area he could get way more bang for his buck.  Plus, pitchers complained about Welly’s weaknesses behind the dish.  It wasn’t his blocking, throwing out baserunners or catch-framing, although he’s not good in those areas.  It was his inability to effectively communicate and call a game.  The pitchers have high expectations for how much the catcher prepares.  The catcher must bring a lot of understanding to the relationship of both working together to get outs.  Although many make their own decisions, pitchers at least want someone that has knowledge of their pitches and the strengths and weaknesses of opposing line-ups.  It is particularly important with the pressure of making the right pitch with runners in scoring position.

Of course the biggest “if” factor for the Dbacks is their bullpen.  It’s been said that the bullpen was an area of strength in the past.  Ziegler’s dependability was a big part of that.  However, they never had a great bullpen.  It was always up and down.  The starting pitchers can help if they’re pitching deeper into games, but they’ll still need strong performances in the bullpen.  It’s one of the thriftiest bullpens in baseball, and we’re not expecting as much as the Yankees or similar teams that spent so much more.  That isn’t to say they’re lacking talent.  They have as much potential as any other year with Rodney, Wilhelmson, Delgado, Bradley, Chafin, Hoover, Jorge De La Rosa, and others coming back from injury or in the minors.  I really like Rubby De La Rosa, Jake Barrett coming back from injury and providing depth.  Jared Miller can be a force if he’s throwing strikes like last season.

In sum, the Dbacks have an “if” factor just like every other team.  If the bullpen is decent and they are healthy, they will have a better record.  If they have bounce back individual performances, they will have an even better season.  If some have breakout seasons, they will do even greater things!  The talent is there, so it will be exciting to find out.