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.