Feeble offense creating early problems for Diamondbacks
Ryan Ladika (@RyanLadika)
August 4, 2020
A trendy Wild Card pick before the season kicked off, the Arizona Diamondbacks have drastically underwhelmed through the 2020 season’s first week of play.
The desert-dwellers earned victories in just three of their first 10 games, sinking to the basement of the National League West entering play August 3. The club’s -25 run differential was the worst mark in baseball, signaling how little has gone right for the club overall through the first sixth of the schedule.
The team’s offensive performance has been especially, well, offensive. It wasn’t necessarily a selling point last year, either, finishing 16th in baseball with a wRC+ of 94, six percent worse than league-average. But the Diamondbacks’ 2020 mark of 52, like their place in the standings, put them dead last in baseball in that category.
Flashing back to the offseason, Arizona added some big sticks to the lineup in hopes that they would aid in building the offense up. Starling Marte, Kole Calhoun and Stephen Vogt all joined the ranks of the Diamondbacks’ lineup, and the team cut bait with a handful of their less-productive hitters, namely Jarrod Dyson, Steven Souza Jr. and Blake Swihart.
Marte, Calhoun and Vogt are all coming off above-average 2019 seasons if you go by Fangraphs’ park-adjusted wRC+, boasting 119, 108 and 107 marks, respectively. Calhoun’s case was especially encouraging, taking into account his drastic turnaround between 2018 and 2019 (79 vs 108).
Dyson was signed in 2018 with his defense and baserunning prowess in mind more than anything, as he has not been above league-average at the plate in any of his now-11 Major League seasons. Souza Jr. performed 15 percent worse than league average in 2018, and missed all of last year with a major knee injury. Blake Swihart was only in Arizona for a cup of coffee, slashing .136/.186/.273 in 31 games.
Additionally, Arizona ranked 15th in baseball with 82 whiffs and 17th in strikeout rate (23.2 percent), proving that not making contact is not their biggest issue.
So why haven’t the Diamondbacks seen an uptick in offensive performance to this point? The culprit is the type of contact they are making at the plate.
Arizona ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in xwOBA, barrel percentage, hard hit percentage and exit velocity. The club has recorded just three barrels in their first 10 games, the fewest in the Major Leagues. Those three came from Calhoun, Christian Walker and Ketel Marte.
For those who may not know, there isn’t one specific way to earn an official “barrel,” but according to MLB.com’s official definition, batted balls with an exit velocity of 98+ mph and a launch angle range of 26-30 degrees are a good start. With an increase in exit velocity, the launch angle range also increases.
Again for clarity purposes, xwOBA is an advanced metric designed to paint a more complete picture of the type of player someone is while leaving the opposing defense out of the equation. It is “formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed,” according to MLB.com. A full definition can be found here.
So the Diamondbacks are making contact, it just isn’t good contact. Starling Marte, who at first glance slashed a respectable .300/.432/.367, had a team-low hard hit rate of just 13 percent among regular starters. Only Walker and Jake Lamb had marks above 50 percent. Among regular starters, David Peralta owned the next highest mark, at 37 percent.
When you’re making that kind of weak contact, hits will be harder to come by, and the team’s offense will suffer in turn. By contrast, the teams with the highest hard hit percentage, the Yankees and Cubs, rank near the top of Fangraphs’ wRC+ leaderboard at 3rd and 5th, respectively. To put it simply, teams that hit the ball hard are rewarded more often than teams that don’t. It should come as no surprise that only four Arizona hitters held a wRC+ above 100 (league-average).
If you like more traditional stats, they sing the same song. Starling Marte’s .799 OPS led the club in that category. Following the top four regular hitters in OBP, Carson Kelly came in sixth at .269, and then the numbers took a drastic drop.
If Arizona wants to turn around their slow start, the club needs to start squaring up the baseball with more regularity. Keeping the abbreviated season in mind, they don’t have much time to make up the ground they’ve already lost.