It was a difficult season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who lost 110 games. The day after the season concluded, general manager Mike Hazen was setting expectations for the offseason, explaining to a gathering of reporters that the work to fix the problems would start in October. 110 defeats requires immediate attention: no waiting for November or December when the winter meetings take place. The time is now to look forward to Spring Training and next season.
That attitude is a good sign. As Walt Disney once said: “To succeed, work hard, never give up, and above all, cherish a magnificent obsession.”
The Diamondbacks need a magnificent obsession if they want to reverse team fortunes.
How It Fell Apart for Arizona
Just two years ago, Torey Lovullo was finishing his third season as D-Backs manager with a third straight winning record. That team finished second (albeit a distant second) to the Dodgers. But with 85 wins they seemed like a team that could be a playoff contender. In 2017, rookie manager Lovullo had guided the team to a playoff appearance. Lovullo is considered one of the brightest young managers in the game. But somewhere in 2020-21, things went sideways in the desert.
There are two ways to win baseball games: outscore your opponent or stop your opponent from scoring runs. When the Diamondbacks have been winners: they’ve adopted strategy #2. After the 2019 season, the D-Backs made the decision to not spend money to compete with the Dodgers and other teams in their league. Veteran ace Zach Greinke was traded at the deadline in 2019. Robbie Ray, who will probably win the AL Cy Young Award for Toronto this season, was traded at the deadline in 2020.
Those voids in the pitching staff have never been filed, not even partly. In 2021, Arizona’s 5.11 ERA was the worst in the NL. They also allowed the most home runs and only one team struck out more batters. The D-Backs pitching staff allowed enemy batters to make too much good contact, and they were terrible at preventing runs.
The Diamondbacks have not recovered from the loss of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, both of whom left the team after the 2018 season, the former via trade, the latter as a free agent. Goldschmidt is arguably the greatest position player the D-Backs have ever had, and though he was traded at the age of 31, he’s continued as a star in St. Louis. Pollock was the heart of the Snakes, and now he serves as a superb role player for the Dodgers. The absence of those two players has set the Diamondbacks’ offense adrift. In ’21, Arizona had only two players who drove in as many as 60 runs. To compound the problem: the team age (29 for position players) is one of the oldest in the league and the defense was the worst in baseball at converting a batted ball into an out.
What Went Right For the Diamondbacks in 2021
While the talent on the field led to 110 losses, the ’21 Diamondbacks have a solid, and perhaps even exceptional field leadership group. Lovullo is a smart manager who communicates well with his players. Hitting coach Rick Short, who was elevated to his position in June when Arizona fired Darnell Coles, has done a good job. Since his hiring, the D-Backs have increased their walk percentage and done a fine job of hitting the ball hard and to the opposite field. While Arizona ranked in the bottom three in batting average, they were just below league average in walk percentage. Under Short and his co-hitting coach Drew Hedman, the team has focused on hitting line drives and trying to go with pitches, as opposed to pulling the ball too much. The team still finished 12th among the 15 NL teams, but they showed improvement.
The Diamondback are a disciplined and aggressive team on the base paths. They were in the top five in success at stealing bases and in taking extra bases. That success is a reflection of the hard work Lovullo’s staff puts, especially Dave McKay, who works with baserunners.
A few bright spots in 2021 were center fielder Ketel Marte, who is still only 28 years old, and young farm system products Pavin Smith and Josh Rojas. Those three players are foundations that an offense could be built on, but Arizona needs more firepower.
How Do The Diamondbacks Get Better in 2022?
There are two ways to get better: rebuild and restructure. The first takes years and comes with lots and lots (and lots) of losses. The second requires a total transformation of the organizational culture and philosophy. That’s the approach taken by the Giants in recent years, and the strategy employed by the Tampa Bay Rays, who just won 100 games.
It’s likely that the D-Backs’ front office will prefer to mimic the success of the 107- win Giants: smart trades and waiver wire pickups, reclamation projects, an emphasis on analytics and teaching at the Triple-A and major league level. The Giants have baseball’s largest and most progressive coaching staff. Their success is less about signing big-name free agents than it is getting their existing players to buy-in to a philosophy that stresses team success.
The team my also become more popular thanks to a partnership with Caesars Sportsbook. A sportsbook bar will open in downtown Phoenix near Chase Field in early 2022, drawing in baseball and sports betting fans from all over.