If you’re looking for a team that has benefitted from MLB’s “deadened” baseball which has been a major storyline in 2022, look no further than the Arizona Diamondbacks.
After finishing the 2021 season tied for the league’s worst record at 52-110, the Diamondbacks find themselves above .500 exactly a month into the season, and winners of 11 of their last 16.
It’s no surprise why the D-backs were left for dead last season. In a year where power hitting controlled the state of offense around the league, the team did little to cater to these tendencies. At the plate, the D-backs ranked 27th in the majors in ISO (.146) and on the mound, they ranked tied for 25th in HR/9. (1.47) Now that the leaguewide HR/FB ratio has dropped over three percent since last year, the D-backs no longer have to play a game they aren’t meant to play.
With power hitting not being the easy option it used to be, as the leaguewide slugging percentage is down to its lowest point since 1981, the D-backs have resorted to another form of offense by taking walks. The D-backs’ team walk rate of 10.3% currently ranks fourth in the majors, and its 1.6% increase in walk rate also ranks fourth. They are also chasing less, as its 1.7% decrease in out of zone swing% ranks 6th in the majors. This has been a full team effort as guys like Christian Walker, Pavin Smith, Daulton Varsho, and David Peralta have upped their walk rates from 2021. They have also had young guys like Geraldo Perdomo establish themselves as guys who can take their base.
The real specialty of the pitching staff has been displayed through the 198 fly balls they have given up this year. That 198 is tied for the second most fly balls given up in the majors, and the results speak for themselves.
Opponents who hit fly balls against the D-backs are hitting an abysmal .138 on the season. They are also slugging .415 and have a wOBA of .227. The D-backs rank first in all these categories in 2022 by a margin the size of the Grand Canyon itself, but this stat deserves to be taken a step further. Among the 450 Major League Baseball teams that have taken the field in any season since 2008, the 2022 Arizona Diamondbacks have the lowest opponent batting average on fly balls by 16 points. They have the lowest opponent slugging percentage on fly balls by 43 points, and they have the lowest opponent wOBA on fly balls by 25 points. No team in the pitch tracking era has ever benefitted more from giving up fly balls, and it isn’t even close.
The pitching staff has the luxury of pitching at Chase Field, which has held all hitters to a .319 slugging percentage, ranking last among all Major League stadiums. Diamondbacks pitching is thriving, and the team might have the alleged “new ball” to thank for that.
On offense is where things start to get tricky for the D-backs. Their team slash line of .191/.281/.350 leaves a lot to be desired, but that alone fails to tell the story of the change in approach between this year and last. Over the offseason, the Diamondbacks brought in 17-year MLB veteran Damion Easley to be their assistant hitting coach, and the identity of the offense has gone through major changes since.
The most noticeable change in the D-backs offense is that they are hitting more fly balls themselves. After posting a 24.9% fly ball rate last year, putting them in the bottom third in the majors, the D-backs have a 30.3% fly ball rate in 2022. The team’s 5.4% increase is second in the majors. Given the D-backs home stadium suppressing power offense, and the current offensive state of the league, 2022 seems like the wrong year to start hitting more fly balls, but Arizona has made it work.
The Diamondbacks, amazingly, are the only team in Major League Baseball to have increased its HR/FB ratio between this season and last. Arizona’s 16.4% mark stands above its 14.1% clip from 2021. The D-backs have also raised their slugging percentage on fly balls. After the team’s .716 slugging on fly balls ranked 29th in the majors in 2021, Arizona’s .791 total in 2022 ranks 10th in MLB. They have gone against the league and chose this year to improve when hitting fly balls.
Ever since Chase Field installed a humidor prior to the 2018 season as a way to limit offense, the Diamondbacks have failed to reach the leaguewide slugging percentage on fly balls. Now that it is 2022 and that leaguewide average is at its lowest point since 2016, the D-backs found a way to make this the year they make themselves an above average team in this aspect of the game.
How sustainable can this be? It’s hard to say. League-wide offense could pick up this summer and power could permeate back into Chase Field, but it could also stay where it is now. The one thing that does not seem sustainable is the D-backs league-worst .191 batting average. The team has a BABIP of .228 which is last in Major League Baseball. While much of this might be due to the large number of fly balls they have been hitting, it’s hard to imagine this will continue through 162 games, as it appears the Diamondbacks have been a victim of misfortune. When the offense comes back to life, if the pitching staff can sustain itself, the Arizona Diamondbacks could be a team in the playoff hunt throughout much of the 2022 season.
All stats are updated prior to play on 5/7
Featured photo via @Dbacks twitter