Among the powerhouses of the NL West, the Diamondbacks have essentially, over the past 5-10 years, become the red-headed stepchild of the bunch. The Dodgers have obviously been perennial World Series contenders for years, the Giants collected their share of early 2010s titles, the Rockies have always managed to keep a few top tier stars on their rosters, and the Padres have been analysts’ favorite “post-hype sleeper” for a couple seasons now. The D-backs? Well, they’ve spent most of the past decade sputtering in mediocrity, only reaching the postseason twice since 2008, despite seeing bona fide stars like Dan Haren, Justin Upton, and Zack Greinke pass through town. So in the 2018 offseason, when they dealt homegrown star Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals for a package that would’ve been far more enticing two years prior, no one considered Arizona a serious threat in 2019. And while they didn’t make a run at the Dodgers’ division crown, the D-Backs strung together quite the respectable season using mostly spare parts and young, unproven talent.
All things considered, there was a lot to be happy about in 2019, so we’ll start with the obvious:
Ketel Marte: Acquired in a 2016 trade with Seattle, the former super-utility man loudly reintroduced himself to Arizona in 2019, posting 7.1 fWAR in 144 games, nearly doubling his cumulative career total of 4.7. Marte was never a highly touted prospect, and his hitting profile never suggested an outburst of this proportion. In fact, Marte’s 2016 season saw him post a wOBA (.266) that ranked in the bottom 2% of all qualified hitters, yet his 2019 wOBA (.405) ranked amongst the league’s top 3%. My only fear is that the sizeable gap between Marte’s wOBA and xwOBA (.370) may lead to some regression in the 2020 season, but only time will tell.
Christian Walker: Acquired off waivers as a cheap, low-risk backup for Paul Goldschmidt in 2017, Walker was thrust into a starting role after Goldy was dealt to St. Louis, and he quickly exceeded all expectations. As you can see here, the 31 year old’s season mirrored Goldschmidt’s almost identically:
Walker: .259/.348/.476, .346 wOBA, .362 xwOBA, 2.2 fWAR
Goldschmidt: .260/.346/.476, .346 wOBA, .361 xwOBA, 2.9 fWAR
This level of production from a low-cost replacement to a franchise cornerstone is far greater than the D-Backs could’ve hoped for when they made the move last winter. Now, is Walker’s production sustainable? While it’s impossible to know for sure, he did underperform all of his expected stats and showed no significant drop-off as the season progressed, both of which are positive indicators for his future.
Carson Kelly: The biggest piece in the return for Goldschmidt, Kelly was once the #2 catching prospect in all of baseball (85th overall in 2018, MLB Pipeline), but stuck behind Yadier Molina in St. Louis for the foreseeable future, the Cards unloaded their aging prospect to Arizona. Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, Kelly seemed to at least partially live up to his prospect pedigree, posting a .339 wOBA and a 108 wRC+ in 2019. And sure, above average offensive production at a premier position is always appreciated, but developing into a reliable defensive commodity can’t hurt either. Kelly honed in on his pitch framing skills this season, ranking 9th among all Major League catchers in Runs From Extra Strikes. There is no doubt that if he keeps developing (and cutting down on his admittedly high K%), Kelly can quietly become one of the most productive catchers in the game.
Luke Weaver: The other new arrival from St. Louis, Weaver had an up-and-down career with the Cardinals—never managing to string together a full season of solid production. However, this change of scenery may have been exactly what Weaver needed. In 12 starts for the Diamondbacks, he posted a 2.94 ERA and a 3.07 FIP, but with a pitch mix that consists of over 90% fastballs and changeups, Weaver may have to learn how to utilize a third pitch more effectively in order to remain productive in the long run.
The Shifts: Back in 2017, the Diamondbacks relied on some sort of defensive shift on 8.8% of plate appearances. In 2018, that number nearly doubled to 20%, and in 2019, the trend continued, as 32.5% of all plate appearances saw the D-Backs utilize a shift. Surely at least some of the credit for this must be given to Torey Lovullo who, unlike many of his contemporaries, is clearly unafraid to take advice from his analytics department. A 23.7% increase over a two year period is no coincidence, and Arizona now finds themselves as the 9th most frequently shifting team in the MLB.
Torey Lovullo: Alright I’ll admit it, there isn’t much statistically to support this last point, and maybe I’m operating on some faulty gut instinct here, but something has to be said for a manager who can take a group of spare parts with low expectations and get them to fight for a playoff spot, right? Maybe not. But I’d be remiss if I failed to give Lovullo some love in this section.
In an effort to not to be too pedantic here, I’ll stick with the three issues that stuck out the most over the course of the season.
The NL West isn’t getting any weaker: This past season saw the Diamondbacks finish second in their division. Great sign, right? Well, yes and no. Arizona finished 20 games behind the first place Dodgers who, with their impressive core and elite farm system, aren’t going away for a long time. With the division’s top spot out of reach, the D-Backs would have to claw for a wild card spot, and with several teams in the NL boasting similar levels of talent, a playoff spot going forward is far from a sure thing. Not to mention that the rest of the Diamondbacks’ divisional opponents won’t always be as easy to walk through as they were this past year. The Padres flaunt their own talented core and seem eager to empty their pockets this offseason, while the Rockies have a strong young infield anchored by two stars, paired with a rotation featuring two potential aces. Essentially, the path to paydirt won’t exactly be easy, so it’s time for GM Mike Hazen to decide what direction he wants to take this team.
Jake Lamb: I can’t say I was too surprised to see Steven Souza Jr. or Caleb Joseph non-tendered, but I was mildly shocked to see that Jake Lamb would be returning for the 2020 season. After tallying 59 home runs across the 2016-2017 seasons, Jake Lamb was quick to be considered one of the hottest young bats in the game. High K%, sure, but tons of raw power, and a .352 wOBA across a two year span is nothing to scoff at. In 2018, however, his dangerous hitting profile finally caught up to him, as his launch angle dipped to 4.9, and once he lost the threat of the long ball, there was no incentive for Lovullo to keep him in the lineup. He still had the opportunity in 2019 to prove himself as a solid platoon third baseman, but after the left handed Lamb posted a .607 OPS against right hand pitchers in 2019, I thought the plug would be pulled on the corner infielder for good, but evidently, he will live to see another season.
Taijuan Walker: It was in the aforementioned trade involving Ketel Marte that the injury prone Walker was dealt to Arizona. Picked up as a high-risk/high-reward project from Seattle, Walker ostensibly got off on the right foot in his first season in Arizona, posting a 3.49 ERA and 135 ERA+ in 28 starts. However, his peripherals (including a 4.04 FIP) hinted towards regression, though we never got a chance to see for ourselves, as during his third start of the 2018 season he injured his UCL, requiring Tommy John Surgery and over 16 months of missed time. Walker returned in the final game of the 2019 season to toss a single scoreless inning, and while many pegged him as a potential bounce back candidate in 2020, the D-Backs decided that the experiment had run its course, deciding to non-tender the right hander. Maybe Walker is primed to become the ace he was supposed to be when he first reached the majors, but if he does so, it likely won’t be in Arizona.
The 2019 season should certainly be considered a net positive for the Arizona Diamondbacks–85 wins and a second place finish in a solid division should absolutely be celebrated. That said, this doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some uncertainty with regards to the team’s future, because even though something special is brewing in Arizona, they aren’t the only NL team looking to scratch and claw for a playoff spot in 2020. Will they stand out among the pack, or become lost in the sea of mediocre National League teams? Only time will tell, but for now, let’s hope for the former.