If the Major League Baseball All-Star Break is good for something, it's feeling bored. If it's good for something else, it's reflection. The season is now more than halfway over, and with the trade deadline a couple weeks away, this is the time of the year where teams have to figure out where they are, how they got there, and where they're going next. That's all good and well for the Seattle Mariners or the Florida Marlins, but you can bet the primary question inside the Arizona Diamondbacks' offices will be a gloomy variation: how did it all go so wrong?
Though it's unimaginable now, three months ago these Diamondbacks were an intriguing lot. Dave Stewart had taken a lineup that had scored the second-most runs in the National League last season and had paired it with a new-look pitching rotation led by Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, two All-Star righties the D'Backs had paid considerable prices to land. Everyone knew it wasn't a perfect team, but to borrow from The Little Prince, it was easier to view the Diamondbacks as a boa constrictor capable of digesting an elephant than as a bland hat. As it turns out, a bland hat would've been an upgrade over what the Diamondbacks have resembled―dare we say a digested elephant?
So how did it go so wrong? How is it that the Diamondbacks are just 38-52, 19 games out of first place? How is it that the Diamondbacks haven't yet enjoyed a winning month? How is it that they're almost certain to end the season without having ever been more than a game over .500? And how is it that Stewart felt comfortable making the implicit admission that his team had shed its competitive aspirations by trading closer Brad Ziegler for two class-A prospects before the All-Star Break? Those questions share an answer: pitching.
While Arizona's lineup has done an okay job overcoming injuries to A.J. Pollock, David Peralta, and others―thanks largely to Jake Lamb's ascendance and Paul Goldschmidt's continued excellence―the pitching staff has been abysmal. The Diamondbacks' rotation and bullpen each held the third-worst ERA in the NL during the first half of the season. That's not how it was supposed to go―not for the team that handed out a $206 million contract for one starter, and gave up multiple top prospects for another. What happened to that seemingly vaunted one-two punch?
Not much on Greinke's end. Prior to hitting the disabled list with a strained oblique, he put together a six-start stretch where he registered a 1.63 ERA and held opponents to a .534 OPS. His overall statistics are short of last season's, but they're right in line with (or better than) his career marks. Essentially, Greinke's presence on the team remains a positive, because he still looks like the front-end starter whose stuff, command, and headwork ought to allow him to prosper late into his 30s. He deserves little blame for this mess.
Miller, on the other hand, deserves plenty. During the offseason, everyone was too busy pattering about whether he was good or just average to consider a third possibility: that he would look like one of the worst pitchers in baseball. That's not hyperbole, either: among the starters with 50-plus innings, Miller has the eighth-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio and the fifth-worst ERA. (It should be noted that one of the prospects the D'Backs gave up in the Miller trade, Aaron Blair, is among those worse in both statistics.) Miller's unexpected problems go beyond the statistical, too―he might be the only pitcher in baseball history who had to leave a game because he kept scraping his knuckles on the mound during his follow-through.
Of course, you can't put all of Arizona's failures at Miller's cleats. Remember when Patrick Corbin earned Cliff Lee comparisons that didn't seem completely bonkers? He hasn't came back as strong from Tommy John surgery as hoped, leaving Arizona without a third potential above-average starter. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks have to be content with Robbie Ray, Archie Bradley, and Rubby De La Rosa, who have formed a tolerable back-end trio during their various stints in the rotation―the problem being, of course, that you shouldn't want your passable back-end options to be a relative bright spot for resembling passable back-end options.
As for Arizona's bullpen, it's pretty straightforward: Ziegler was good; Tyler Clippard has been solid; and Jake Barrett looks like the promising reliever he was billed as a few years back. Otherwise? The club hasn't gotten what it expected from Andrew Chafin, or Daniel Hudson, or Josh Collmenter, or many others. That has forced the Diamondbacks to dust off pitchers you either never knew existed (Matt Buschmann), had forgotten about since their prospect days (Edwin Escobar), or swore had retired three years ago (Kyle Drabek) for occasional appearances. Stitch it all together and you have a bad pitching staff, one of the worst in the sport.
So we know what wrong with the Diamondbacks, but why? Is this a case where Stewart―oft-mocked for his public comments and trades―failed to evaluate his talent correctly? Or has the club endured too many low-percentile outcomes to ignore the luck variable? The answer is probably a combination of both. Stewart seemingly overestimated Miller's worth, and probably had too much optimism in Corbin and his bullpen, but there's a difference between making an analysis error and not foreseeing the worst-case scenario playing out over and over. Put another way, it's as ridiculous to expect the 10th percentile in most cases as it is the 90th.
Besides, here's the interesting thing about these Diamondbacks: it's easy to see them getting it right someday soon. In a year, we might well be in this same place, same time, discussing how a surprisingly successful club shouldn't have been a surprise after all―not with the core they had in place, not with seemingly good bounce-back candidates in Miller and Corbin, and not with a fixable issue like their middle-relief corps. You don't have to believe in that possibility. But we can all agree to this: it's more interesting to ponder than a digested elephant rotting in the Arizona desert.
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