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Arizona Diamondbacks: 10 Reasons Their Rotation Is Most Underrated in MLB

Gil ImberAnalyst IIMarch 7, 2012

Arizona Diamondbacks: 10 Reasons Their Rotation Is Most Underrated in MLB

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    When it comes to top pitching staffs heading into the 2012 MLB season, teams such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles (AL) and New York (AL) often lead the discussion.

    Rarely featured are the 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks and for legitimate reason—the D-Backs rotation simply cannot compare to the elite NL staffs of San Francisco and Philadelphia.

    However, this isn't to say the Diamondbacks staff is just average—with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Trevor Cahill, Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter expected to toe the starting rubber come April, Arizona's starters comprise a rotation that is among the most underrated in MLB—underrated because the Snakes staff slithers under the radar, overshadowed by NL West's dominant starting staff, the San Francisco Giants.

    Because Kennedy and Hudson (presumably Arizona's one-two punch) became permanent full-timers relatively recently, the 2011 MLB season provides a fine framework to analyze this highly abstract question.

Arizona Is a Hidden Danger in the NL West: WHIP

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    In what might as well be a slide from March 2011, the Diamondbacks pitching will again be underestimated in 2012, a great deal of which will be due to the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Despite their lukewarm and lackluster finish, the 2011 Los Angeles Dodgers starting rotation threw a collective 1.22 WHIP, which was first in the NL West. The Giants starters' 1.24 WHIP was second in the West, followed by Arizona's 1.27 mark.

    As far as NL starting pitching was concerned last year, only the West produced multiple teams in the top five, with the Phillies claiming first place and the Brewers just ahead of Arizona at the four spot.

    Simply put, the Diamondbacks will be underrated in 2012 because of the NL West shadow created by the Dodgers and Giants.

Low Walks...

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    In 2011, the Diamondbacks pitching staff as a whole generated 442 walks, 276 of which were surrendered by the starting staff, fifth best in all of baseball and first in the National League West.

    Though this is not generally considered a pitching statistical benchmark, the Diamondbacks starters' ability to dissuade the opposition from accepting free passes means more strikes and a greater opportunity for balls in play.

    In other words, outs. This is especially important with two outs, of which D-Backs pitching claimed the No. 1 spot in the National League last season. 

...and Lower Intentional Passes

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    While intentional bases on balls might be the MO of the San Francisco Giants (fifth most in MLB), San Diego Padres (seventh) and Los Angeles Dodgers (eighth), the Diamondbacks do not waste time with such unmerited generosity.

    With just 10 free passes given out by D-Backs starters in 2011, the Arizona rotation was tied with Philadelphia for second-fewest IBB allowed in the National League.

    Though this also keeps pitch counts down, pitching through adversity forces Arizona's starters to focus and also suggests a lack of situations in which the intentional walk might be necessary.

    In the end, the Brewers (No. 1), Phillies and Diamondbacks all made the 2011 postseason, due greatly to their starters' tendencies to stay out of trouble.

    As an aside, the Diamondbacks starting staff also induced just 75 double plays, which is on the low side in MLB—less GIDP situations generally also means less run-scoring opportunities for the opposition.

    The Diamondbacks played it safe in 2011 and it clearly paid off.

Air Outs

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    For a ballpark like Chase Field, whose dimensions are not especially known to be hitter-friendly, a high number of air outs are advantageous, especially with speedy outfielders such as Chris Young and Justin Upton prepared to track down even the fiercest of slicing liners and highest of fly balls.

    Arizona starters induced 894 air outs in 2011, second to the Tampa Bay Rays and just ahead of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—good company to be in heading into 2012. The Diamondbacks' air outs to ground outs ratio of 1.18 was No. 1 in the NL last season.

    With Chase not getting any smaller and Gerardo Parra still slated to share outfield responsibilities in 2012, D-Backs pitchers can continue to utilize the under-appreciated statistic known as the air out.

Cutting Down the Running Game: Stolen Bases

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    The 2011 Diamondbacks starting staff ranked first in all of baseball in fewest stolen bases allowed with 36—with 33 caught stealing. With great credit to their solid All-Star catcher in Miguel Montero, D-Backs starters simply know how to hold runners.

    Though stepping off and bluffing or even throwing back to a base may prove tiresome for fans, it also dissuades would-be base stealers and cuts down on leads.

    The Diamondbacks starters have clearly shown a propensity to this and an acute ability to vary their delivery so as to give their battery-mate the tools to cut down would-be thieves.

Stamina and Workload

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    Diamondbacks pitchers Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy both threw exactly 222 innings in 2011, good enough for fifth place in the National League.

    Their company? St. Louis' Chris Carpenter (237.1 IP), Philadelphia's Roy Halladay (233.2 IP), Dodgers ace and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw (233.1 IP) and Philly's Cliff Lee (232.2 IP).

    Not bad friends to have at the top.

    With Kennedy and Hudson set to lead the Arizona rotation again in 2012, their stamina, work ethic and dependability will be underrated assets that very likely will affect the rest of the team.

    By the way, Joe Saunders' 212.0 IP in 2011 was good enough for the No. 13 slot.

Rally Killer: Keeping Opposition off Base Late into Starts

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    As Diamondbacks starters work later and later into ballgames, they invariably tend to throw more and more pitches, leading to the invariable question of whether D-Backs starters are as effective later in games as they are in their first few innings work.

    To figure this out, we look at an obscure MLB statistic known as on-base percentage after 75 pitches thrown. In 2011, the Diamondbacks kept the opposition off base after pitch No. 75 almost 70 percent of the time—their pitch 76+ OBP was .302, second only to Philadelphia starters' Pitch 76+ OBP of .278.

    Similarly, the D-Backs starters' Pitch 76+ WHIP of 1.21 was also second last year to Philadelphia's 1.08 mark.

    In other words, Diamondbacks starters don't depreciate as quickly as 28 other MLB clubs' starting staffs during the course of a ballgame.

Revisiting Trevor Cahill

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    When the Diamondbacks acquired Oakland A's starter Trevor Cahill in exchange for prized prospect Jarrod Parker this offseason, analysts were split: some derided the D-Backs' decision to wash their hands of Parker as foolish while others suggested Cahill might be a worthwhile addition.

    With a strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio which has continually improved to its current 6.37 value (2011) and a WAR that has arrived at 2.5, Cahill will surely be a 2012 wildcard for Arizona.

    His 2011 backtrack from a stellar 2010 campaign raises serious questions about his ability to flourish in future starts, while trends suggest a real unlikelihood of Cahill being able to lower his ERA to the 3.00 mark (career average: 3.91).

    Though Cahill's work remains to be seen, 2012 will only be his fourth season in the big leagues and his first outside of Oakland.

    Last year, Cahill performed better in day games and considerably better at home, which may suggest a preference for warmer weather, though his spring training statistics have consistently been considerably worse than his regular season production.

    Cahill might be a no-name write-off for some, but the D-Backs are hoping to create buzz later this season, supporting their label of "underrated."

Youth, Inexperience and Riskiness

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    As previously mentioned, members of the Diamondbacks rotation are generally young, inexperienced in the starter's role and often unproven or inconsistent.

    For many analysts and statisticians, this alone is a red flag and a write-off.

    Still, Ian Kennedy was unproven prior to 2011 when he unleashed an NL wins-leading campaign, a feat that any current D-Backs starter is capable of in 2012 (perhaps not Joe Saunders).

    For instance, Josh Collmenter is entering MLB season No. 2 while Cahill will be entering his fourth full-time season as a starting pitcher. Kennedy will try to replicate his 2011 performance in his third season as a full-time starter while Daniel Hudson will start his second full-time starting gig.

    Simply put, great questions are posed by the D-Backs' lack of solid veteran starting pitching, which for many means a tendency to undervalue and underestimate.

Pitching Is a Team Effort: Offense

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    Case Study: The 2011 San Francisco Giants

     

    The San Francisco Giants by all accounts had some of the best pitching in all of baseball last season, though the team didn't perform to expectations and missed the playoffs.

    For instance, starters Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain had fairly remarkable seasons in 2011 as far as ERA, strikeouts and batting average against are concerned, yet the Giants' record reflected none of this pitching superiority.

    Though San Francisco's pitching marks were amongst the top of the league, their offense waned significantly. With a top five starting staff and bottom five offensive cast, San Francisco could overcome this great disparity and succumbed to frustrating paradoxical mediocrity in late 2011.

    The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, do not have these offensive woes, which ultimately gives them a boost when it comes to pitching. Right fielder Justin Upton finished fourth in NL MVP Award voting and a supporting cast of offensively capable characters such as Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Montero are one less things D-Backs starters have to worry about.

    In 2011, the Texas Rangers were the best hitting team in the American League, while the St. Louis Cardinals were the bets hitting team in the National League and both ended up in the World Series.

    Who says offense doesn't win ball games?

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