How Far Can Defense Carry the Arizona Diamondbacks?

Elite defense. Bad offense. Somehow, the Diamondbacks will be fine.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are not a likely contender in 2023. They could find themselves loosely connected in the National League Wild Card race, sure. But in a division with two clear favorites and an overall top-heavy NL, it’ll be an uphill battle throughout the season to actually break through. With that said, there’s reason to think that this team could be a fairly dangerous one to face. Arizona features a steady rotation, with some young arms ready to make the big league jump. More importantly, though, they’re expected to roll out one of the best defensive units in the league.

That recipe will win games on its own. Of course, the best teams in baseball largely feature success in all three phases. And that’s part of what will make the Snakes such an interesting case study in 2023. Because while the starting pitching may be average-to-good (maybe higher) and the defense may be great, there are obvious shortcomings elsewhere. Most notably, they may struggle to keep pace offensively with some of the upper-tier National League teams. This is also a team that, historically, has had a very bad group of relief pitchers.

It’s those good components vs. the bad ones that make the 2023 iteration of the Diamondbacks pretty unique. They weren’t built with the intention of being bad offensively. Not in a way that, say, the 2023 Chicago Cubs were. And they did attempt to boost their bullpen a bit in the offseason. But a lineup that was in the bottom half of the league last year still features a number of very young players, in addition to some guys that are glove-first types. That’s the type of construction that lends itself to a ton of inconsistency variability.

And so this year’s D-Backs squad is likely to look at the starting pitching and the defense as the foundation of whatever they hope to accomplish. With that in mind, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go back and look at some recent clubs that boasted extreme success within the starting staff and the defense, but less so in other areas. The goal? Determine just what the ceiling is for this Arizona group in 2023.


An Elite Defense


First, the defensive context. The context is that it is good. How’s that for analysis?

At least to start the year, the D-Backs will have Christian Walker at first, Ketel Marte at second, Nick Ahmed at short, and Evan Longoria at third. Of those four spots, third base figures to be the most likely timeshare, with Josh Rojas getting work in at the hot corner. Gabriel Moreno will grab especially heavy starts behind the plate while Carson Kelly is out, though that could evolve into more of a split later on in the year. Across the outfield typically goes Corbin Carroll in left, Alek Thomas in center, and Jake McCarthy in right.

From a numbers standpoint, it’s an upper-tier defensive group, with a chance to be the best in baseball by the end of the year. Walker posted an Outs Above Average (OAA) of 14 in 2022. He finished 10th overall and was the only player in the top 50 to man first base regularly. Ahmed was limited to only 17 games in 2022 but posted an OAA of 18 in 2021. That ranked third overall. Marte was slightly below average and Evan Longoria was exactly average. It’s not as if Marte and Longoria being closer to average is a massive detriment, though. You’re going to be hard-pressed to get elite defensive output from all four infielders. Ultimately, the high level of defense from Walker and Ahmed should help this infield to maintain top-tier defensive stability.

Behind the plate, both Moreno and Kelly came in above average (the former in a more limited sample), according to Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Defensive Adjustment. While not elite, each of them coming out on the positive end “average” there, as well as in framing and throwing metrics, bodes well (especially when we factor in the starting staff).

Jumping to the outfield, the caveat on the grass is that the D-Backs traded away 2022’s best defensive outfielder. Daulton Varsho led outfielders with an OAA of 18. However, Alek Thomas was in the mix among the better defensive outfielders in baseball, with an OAA of seven. He grades well on Directional Outs Above Average, as well. His jump leaves something to be desired, but clearly isn’t hurting him in the grand scheme. The addition of someone as range-y as Corbin Carroll shouldn’t do a lot to hurt their performance there. Jake McCarthy should be better, given his ability to move. Even marginal improvement should land him over the positive side of the OAA threshold.

It’s not a question that the Diamondbacks are going to be among the game’s best defensive clubs. It’s a question of how far defense coupled with even decent starting pitching can take them.


A Subpar Offense


The stability of the defensive unit is really without question at this point. Barring injury, they’ll be among the game’s best. At the plate, though, are where the questions start to arise. Two of the Snakes’ top five hitters (by wRC+) are suiting up for new teams in ’23 (Varsho and David Peralta). Another — Rojas — figures to assume more of a reserve role than he did last year.

Among the rest, Walker represents the most potent force in the Arizona lineup. He turned in a wRC+ of 122 and a .235 ISO in 2022. He’s not a consistent presence on the basepaths, but he’s got a rare dose of power for this group. McCarthy was the D-Backs’ second-best hitter last year, with a wRC+ of 116. His best asset is, of course, the wheels. He stole 23 bags as a rookie.

You’re looking pretty murky after that.

Ketel Marte is almost four years removed from his 6+ WAR season of 2019. He’ll take a walk, but the strikeout rate is climbing. Longoria was still an above-average bat in 2022 but struck out almost 28 percent of the time. Ahmed, even after his ’22 absence, also jumps out. As good as he’s been in his career with the glove, he’s been equally as bad with the bat (career wRC+ of 74). Alek Thomas‘ bat is also a work in progress. He wRC+’d just 71 last year. Yeesh.

The wild card here is, of course, Corbin Carroll. The approach, contact ability, and speed should help him to a quick transition. As should the 115 plate appearances from last year. Nonetheless, the power is likely something that will come along later so the genuine “impact” could be another year or two away.

It’s just not an offensive group you can stake anything on. Walker possesses most (all?) of the power in this lineup. There is upside in Carroll, of course, and even in Thomas. But given the development still to take place and the “you kind of know what you have” factor in everybody else, the offense being below average is about as much of a lock as the defense is elite.

This brings us to the ultimate question.


Glass Ceiling or…the Other Kind?


Since 2016, there have been five teams ranked in the top five (number chosen due to the typical drop off in defensive statistical quality after the first five) of team defense by way of FanGraphs’ comprehensive Def metric and in the bottom 10 by wRC+. Those teams are as follows:

  • 2016 Kansas City Royals
    • wRC+: 89 (26th)
    • Def: 35.4 (1st)
      • 10 Defensive Runs Saved, 26 OAA
    • Record: 81-81
  • 2018 Miami Marlins
    • wRC+: 83 (28th)
    • Def: 33.1 (4th)
      • 21 DRS, 24 OAA
    • Record: 63-98
  • 2021 Texas Rangers
    • wRC+: 83 (27th)
    • Def: 70.4 (1st)
      • 86 DRS, 27 OAA
    • Record: 60-102
  • 2021 Kansas City Royals
    • wRC+: 88 (25th)
    • Def: 37.4 (2nd)
      • 23 DRS, 27 OAA
    • Record: 74-88
  • 2022 Arizona Diamondbacks
    • wRC+: 92 (24th)
    • Def: 47.1 (2nd)
      • 56 DRS, 44 OAA
    • Record: 74-88

On the surface, this doesn’t look particularly good for the Arizona Diamondbacks. While each of the teams above had, by all accounts, elite performances on defense, it didn’t buoy them enough to do anything above .500. And in most cases, it was much worse than even making that a realistic aspiration. Of course, just looking at those two elements is an oversimplification. In a vacuum, trading offense for defense isn’t going to bode well. That much is clear.

But the intersection of a good defensive team with a terrible offense really speaks to the team construction at that point in time. Teams not interested in competing may find themselves more naturally better on defense. They’re more likely to pursue a glove-first guy looking for a job because contending teams already have the higher-upside bats who play average-to-bad defense.

Those 2016 Royals were fresh off a title, but already saw that team starting to disband. None of the others were remotely expected to contend. And this is where we can open up the floor to a little more optimism for these Arizona Diamondbacks.


Just Don’t Walk Anyone


One important factor to consider, especially as it relates to this year’s Diamondbacks, is the starting pitching. The squads above were all well below average. The following are the ERAs of the starting pitching for each of the above teams that year:

  • 2016 Royals: 4.67 (23rd)
  • 2018 Marlins: 4.34 (20th)
  • 2021 Rangers: 5.33 (28th)
  • 2021 Royals: 4.97 (24th)
  • 2022 D-Backs: 4.11 (19th)

And immediately, we get a little insight that the recent record trend of Good Defense Bad Offense doesn’t have to be the fate to befall Arizona. Arizona figures to have a better-than-average starting five. They’re led by Zac Gallen and Merrill KellyRyne Nelson had a stellar cup of joseph in the second half last year. Pitcher List favorite Brandon Pfaadt will find his way into the mix permanently. One imagines sooner rather than later, given that Madison Bumgarner already has arm fatigue and Zach Davies only has one year guaranteed on his contract.

Regardless of who they trot out on the mound, all they have to do is not walk hitters. A novel concept, I know. But the Diamondbacks don’t have to punch out every hitter they face. They don’t even have to induce a bunch of groundball contact. They have the luxury of playing in an airplane hangar. So all the pitching has to do in order to contribute to the upside of this defense is…be decent.


Revisiting the Ceiling


Now realizing that I never answered the question about the ceiling, there’s reason to believe that these Arizona Diamondbacks could very much buck the trend of recent teams with elite defenses and bad offenses. A .500 record doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility if they can be closer to the front of the bottom 10 offenses than the back of them.

This isn’t a team built with the expectation of failure. It’s one in transition. That’s the important distinction. While there are glove-first players in the lineup, there’s also an unrealized upside in their younger starters and stability in others (like Longoria). The starting pitching should exceed anything we saw from any of the other teams in a similar statistical position. Overall, featuring some capable talent already on the roster and the farm systems of starters yet to come have them much better suited to confront their team’s construction than those that have come before them. Contention is probably still a little out of their grasp, but the fact that we’re even talking about an outside shot at it speaks to how this team is very much not those other ones.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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