On the Arizona Diamondbacks and Identity

Are the Snakes on the verge of losing theirs?

I live near Phoenix. I have for a while. But I don’t tend to make it a habit to voyage downtown to Chase Field with any sort of regularity. I’ll keep my reasons to myself, but suffice to say that watching the Arizona Diamondbacks is not something I’ve made a habit of in recent years.

However, last year’s team couldn’t help but captivate me. This was for two primary reasons. First, obsession with defense is part of my brand at this point. We know that. But I can also appreciate the speed component. There’s a chaotic element to it when done well and done often. A team that can hang on defense and become a nightmare on the basepaths is one capable of doing exactly what the Arizona Diamondbacks did in 2023. Speed & defense were their identity.

Identity can be a tricky thing in today’s Major League landscape, when you’re talking about the team as a collective. Establishing one is easy. The Cincinnati Reds are young and fast. Baltimore is young and powerful. The Chicago Cubs rely on pitch location and defense. The Los Angeles Dodgers are probably going to trade for your favorite team’s best player.

More difficult, though, is maintaining one. Cincinnati & Baltimore won’t be young forever. The Cubs have some heat in their system. The Dodgers, though, will probably acquire everyone, forever.

Point being this: The Arizona Diamondbacks find themselves in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s the burden of success. You set a bar, it’s expected that you meet that bar. Is failure to meet said bar, in the style in which they leaped over it last year, a byproduct of a small sample or an indication of something more severe? Or is it more so that perhaps the identity was never the identity at all?


Snakes. Why did it have to be…snakes? 


The D-Backs didn’t post eye-popping numbers in most offensive areas last year. Their overall run production ranked only 15th (746 runs scored), while their power ranked 19th (.158 ISO). Their on-base percentage, at .322, ranked 14th. Nothing spectacular or particularly interesting when you look in a broad context.

A bit deeper under the surface, however, Arizona was a fascinating team. Their Contact% (79.2) trailed only Washington & Cleveland. They made a great deal of hard contact on top of it, with a 33.2 HardHit% that ranked 11th. They were a patient team as well, with a 45.3 Swing% that sat as the fourth-lowest. The results may not have quite been there, but there was at least intention. And when they were able to reach base is where the fun really began.

Only Cincinnati stole more bases than the Snakes’ 166. FanGraphs’ comprehensive Baserunning Runs (BsR) metric measures runs above average linked to their performance on the bases. Nobody was better than Arizona in this regard, as they posted a BsR of 18.9. Statcast’s Baserunning Above Average (XBR) had them at 7.9, trailing only Baltimore and Cincinnati. It wasn’t just steals that Arizona was able to parlay into a weapon; it was virtually everything they did on the bases.

Steals were certainly a weapon in the postseason, sure. Their 23 steals easily led the field in October. But the total body of work on the basepaths speaks to the identity concept we’re going for here.

Within that concept also lies Arizona’s defensive output. Statcast’s Fielding Run Value (FRV) represents a newer, all-encompassing defensive metric, translating them to a run-based scale. The Diamondbacks ranked third in FRV in 2023, at 28. Only Milwaukee and Texas were better. In the more familiar realm of Outs Above Average & Defensive Runs Saved, the Snakes went second (30) in the former and fourth (46) in the latter.

OAA & DRS, in particular, loved the outfield play. Arizona sat fifth (10) and fourth (19) in the two categories, respectively. The only spots where the team didn’t rank in the Top 10 in the league in total defense were second and third base. Everywhere else was nails. Christian Walker stands out in particular, as he led the first base position to the top spot in FRV (6). Gabriel Moreno merits a mention, too, for his work in leading the fourth-ranked catcher spot (11).

The TL;DR version of this is that the Arizona Diamondbacks weren’t elite in the most focused-on areas last year. Their offense was fine. Their pitching was middling-to-bad in most respects. But they carved out an identity built around speed and defense. That identity overcame superior opponents in catapulting them to the NL pennant.

The opinions regarding their offseason activity were positive, too. Those shortcomings on the roster were addressed in the signing of multiple starting pitchers and additional bats. Even with those additions, the identity wasn’t expected to be changed for an up-and-coming squad.


Snakes on a Plane Wane


As of this writing, the Arizona Diamondbacks are 13-17. They’re fourth in the National League West. They do have a +25 run differential, but that’s also likely aided by a 17-1 win over San Francisco and a 14-1 win over St. Louis in the last couple of weeks. For the most part, though, things look the same. Middling offense. Average-to-below-average pitching. Where the Snakes’ shortcomings are manifesting most frequently, however, is in those exact areas in which their identity was established last year.

Their 15 steals rank only 20th. According to BsR, they’re exactly average. The 0.0 figure there ranks 14th in the league, although it is worth noting that XBR likes them more at the fourth-best figure there (1.9). Hard contact is down, as the 30.6% clip sits 13th.

While their defense hasn’t experienced such a rapid decline, it’s not quite at the level it was last year. Their FRV (2) ranks 10th. They’re getting below average defense entirely on the left side of the infield. Third base — a spot which was supposed to be improved — is 20th as a position group in FRV (-1). Their shortstop play has been the worst of all Major League teams in Geraldo Perdomo’s absence (-4 FRV).

So the team that built their identity on baserunning and defense is not demonstrating their baserunning on any meaningful level. And while their defense has been fine-to-good, the team seems to have plugged one defensive leak (second base) only to find another.

Caveats abound, of course.

Corbin Carroll was responsible for almost exactly one-third of the team’s steals last year, with 54. He has eight of the team’s 15 this year. He’s also reaching base at a .294 clip through 126 plate appearances. You can’t utilize the wheels unless he’s actually on the basepaths.

Beyond Carroll, the team’s top base stealers were Jake McCarthy (26), Perdomo (16), and Tommy Pham (11). Walker added 11 more, with Alek Thomas contributing another nine to the effort. McCarthy only has a pair. Walker has none. Pham is suiting up for the Chicago White Sox. Each of Perdomo & Thomas have each missed most of the year with injuries.

Despite being an entirely different facet, the situation with the defense is not that dissimilar from the baserunning component. The 2023 defensive output of Eugenio Suárez was likely an outlier. He’s at a career -7 FRV. So for him to turn in a figure of 8 last year and turnaround to -1 this year isn’t surprising. Injuries are a factor here, too. Perdomo has been almost exactly average at short in his career (but never below). Thomas was a top 20 outfielder in 2023 by pretty much any defensive metric. Their respective absences leading to a defensive regression — however small — presents a simple explanation.

So the Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t been the same team with the same identity in 2023. There are obvious reasons for that. But the lack of the speed component still stands out thus far. One wonders how much that could change upon the respective returns of Perdomo and Thomas. And with that query, it brings us back to whether the D-Backs’ identity is something that we might’ve misinterpreted all along.


The (Actual) Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes


What do you expect from a team whose identity is predicated around speed? Steals, probably. Aggression with it. Perhaps some infield contact converted into hits. All of it translating directly into offensive production.

As it would turn out, that’s not really the Snakes’ game. Sure, they had the second-highest swipes total in the league last year. And the second-most individual steals. But it was more about efficiency and opportunity.

Arizona didn’t blaze their way to hits; a 5.9 infield hit percentage ranked 25th last year. On the bases, they were successful on 86 percent of steal attempts and were only caught 26 times. Of the teams near them in the steals column, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay each went for an 80 percent success rate. Kansas City was at 78. The 26 CS puts them in the bottom half of the league (in a good way). None of those other teams were within 25 steals of the Diamondbacks.

Efficiency is also the reason why only a small handful of teams have attempted less than Arizona’s 22 steal attempts this year. Carroll struggling is a factor. The opponent is another. The Diamondbacks have played eight different teams thus far, presumably with 16 different catchers rostered. Of those catchers, 10 of them are at least average in Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA) per Baseball Prospectus.

It’s a measured aggression coming out of the desert. And when the opponent can throw you out, they’re going to shift to something a bit more conservative in the steal attempts game. And that’s reflected in the overall attempts against an increased OBP from last year. The Diamondbacks can still be effective on the bases. They’ve above average in XBR, with the full-time returns of both Thomas (4.0 XBR in ’23) and Perdomo (1.4) poised to boost them there.

The defense is fine. Perdomo’s eventual return will stabilize things at short and maybe help to compensate for the defense at third. Thomas will bump up the metrics in the outfield. To say nothing of the overarching need for a much larger sample in order to evaluate defense than April provides.

But the main point is this: the Arizona Diamondbacks are not necessarily who we thought they were. They have some speed, yes. They steal bases, sure. Defense is absolutely a critical component of their success, but that’s true of any team with an uneven offense and average pitching. Instead, we should be talking about the Diamondbacks as a team built around efficiency.

Steals occur when they can. Balls are put in play. They take advantage specifically when runners are on base, even more so when they’re in scoring position. Their .254 BA is middling, but their .297 with RISP ranks fourth. Their power follows a similar trend (.186 ISO with RISP sits fifth). The pitching staff — which we have neglected to mention virtually this entire time — gets the ball on the ground at a top 10 rate (44.3).

This is how the Diamondbacks win games. Not by running you into the ground, but by striking at the right moments. I’m not turning that into an extended snake metaphor, but that’s the formula: efficiency & opportunity. Is it sustainable over a full season? If the OBP jump is real then perhaps it is, given their overall baserunning prowess. So while this isn’t the same team from a broad identity standpoint, maybe it’s more of an us problem for misinterpreting who they were in the first place.

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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