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Coming Up: Arizona Diamondbacks

For the Pirates' upcoming series against Arizona, I traded Q+As with Diamondbacks blogger Jim McLennan of AZ Snake Pit. I'll post a link to my comments over there when they go up. Thanks for initiating this, Jim! (UPDATE: My answers to Jim's questions are here.)

Bucs Dugout: What went wrong for the Diamondbacks this year, and have there been any rumblings about GM Josh Byrnes' job security? When he was hired I thought he might turn out to be one of the game's best GMs, but very little has worked out for him in the past two seasons.

AZ Snake Pit: The injury to Brandon Webb would be ground-zero for the team's problems. At the same point last season, he was 14-4 with a 3.14 ERA; his replacements this year are 3-11 with a 7.17 ERA. The difference there likely covers the seven-game gap between our current record and the one in 2008. That counts as unforeseen, though our lack of pitching depth could be laid at Byrnes' feet. The loss of Conor Jackson for the year to a fungal lung infection (!) was similarly impossible to predict, but the contract extensions given to Eric Byrnes and Chris Young have proved poor decisions that definitely hurt the team this year. 

I don't think there are too many rumblings about Byrnes' position at this point, but it would be helpful for him if a couple of his deals turned to gold, and quickly. The best hope for that one might be the trade that sent Tony Peña to the White Sox in exchange for 1B Brandon Allen. Allen has posted a line of .367/.451/.785, with nine homers in 79 Triple-A at-bats since the swap, announcing himself as a contender for a starting job in 2010. If he can come through, that will fill a significant hole on the roster.

BD: Give me a scouting report on Justin Upton. How do you get him out?

AZSP: I am happy to report that I have no idea! It's not a problem with which we have been overly concerned, instead just enjoying one of the best seasons by a 21-year old in recent memory. But if I was advising an opposing pitcher, I'd say to avoid falling behind. Upton hits .342 after a first-pitch ball and is an astonishing .442 if you go to 2-0 on him. He's not particularly aggressive, swinging about as often as average, but does tend to miss more often than most [his contact is about 73%, compared to 81% on average]. That might be something to exploit - I'd try throwing a first-pitch breaking ball for a strike, hoping to get a foul or a miss, and go from there.

BD: Will Chris Young ever become a good hitter?

AZSP: Sadly, it's looking increasingly unlikely. He had a good June, and we hoped that he had finally cured the pop-upitis that had plagued his season. However, July saw him right back in the doldrums. His career average is just .234, and even that would be an improvement of almost forty points over his number this season. 30% of his fly balls this year haven't gotten out of the infield - MLB average is only 13% - and there seems no cure in sight. Equally troubling, his power has completely evaporated. Just two seasons ago, he had 32 homers; this year he's on pace for single figures. Even his defense has dropped off significantly, and at this point, Gerardo Parra looks a better option in CF next season. I don't think I've seen a young player implode quite as spectacularly, and it's a real shame.

BD: What has made Dan Haren appear so dominant as opposed to past years, when he was merely very good?

AZSP:Honestly, good luck has played a significant part. His BABIP [batting average on balls in play, which is something pitchers generally can't control much] in the first half was .233, compared to league average of .296. So when people have hit the ball, it's gone to a fielder more often than you'd expect. That seems to be unwinding a bit in the second half and over his first four starts since the break, his ERA has regressed to 4.32.

That said, his control has been excellent. His walk rate is down to just 1.3 per 9 IP, compared to a career average of 2.0, and he's striking out almost a batter per inning. His cut fastball has been particularly effective this season, and it gives him three "out" pitches, with his fastball and splitter all equally good. He's also attacking the strike zone: his first-pitch strike percentage is 68%, best in the National League, and his repertoire now means that, once he gets ahead, he has a variety of options with which to put you away.

BD: Will Mark Reynolds break his own strikeout record this year? And perhaps more importantly, do you care?

AZSP: We call him "Special K," because his at-bats are either special, or they're a K. I think he probably will break his own record - he's on pace for 222 strikeouts, eighteen more than last season. That did cause a bit of carping among fans last year, but this season, it's been a price we've been happy to pay for his power. He's only two homers behind Albert Pujols and might be close to fifty by season's end. And we're talking some monster bombs. A dozen this year have been measured by at over 440 ft, including the longest in the majors, a 481 ft blast off Brad Lidge.

Add an average of near .280, improved defense [I would suggest front-row spectators down the third-base line in Pittsburgh should stay alert!], and his emergence as a clubhouse leader, and he's emerging as one of the best and most-loved players on the Diamondbacks roster.