Underachieving Diamondbacks Ripe for Change?

Today marks the Arizona Diamondbacks first off-day since they began the horrendous road trip going 0-9 through the National League West. While the players have the day off, team officials are far from idle. Beat writer Nick Piecoro had an opportunity to catch up with Diamondbacks Managing Partner Ken Kendrick to ask for his comments about the team’s performance. Kendrick’s unabridged comments can be found in their entirety on Piecoro’s blog.

Kendrick’s comments range from on-field performance to evaluating the organization as a whole. This insight helps fans gain a perspective of what may be going on behind the scenes to address the abysmal season the Diamondbacks have had so far.

For whatever reason, Kendrick seems to have a knack of polarizing public sentiment. Part of this may be the way he became managing general partner. When the Diamondbacks were first awarded a franchise the general partner was Arizona legend and Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo.

Colangelo architected a plan that called for immediate results to win a championship. Beginning in 1999 the Diamondbacks were extremely active in the free agent market bringing in high-priced veterans who by 2001 brought a world championship the Arizona desert.

Colangelo did this by mortgaging the team’s future signing several players to long-term contracts with deferred money. Now nearly ten years later the Diamondbacks are still paying those contracts. While the team met their goal of being the world champions, they jeopardized the long-term viability of the team pushing them very near bankruptcy.

Enter Kendrick and his financial backers who forced Colangelo out of the organization taking control to try and stabilize the finances and return the team back from the abyss. Given Colangelo’s popularity in this town, the move to oust him was not taken well by the fans or the media.

From my perspective as a Season Ticket Holder and baseball fan, I understood the move and I appreciate the forward planning and stability this ownership brought to the table. While I love Colangelo, I understand this team can never operate as the big market team he envisioned.

Over the years I have come to appreciate Kendrick’s business sense and his love for the game of baseball. Beyond being an owner, Kendrick is a huge Diamondbacks fan and a fan of baseball. And like all of us he is passionate about this team. He wears that passion on his sleeve which at times can lead to trouble especially with the media.

Reporters have had a heyday with Kendrick in the past questioning his comments or decision making such as hiring Wally Backman without doing a background check to find out what kind of character they were dealing with or making comments questioning whether fan-favorite Luis Gonzalez may have been a steroid user during his playing career.

As regular fans sitting in the bleachers we may have made similar comments but as an owner Kendrick is supposed to be above such things. Personally I like his colorful personality and at times almost knee-jerk reaction comments. At least he’s showing emotion and letting everyone know he wants to win.

Another trait Kendrick has shown is a tremendous loyalty and faith he has in his employees. He stood behind Bob Melvin as long as he could and has likewise shown faith in General Manager Josh Byrnes despite the lack of success he has had recently putting the team together.

There comes a point though that loyalty may be misplaced and when that happens change in inevitable. The Diamondbacks ownership group seems to have reached that point. After almost two years of faltering, there seems to be changes afoot at Chase Field.

Presently Diamondbacks management is evaluating the overall organization to identify where changes need to occur to return the team to a winning franchise. No individual within the organization is above this review from the owner all the way down to the guy selling hot dogs.

I’m not sure this is strictly an on-field problem. I think it goes beyond that to a perceived lack of organizational philosophy.

During a recent road trip to Atlanta, announcers Daron Sutton and Mark Grace did a piece on Braves manager Bobby Cox. While it was an interesting piece about a great manager, it was something else that caught my attention.

The Braves talked about how they never get beat in scouting and player analysis especially in their own backyard. They gave several examples of players drafted by the Braves who come from Georgia. The team seems to be connected to every organized baseball team in the south east. This is imperative if the team hopes to compete with the larger teams who have greater payroll flexibility.

It is not just drafting the right player, it is developing that player into a cog in the Braves machine. From the first day that player reports to the minor league they are taught to play the game the “Bobby Cox way”. If a player exhibits a tendency counter to the coaching and playing philosophy of Bobby Cox they are reminded, “that is not the way number six does things”, a reference to the uniform number Cox wears. The Braves philosophy from scouting to drafting to player development is all concretely defined and followed at every level.

From an outside perspective that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Arizona Diamondbacks. General Manager Josh Byrnes is one of the new guard executives that rely heavily on statistical analysis and making personnel decisions on quantifiable results.

From a statistician’s perspective I respect the process of wanting to make decisions more objective and rely less on hunches and feelings. The problem is, the product being evaluated is a living, breathing, human being who doesn’t always work based on statistical analysis and projecting the future based on historical data goes out the window when the variable human mind enters the equation.

This difference is even more pronounced this time of year at draft time when players are analyzed and quantified with statistics to determine draft order and talent potential. We constantly hear that the team will draft the “best available athlete”. I appreciate wanting to get the best value with each pick but do these players fit within the player development philosophy of the organization?

The Diamondbacks seem to have cornered the market on players capable of hitting home runs and driving in runners but they also are among the league leaders in strikeouts each year. We’re told that they are willing to accept a few strikeouts in exchange for game changing hits.

I’ve always been of the mindset that to win ball games you had to get on base, get yourself into scoring position, and be aggressive on the base paths to manufacture runs. The Diamondbacks teams of the past few years are more prone to sit back and hit a three-run home run than take a walk, steal second, and score on a base hit to the outfield.

Maybe that is the new way of baseball but it seems to promote players who are susceptible to hot and cold streaks leading to inconsistent offense which is what we have seen these past two plus years. The same inconsistency can be found in the defense and with the pitching staff.

I continue to read how this core set of players are the same as those who went to the National League Championship Series in 2007. What people seem to forget is that the 2007 team had a negative run differential but somehow found a way to win.

The offensive inconsistency was hidden by a pitching staff that overachieved that season. When the pitching came back to earth in 2008 the team began to struggle missing the playoffs. Adding injuries in 2009, the pitching staff was exposed and the offense was not consistent or strong enough to overcome its faults.

Changing managers did not address the core problem; that this team was built with parts that do not complement each other. Making wholesale changes to the players, coaches, or development staff may shake things up but if the underlying lack of a consistent player development philosophy is not addressed it will be hit and miss whether the changes will be effective.

This is obviously over-simplified but it seems just as valid as evaluating a player based strictly on statistical analysis. Hopefully Kendrick and his staff can get to the bottom of this otherwise it is not only going to be a long summer at Chase Field but it could have ramifications for seasons to come.


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