Manager Torey Lovullo of the Arizona Diamondbacks has positively changed the culture in the clubhouse.
At this time last season, the Arizona Diamondbacks were cleaning out their lockers and booking tee times. That was at the mid-season break.
By the All-Star game in San Diego a year, ago, the Diamondbacks were 38-52, dropped five straight and seven of their last eight games before the break. The start to the second half was no better. In the games coming out of the break, the Diamondbacks lost seven of their first nine games, and by August 1, the team floundered with a record of 43-62.
This time under manager Torey Lovullo, the Diamondbacks are 53-36 and in second place in the National League West. Last season, they did not win their 53rd game until Aug. 24, and that was a 10-9 win over Atlanta in 10 innings.
By that time, manager Chip Hale was on his way out, and along with Dave Stewart, the club’s general manager. In their place, Ken Kendrick and Derrick Hall, the principal decision-makers for the franchise, went with analytics, sabermetrics and greater communication. The plan seems to work, and players have responded favorably to Lovullo. The research and planning from new general manager Mike Hazen has also been reliable.
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What has turned this team around is the culture instituted by Lovullo. When he was hired as manager last October, Lovullo made the point, “what matters to (the players), matters to me.” While that form of communication is often devoid of baseball talk. Lovullo seems to genuinely care about his players, and continually asks about a player’s families and off field interests. In turn, players have responded with a strong commitment, sense of community and positive interaction.
For the first half …
Until mid-June, the Diamondbacks put up strong offensive numbers. In the final weeks leading up the All-Star game, Paul Goldschmidt dropped 20 points, Jake Lamb is now under .280, and his RBI production seems to have come to screeching halt, Chris Owings (above .300 most of the first half) is hitting .290, and Chris Herrmann has been below .200 all season. From a team stand point, the Diamondbacks were first or second in numerous offensive categories for most of the first half, but at the break, they are sixth in team batting, fifth in runs scored, and fourth in RBIs. These placements are for the National League.
In the second half, and with the Colorado Rockies only two games behind Arizona in the NL West, the bats need to start producing again. Goldschmidt and Lamb, among the NL RBI leaders, must exceed their current rate of production. While catching the Dodgers for the division lead remains a great challenge, the Diamondbacks need to maintain separation to the clubs below.
FIRST HALF GRADE – B
For a team which finished last in the NL for ERA last season, the Diamondbacks made a sudden and dramatic turnaround. Starters have been the catalyst and surprise has also come out of the bullpen.
When veteran catcher Chris Iannetta told Venom Strikes a team can unload tremendous firepower, that’s not enough. It’s pitching and defense which wins championships, he said.
The pair of Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray have emerged as the second-best, one-two punch among starters in the majors. Only the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood have put up better numbers. Still, Lovullo told Venom Strikes just before the break, “it’s the starters which set the tone.”
After Shelby Miller went down in late April with Tommy John, Zack Godley has emerged as creditable starter. Taijuan Walker, with six wins at the break, could win 12 to 14 if he gets hot, but the “x” factor is Patrick Corbin. With a solid spring training, Corbin, in the first half, could not live up that production. Instead, he’s struggled over the first three months and enters the break with a 6-9 record. Like Walker, Corbin needs to find ways to get hitters out, and paint the strike zone from both sides of the plate.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the development of Archie Bradley out of the bullpen. Losing his bid for a rotation spot at the end of spring training, Bradley went to the bullpen and has been most of the effective pitches in the game in that role. Closer Fernando Rodney, second in the NL in saves (22) to Greg Holland of the Rockies, encountered a few bumps in the first half. The question for Rodney, will he be reliable in October?
FIRST HALF GRADE – B+
When shortstop Nick Ahmed went down with a broke right hand on June 28, the defense went south. Owings, who started the season at short, has a better bat than glove and Ahmed’s replacement, Ketel Marte, seems to have better range, and a stronger arm, than Owings. Still, Owings, occasionally giving David Peralta an off day in right field, is adequate, but the defense is clearly better with Ahmed.
Goldschmidt, a two-time Gold Glove winner, gives the Diamondbacks a fortress at first base. At third, Lamb is better to his right than his left, but would likely be more consistent with using both hands, just not his glove, when fielding.
From a defensive standpoint, the Diamondbacks clearly improved with Jeff Mathis and Iannetta behind the plate, especially their collective ability to frame pitches. Both handle a pitching staff well, and Lovullo relies on Mathis to provide strong, veteran leadership in the clubhouse.
FIRST HALF GRADE – B
Over the first half, the Diamondbacks improved in two areas.
First, the running game. That’s the domain of first base coach Dave McKay, whom San Diego manager Andy Green calls, “the best first base coach in the game.” The running game starts with McKay, and he intelligently reads pitchers and their tendencies. That allows those on first to pick their spots, and McKay favors, from time to time, a double steal.
Second, the use of analytics has helped improve positioning of fielders. Plus, the framing of Mathis and Iannetta is one reason why the Diamondbacks are second behind the Dodgers in team strikeouts in among NL teams.
FIRST HALF GRADE – A
The fact the Diamondbacks are 17 games over .500 at the break is a tribute to Lovullo. His communications skills represent the principal reason for the players’ commitment and their collective ability to bond. In Lovullo’s clubhouse , players echo a sense “of family” and continue on road trips. To that end, Lovullo has allowed a basket and backboard in the clubhouse, opened the clubhouse door to children of players and untapped the beer keg. All of which has interacted to push this team collectively forward, and the notion of “a team concept” is obvious.
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There is every reason to believe Lovullo will not keep his team complacent in the second half, and continue to communicate the essence of winning. From that perspective, anything can happen when players combine physical ability with a strong mental approach.
FIRST HALF GRADE – A