Justin Upton, Matt Davidson, Chris Young

Springtime Storylines: Was 2011 a fluke for the Arizona Diamondbacks?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Big Question: Was 2011 a fluke year?

The Diamondbacks went from 70 wins in 2009 to 65 wins in 2010 to … 94 wins in 2011. What in the Sam Hill happened?  Was the Dbacks’ massive improvement sustainable, or will 2012 see them back down to something that bears a more reasonable resemblance to what they were before Kirk Gibson came along?

I think it’s sustainable, or something close to it.  Thee 2010 Dbacks weren’t quite as bad as their record indicated, as one of the worst bullpens in recent memory caused them to lose a lot of games they should have won. That was fixed last year by a revamped and massively improved pen, along with some massive steps forward for Ian Kennedy, Ryan Roberts, Miguel Montero and others.

Now, you can’t count on all of those guys doing that again, but there are others who are poised to step in with improvement or new production to keep Arizona at the top of the West. A full season from Paul Goldschmidt, for example, could give the Diamondbacks a lot of extra pop at first base. The addition of Trevor Cahill to the rotation is a plus too, both pushing Joe Saunders down in the order and serving as Ian Kennedy regression insurance.

So while, yeah, a lot went right for the Dbacks in 2011, I don’t think it was a fluke. There was real improvement there that Kevin Towers has built on. And I think the Dbacks can do it again.

What else is going on? 

  • Not that every move Towers makes makes sense. I still don’t get why he signed Jason Kubel, which means benching Gerardo Parra whose defense likely more than makes up for his lighter bat. I think Kirk Gibson is gonna blow a gasket watching balls drop in front of Kubel in left field that Parra would have reached.
  • I also don’t understand why Towers signed Willie Bloomquist to a two-year deal. And why, it appears anyway, he is gonna be leading off for this team.
  • Aaron Hill is a key bat as well. He was sort of the Dbacks in microcosm, putting up a paltry .584 OPS before coming over in that trade from the Blue Jays (the 2010 Dbacks) and then going crazy to the tune of .315/.386/.492 in his short stint in Arizona. Obviously that’s not repeatable over a whole season, but if his production looks decidedly more like his Blue Jays numbers than something at least within shouting distance of his Dbacks production, Arizona is going to have some issues at the top of the lineup.
  • For all of the regression candidates on this team, it’s scary to think that Justin Upton — who hit 31 homers with 88 RBIs and an .898 OPS — might even be better than those number going forward.

How are they gonna do?

I think they’ll be just fine this year. And I feel better about that when I look around the rest of the division and don’t see anyone who got remarkably better over the offseason. The Dbacks have the potential for a really solid rotation with Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Cahill at the top, a GM who knows how to build a bullpen and a superstar in right field.  They’re my pick in the NL West.

Julio Urias is on his way back to the majors

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27:  Julio Urias #78 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the New York Mets during their game at Citi Field on May 27, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images
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Dodgers 19-year-old rookie Julio Urias is coming back to the majors and Alex Wood is headed to the 15-day disabled list with left elbow soreness, Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reports. Urias will likely start Saturday against the Braves, which will mark his debut in front of the home crowd.

Urias made his major league debut on Friday against the Mets at Citi Field, but lasted only 2 2/3 innings. He yielded three runs on five hits and four walks with three strikeouts.

Urias came into the season rated as the Dodgers’ #1 prospect and the #2 overall prospect in baseball. Prior to his promotion, he had compiled a 1.10 ERA with 44 strikeouts and eight walks over 41 innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Mookie Betts enjoys a three-homer game against the Orioles

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 31: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox follows his three run homer against the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 31, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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The Red Sox seem to have hit the jackpot on all of their young players so far this year. Jackie Bradley, Jr. just had a 29-game hitting streak snapped. Xander Bogaerts extended his hitting streak to 24 games on Tuesday night. And Mookie Betts has been quite productive batting leadoff for the Red Sox this year, entering Tuesday with an even .800 OPS.

Betts, 23, hit 18 home runs in his first full season last year. With a three-homer night against the Orioles on Tuesday, he’s already up to 12 in 2016 with four months of season left. The first was of the solo variety, a line drive to center field off of Kevin Gausman in the first inning. Betts followed up in the third with a liner to left field for a three-run dinger off of Gausman. He made it three in the seventh, drilling a Dylan Bundy offering to right field.

Here’s video of homer number two:

Betts finished 3-for-5 as the Red Sox won 6-2 at Camden Yards.

The stats show the Pirates as an outlier in throwing “headhunter” pitches

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 5: Reliever Arquimedes Caminero #37 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh inning at Busch Stadium on September 5, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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Last week at ESPN Sweetspot’s Inside the Zona, Ryan Morrison looked into the data and found that the Pirates stand out among the rest when it comes to throwing “headhunter” pitches. Those are defined as fastballs 3.2 feet or higher and 1.2 feet towards the batter from the center of the plate.

The research was prompted because Diamondbacks second baseman Jean Segura was hit in the helmet by Pirates reliever Arquimedes Caminero last Tuesday in the seventh inning. The next inning, Caminero hit shortstop Nick Ahmed in the jaw with a pitch and was instantly ejected.

Morrison illustrated the data in a nice chart, which you should check out. The Pirates have thrown 93 of those pitches, which is way more than any other team. The next closest team is the Reds at 68 pitches. The major league average is approximately 48 pitches.

The Pirates have had an organizational philosophy of pitching inside since at least 2013, as MLB.com’s Tom Singer quoted manager Clint Hurdle as saying, “We’re not trying to hurt people, just staying in with conviction.”

Morrison goes on to suggest that the Diamondbacks should have forfeited last Wednesday and Thursday’s games against the Pirates in protest, out of concern for their players’ safety. As it happened, the D-Backs lost both games anyway, suffering a series sweep. The two clubs don’t meet again this season.

D-Backs manager Chip Hale said after last Tuesday’s game that Caminero “shouldn’t be at this level”. Caminero responded to those comments today, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. “I’m actually glad you asked me about that,” Caminero said. “The only thing I’ve got to say about (Hale) is that he is a perfect manager. And he was a perfect player, too. That’s it. I know what I did wasn’t good, but it happens in baseball. I wasn’t trying to hit anyone.”

I realize I’m late on pointing out Morrison’s terrific article and the whole debacle between the two teams, but I felt it was worth highlighting.

Jose Bautista: “I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 29: Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jayshits a two-run home run in the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Boston Red Sox on May 29, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
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Also included in a recent report on Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated — along with his belief that Rougned Odor was the only bad guy in the May 15 debacle — was the slugger’s desire to remain a Blue Jay. Per Verducci, Bautista said, “I love the city. I’d be stupid to leave” Toronto.

Bautista, 35, is in the final year of a five-year, $65 million extension signed in February 2011. Back in November, the Jays exercised their 2016 club option for $14 million. Bautista isn’t willing to discuss contract details during the season, so the two sides will have to wait until at least October to come to an agreement.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Yankees, Bautista is hitting .237/.371/.489 with 11 home runs, 37 RBI, and 40 walks, the latter of which leads the American League.