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Arizona Diamondbacks Drop Strikeouts But Still Can't Score

The Diamondbacks own an average offense despite having dropped their strikeouts dramatically. What's happening?

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The Arizona Diamondbacks lost 8-4 Monday night to the San Diego Padres.  While the story of the night was the many-hitter off Armando Galarraga, Henry Blanco also delivered two home runs, doubling his yearly total.  The Diamondbacks have now knocked in 45 home runs, second in the senior circuit behind the Cincinnati Reds

Yet the Diamondbacks score a full run less per contest than the Reds, settling in at a slightly above average 4.28 runs per game.  With Mark Reynolds jettisoned to the AL East and Adam LaRoche haunting the nation's capital, the Diamondbacks' strikeouts have dropped from league-leading to roughly league-average.  Whither the runs, then?

Mark Reynolds also had this nasty habit of taking ball four, helping the franchise take second place in the National League in 2010 in walks while also contributing heartily to the NL-leading 1,529 team strikeouts. That 2010 squad managed to eke out 4.40 runs per game, also slightly above league average. Because of lower strikeouts and bases-on-balls totals so far this season, the ball's in play much more often for the Diamondbacks. That's when the excitement happens, right? Get the runners moving, smart baserunning, efforting the paradigm, etc. There should be more runs this season compared to the rest of the National League, no?

Except, of course, you need runners to move for the plan to work. The D'Backs have the fourth-worst on-base percentage in the major leagues, a meager .310 that is well behind the league median of .320. All those extra balls in play are ending up in gloves; the Diamondbacks' batting average on balls in play is .276, three points above the worst team in the category: the Washington Nationals

Since the season's less than a quarter done, there's a case for calling this bad luck. Sometimes the fielders are where your ball falls. Of course, you can make it a lot easier for fielders to get to your ball by hitting fly balls. At this, the Diamondbacks might be top of the pops. Over 40% of their batted balls end up in the sky, which is six percent more than the National League as a whole. 

Fly balls tend to be an all-or-nothing proposition and the worst way to raise batting averages. Sure, you get bloop singles and seeing-eye gappers, but most of the latter get categorized as line drives, of which the Diamondbacks have a very low 16.6% of balls put into play. Nope; it's home run or bust. For the Diamondbacks, it's been mostly bust, leading to the anemic .238 team batting average and the aforementioned painful on-base percentage. This approach has led to 28 of the Diamondbacks' 45 home runs this season to be solo efforts, a whopping 62%. 

For all the shuffling to limit strike three, the Diamondbacks have effectively traded strikeouts and walks for pop flies and solo shots to stay league average. The team is hitting one out every 30 at-bats, just like they did last year.  However, the National League's hitting the ball out at a seven percent slower pace this season over last. It might not be bad luck that the fly ball isn't falling to the ground more often; the Diamondbacks might be 'lucky' the ball's getting out of the park enough.

This reliance on the fly ball is the continuation of a trend upwards over the last few seasons for the Diamondbacks.  Chris Young at age 27 looks like he's Josh Willingham, no more. Justin Upton spends more time swinging from his heels than Hines Ward's dance partner, which seems curable at 23 except he's made no effort to do so.  His strikeouts are on pace for his career average. (This assumes, of course, that strikeouts are inherently evil and not just a bad idea when grouped too heavily.)  Kelly Johnson leads the league in strikeouts, so Upton can still aspire to something.

The only batter in the lineup regularly to acquit himself well has been Stephen Drew, who has taken walks, made solid contact, and avoided putting the ball in the air more often than needed. Oh, and Ryan Roberts, of course, who we all knew would excel in his age 30 season.  This success has led to rumors that Drew will be on the trading block this summer.

In summation: the Arizona Diamondbacks have evolved over the last few years into Ozzie Guillen's favorite team, reliant on solo home runs to the detriment of overall scoring. The players in their prime are generally the worst offenders and the remainder are the most attractive trade chits. And then there's Justin Upton, who might stop uppercutting his swings or might not, depending on his desire to improve. 

All of this leads to an average offense in a slightly above-average park, meaning all of the huffing-slash-puffing about the Diamondback Way has led the offense back to the same place they were last season (and perhaps a bit fortunate to be there) with no appreciable future. 

And if you think that's a gruesome forecast, wait 'till you see the pitching.

(All statistics from the great and powerful Baseball-Reference)