Zack Greinke's first season in the desert hardly went as intended, and that's not exactly a controversial statement.
"It didn't go as planned, for the team and myself for the most part," Greinke told MLB.com's Steve Gilbert last October. "I didn't do that good when I came back [from the disabled list]," he added after reporting to camp earlier this month. "I kind of didn't pitch as good as I probably could have or should have."
That's not really in dispute, not after Greinke's ERA ballooned from a stunning 1.66 in 2015 with the Dodgers to an inflated 4.37 ERA with the D-backs in '16. After missing six weeks in the summer with a left oblique strain and his final two starts of the year with a sore right shoulder, certainly better health would help. Better performance on Greinke's end would help, too.
But what if it's not just about Greinke? What if the 2017 D-backs are simply better positioned to support their pitchers than the 2016 version was? They are. Let's see how much it might help.
When Greinke left Los Angeles, he also left catcher Yasmani Grandal, who caught 26 of his 32 starts in 2015. Grandal perennially ranks among the game's truly elite framers, finishing second only to Buster Posey by saving +27 runs (per Baseball Prospectus) in 2016, and he'd caught nearly every pitch of Greinke's 45 2/3-inning scoreless streak in 2015.
Put another way, Baseball Prospectus also tracks how much each pitcher is helped or hurt by the performance of his catcher, and in 2015, Greinke was tied with Chris Sale for the most support received via framing, at +11 runs. Last year, with the below-average Welington Castillo catching Greinke for all but two of his starts, that number dropped to -3.4, a nearly 15-run swing that placed Greinke in the bottom 20 of all pitchers. (Teammates Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin also finished in the bottom 30.)
Another way to look at it is simply to just see what percentage of pitches "outside the zone" became called strikes. In 2015, Greinke got 232 such calls, 7.2 percent of all his pitches. In 2016, that was merely 137, or 5.5 percent. He pitched fewer innings, obviously, but even accounting for that we're talking about dozens of calls he didn't get last year -- and if you think that doesn't matter, realize he allowed a .843 OPS after a 1-0 count as opposed to a .690 OPS after an 0-1 count. When Greinke got ahead, it was .554. When he didn't, it was 1.057. It matters. A lot.
"We believe in the metrics," said new manager Torey Lovullo at the Winter Meetings. "We believe in the data. We believe in trying to do as much research as possible."
Lovullo might not have specifically been talking about pitch framing, but the D-backs' moves behind the plate this winter have made it clear that it's a priority. Arizona non-tendered Castillo in favor of giving two years to Jeff Mathis, despite the fact that Mathis has long been one of the weaker hitters in baseball, and a big reason is that Mathis is one of baseball's better pitch framers. Looking at Called Strikes Above Average (to account for the fact that Mathis doesn't play every day), he was fourth of the 114 catchers tracked last year -- behind only former D-back Miguel Montero, Posey and Grandal.
Mathis is expected to catch about 60 games, per Lovullo. He already caught Greinke's first bullpen session of the spring, and Greinke has generally preferred to have one primary catcher, so let's assume he catches most of Greinke's starts. If he does, he'll give the D-backs' ace a large boost over 2016.
Though it wasn't entirely their fault, Arizona's outfielde defense in 2016 was… not good. Trading the outstanding glove of Ender Inciarte to Atlanta in the Shelby Miller deal set the fielding back before the year even began, and things only got worse when injuries limited A.J. Pollock and David Peralta to a combined 60 games.
Forced to rely on converted infielders Brandon Drury, Rickie Weeks Jr. and Chris Owings, as well as the bat-first Yasmany Tomas, the D-backs' outfield finished 2016 with a -19 Defensive Runs Saved total, 25th in the Majors and a stunning drop of 56 runs from 2015's No. 2 overall total of +37. Using the rough shorthand of "10 runs equal one win," the step backwards in outfield defense by itself arguably cost the team five wins from 2015 to 2016 alone.
Another way to look at that is simply to check out non-homer line drives and fly balls to the outfield and see how many got caught. Last year, the D-backs allowed those balls to drop at an average clip of .480, which was the highest in baseball and well above the Major League average of .432. For Greinke, that number was .481 -- and it had been just .373 with the Dodgers in 2015.
Part of that, it's fair to note, is that the environment and large outfield at Chase Field are more conducive to hitting than they were at Dodger Stadium, so even if everything went right, Greinke was still going to allow more hits. Even with 2015's more productive unit, the D-backs came in 16th by that metric, which is only about league-average, yet still far better than 2016. But while there's not much that can be done about Tomas, the return of Pollock and Peralta ought to be a boon for Greinke and all Arizona pitchers.
So how much of an improvement could you see? It's extremely difficult to say, because Greinke needs to stay healthy and pitch better, and Pollock and Peralta need to stay on the field. The 1.66 ERA we saw in 2015 almost certainly wasn't going to get repeated even under the best of circumstances, but it's not hard to see how this ends better. Let's take an educated guess and suggest that if better framing and outfield play would have saved Greinke 15 runs last year, that would have left him with a 3.53 ERA. That's perhaps still higher than the contract he received would have suggested, but as we know, run prevention isn't just the pitcher's responsibility. It takes an entire team. This year, the D-backs are in better shape to help their staff.