MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks

The Arizona Diamondbacks are nothing if not newsworthy. One of the most active teams over the last two offseasons, they seem to straddle the line between productivity and activity. Like sharks, in their own benign way. Trading prospects willy nilly and building the most average team an average amount of money can buy.

Now Ken Rosenthal reports that the Diamondbacks want to be players for Masahiro Tanaka, employing an “in for a penny, in for a pound” philosophy after coming up empty on the big ticket free agent market. The idea that the Snakes would go in heavy for an international player jibes with their recent attempts to grow their brand beyond the borders of the lower 48 (though adding fans beyond the borders of Chase Field would be a much more realistic start).

Back in November, Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic that laying the groundwork internationally would pay off in just just such a situation as this one:

“It’s one of those things where you almost have to keep up with the Joneses,” Hall said, “so that when the time comes to lure a talented player, you can do so with those relationships. With the credibility, you hopefully build the brand.”

So they have the money (earmarked for a Shin-Soo Choo signing, we’re told) and they have the will and they have the need, but why does it seem so unlikely that Arizona would ever sign a player like Tanaka?

Setting aside our own baggage about the state of Arizona, there is no good reason Tanaka might choose to forgo six years in the desert. The team isn’t bad (but probably not on the fast track to the playoffs like others in the bidding) and the ever-important tax implications make AZ a more desireable home than New York or California. But still – Arizona?

Previous high-profile Asian players rebuffed the DBacks advances but, baseball eugenics aside, what does that have to do with Tanaka? If Arizona’s interest is as genuine as their need for a legit number two starter than they have be considered legit contenders to land the Ratuken Eagles ace, right?

Legit contenders maybe, but that doesn’t make it any easier to picture somebody willfully choosing to be a part of the Snakes vast chemistry experiment. As the comments volleyed towards Adam Eaton on his way out of town testify, the culture they’re fostering in the desert is unique. The dogged pursuit of players who can perform “beyond their tools” could have unintended consequences beyond gritty gamers grittily gamering their way through a six month season. Maybe it just pisses people off and, given the choice, nobody with a choice would voluntarily sign up for that nonsense.

The Depth of the Shallow End

The following is not science. Let’s just get that out of the way early. Looking for specific trends is not subjecting a theory to rigorous mathematical proofing. This is just an idea (long kicking around in my head) given new life because of another piece of a non-science from another corner of the internet.

Jeff Sullivan unsurprisingly wrote an interesting thing over at Fangraphs, looking at the need for “depth starters” and the myth of the five man rotation. He noted that, last season, clubs needed an average of 32 starts from pitchers outside their five most frequently used starters. Which is to say, an average team’s “sixth” starter is really a crowd of fill-ins and replacement level chaff that ends up toeing the rubber as often as the nominal ace.

It’s good stuff and a good way at looking at building a team. 32 starts per team last year game from the lower half of the starter depth chart. It got me thinking about a pet theory of my own – that a strong group of durable starters almost trumps the actual performance of that group.

Using Baseball Reference’s Play Indez, I looked at teams over the last five years to get 30 starts from four or more pitchers. No barrier for quality, just the same guys taking a turn every five days.

13 teams claimed four different 30 start guys in this tiny frame, as you can see here:

Of those 13 teams, all but four made the postseason. The teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs won 90, 89, 86, and 83 games in their respective seasons. Four of the last five World Series champions are also represented on the list you see above, for what that’s worth. (The 2013 Red Sox are the exemption to this rule, with only Jon Lester making more than 30 starts this season. They used 11 total, with numbers six through eleven accounting for 28 starts. The trade deadline acquisition of Jake Peavy muddies these waters every so slightly.)

I dunno, that seems like a pretty good relationship to me. Depth is important but there is no substitute for everything going to plan, leaving your well-complied depth on the sideline as the ultimate luxury.

Again: not science. The worst kind of correlation = causation, if we’re being honest. Which isn’t to suggest the having depth isn’t like having a black belt in some crazy martial art – it’s better to have it and not need it.

Contrasting the relative team success of those clubs that get a lot of starts from the same guys (of varying quality, please note. Vogelsong AND Zito? World Series champs, baby) compared to the value of an ace. While 13 teams in the past five years had a set-in-stone rotation, 14 teams claimed at least one 7 WAR pitcher in the same time frame. Only six of those teams made the playoffs despite the best efforts of aces like Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, and Cliff Lee.

Of course, showing up on one list doesn’t preclude a team from also appearing on the other. But I wonder if doggedly pursuing an ace-as-saviour might represent energy better spent trying to find the pieces to build a strong enough to rotation that can be counted on for 120 starts from its four best members.

Knowing what we know about pitcher injuries, it might be more productive to simply bet half the team’s payroll on “00″ at the nearest casino. The best laid plans, amirite?