Sometimes, they seem more like the Arizona Iamonbacks.
Missing their “D.”
With the Diamondbacks’ offense struggling but their pitching strong, defense has become an important factor in recent games.
In close games — and of the past 15 Arizona games, 11 have been decided by one run and three by two runs — every mistake looms large.
Two stand out from the just-completed trip: second baseman Junior Spivey's bad throw (and first baseman Shea Hillenbrand's inability to come up with the ball) on a possible inning-ending double play that led to a loss in Florida; and shortstop Alex Cintron's short relay throw in Chicago that allowed the Cubs to score in an eventual 14-inning loss.
In fact, the D-Backs are on pace for a franchise record for errors and their most unearned runs allowed since 1998. They were errorless Sunday, keeping them from matching the team-record streak of seven games with at least one error, but have committed 29 in the last 27 games.
“I think some of them have been tough chances too — some awkward hops, some in-between hops,” manager Bob Brenly said. “Defense has always been about concentration and anticipation — being ready for the ball to be hit to you, and knowing what you're going to do with it.
“Some of the errors probably are because of a lack of concentration. But that's something that can be easily remedied.”
Arizona's 76 errors are seventh-most in the NL. In the previous five seasons, the Diamondbacks have never been in the top 11 in errors. In 2001, they had a league-low 84, and last year they committed 89 errors.
Coach Robin Yount, who works with the infielders, attributes some of the increase to the influx of youth.
“We've spent more time working on little things with some of the younger guys,” said Yount, who won a Gold Glove at shortstop in 1982 and made just 32 errors in 1,218 career games in the outfield. “That's part of what you live with often times with young players. To me, overall, they've done a nice job. But there's usually more inconsistency.”
Cintron, who has shown good range but also some lapses, has six errors in 45 games at shortstop and a team-high 10 overall. Robby Hammock made four errors in 13 games at third base, and Hillenbrand made six errors in 22 games at third before moving across the diamond with the demotion of Lyle Overbay.
Center fielder Steve Finley has four errors, his most since 1998. Perhaps most alarming is the 13 errors committed by pitchers — more than any NL team but the Cubs (Curt Schilling has a career-high four, one on an obstruction call).
“I'm not a big stickler on numbers, per se,” Yount said. “Just because the number of errors is up doesn't necessarily bother me. Obviously, when they're made is certainly much more important than the overall numbers.”
But Arizona miscues have led to 45 unearned runs, more than in all of last season.
Infield defense is particularly important because the D-Backs have three ground-ball pitchers in their rotation: Brandon Webb, Miguel Batista and Elmer Dessens. Despite that, Arizona is last in the NL with 88 double plays.
Of course, defense is more than just errors and double plays. Arizona's strengths include a mostly reliable outfield, the catchers’ ability to block balls behind the plate, Rod Barajas’ success nailing base-stealers, Craig Counsell's work at third base (not much of a drop-off from Matt Williams) and rookie Matt Kata's play at second. Outfield throwing, a concern in left with Luis Gonzalez, has been improved with the addition of Raul Mondesi in right.
According to baseballprospectus.com, Arizona's “defensive efficiency” — ratio of balls in play turned into outs — is .7157, fourth-best in the NL and up from .7115 last year.
“I think overall we're pleased with the defense,” Brenly said. “You can always improve and you can always get better.”
With the team home for most of August, Brenly said, there will be more opportunities for defensive drills.
“Hopefully,” he said, “the extra work will eliminate some of the physical errors we've been making.”