It’s no secret that offense gains headlines, but pitching and defense win championships.
For the Arizona Diamondbacks, half of this equation seems filled and the other remains an enigma. Over the past three seasons, the Diamondbacks have emerged as one of the top defensive teams in baseball and back-to-back Gold Gloves for Nick Ahmed and two additional Gold Gloves from Zack Greinke and David Peralta in 2019 help create a formidable defense.
Now, the second half of this equation needs to be refined. The pitching staff, from starters, through middle receivers and the back end, is need of an overhaul. Some pundits believe that Arizona's pitching staff, coming into spring training in about three months, will be strong and adequate. Others are skeptical.
The initial step to address the necessity of a strong staff was firing Mike Butcher, the Arizona pitching coach for the past four years and placement of a man of your own design. That’s what essentially happened when Mike Hazen, the club’s general manager, reached out and named Matt Herges, late last month, as the Diamondbacks new pitching coach.
Herges has no experience as a pitching coach at the major league level and was employed most recently as the bullpen coach for the San Francisco Giants. For his part, Herges comes to the desert as a discipline of analytics, and that seemed to be the principal criteria for his selection. Plus, the 49-year-old has a history with field manager Torey Lovullo, for whom he played while both were in the Cleveland organization.
First and foremost, Herges embraces the need to crunch numbers and translate those figures into success. With an expanding template, more categories are developed and relate to a pitcher’s ability to pitch to his defense, a consistent arm motion and release point, curve spin, fastball spin, walk to strikeout ratio, create a viable arm slot and angle and spin rates and spin ratios. All are feed into the computer and spew out the kind of information geeks seek for their athletes.
For Herges, there is also the need to cultivate relationships. Coming into a new organization and clearly new responsibilities, Herges believes the ability to understand and communicate is paramount to the need of crunching numbers.
“We’re still dealing with humans, we’re still dealing with relationships, and ultimately, that’s the most important thing,” he told MLB.com the day of his Diamondbacks appointment. “Analytics and data and technology [are] extremely important, but I will always believe that the relationship is paramount to that."
For the recently completed season, the Diamondbacks finished seventh in the National League with a team 4.25 ERA. The Giants placed ninth with a 4.38 ERA. Not much of a difference and each finished well behind the NL-leading Dodgers’ 3.37 team ERA.
What’s interesting in Herges’ appointment are the numbers put up by the Giants staff. Save closer Will Smith and his 34 saves (since signed with Atlanta as a free agent), no starter finished above .500. Madison Bumgarner now a free agent, was 9-9 and a 3.90 ERA in 2019. Yet, the All-Star lefty has not had a winning season since his 15-9 campaign coming in 2015. Since, he is 19-25 and was healthy one season (2019) in his last three seasons.
Under Herges and pitching coach Dave Righetti last season, Jeff Samardzija was 11-12, Tyler Beede went 5-10, Drew Pomeranz was 2-9 and Derek Rodriguez went 6-11. Hardly a stellar resume for any potential pitching coach and his resume.
Now, Herges inherits a staff searching for order. Coming into spring training, and assuming the Diamondbacks do not move Robbie Ray, the lefty arrives at camp as the number one starter. Behind, there could be four conceivable open slots and these are among Luke Weaver, Taijuan Walker, Alex Young, Mike Leake, Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, and Taylor Clarke and whomever Hazen acquires in the off-season. Plus, Herges must decide on a closer and that’s a role Archie Bradley filled with distinction over the final two months of the 2019 season.
If Herges prides himself on communication and building relationships, he needs, at the same time, to take stock of what he inherited in the desert and make sure he combines those elements of analytics, which is held so dearly, with the innate ability of his athletes.