PHOENIX – The anguish, disappointment, and frustration swept across Arizona Diamondbacks’ manager Torey Lovullo’s face like a biting wind in the middle of North Dakota winter. Gregarious and extroverted, Lovullo is usually quick to deliver humor and trade barbs with the media.
Not this time, not this day.
Lovullo’s Diamondbacks just completed a baseball season no one in the organization saw coming. Finishing the abbreviated 60-game schedule with a mark of 25-35 and last place in the NL West division, only the Red Sox, with 36 defeats and the Rangers, with 38, had more losses. Their 35 defeats tied Detroit and Baltimore for third most among major league teams. The team batting average was .241 and that was good enough for 22nd among the 30 clubs. Plus, a power shortage resulted with 58 home runs, an average of less than one per game, and was 29th in the majors. Only the St. Louis Cardinals, with 51, hit fewer homers.
“This was a tough year and I took it hard,” Lovullo told reporters during a season-ending Zoom video chat on Sept. 29. “I won’t sugar coat this. There was no practicality to this season.”
While preseason expectations held high and exalted, reality quickly settled in the desert. The Diamondbacks dropped five of the initial seven games out the gate and, at one point, lost 18 of 20 games. That’s one-third of the season, which effectively locked down the team with fury and immediacy.
By his admission, Lovullo said he was not certain as to reasons why his team took such a disruptive fall from grace. During the same Zoom call, general manager Mike Hazen said he was satisfied with the starting rotation, at least for the future, but wanted to explore further explanations as to the club’s demise.
At the start of the season, the rotation appeared secure. Lefty Madison Bumgarner signed a 5-year deal worth a reported $85 million, lefty Robbie Ray was poised to have a stellar campaign in his contract year, and righties Zac Gallen and Luke Weaver formed an important segment of the starters Then, there was Archie Bradley, named the closer, and middle relief help, in the way of Hector Rondon and Junior Guerra, who were acquired in the offseason. By the trade deadline of Aug. 31, Ray was dealt to the Blue Jays and Bradley was off to Cincinnati. Starling Marte, traded from Pittsburgh on Jan. 27 to play center field, was also traded. By that time, the season was lost and Lovullo then turned his attention to prospects which would have played in the minors.
Instead, many were rushed to the major league level. Therein they represented one ray of hope from the season.
“We are set on winning baseball games and now we realize we cannot take that for granted,” he said. “I would say that one positive area was watching the development of younger players. Many managed to get meaningful development, and I liked what I saw.”
Of particular attention was the versatility of Daulton Varsho who caught and played the outfield, first baseman Pavin Smith, infielder Wyatt Mathisen, and pitchers Riley Smith, Caleb Smith, Humberto Mejia, Kevin Ginkel and Travis Bergen.
Yet, there is one area Hazen would give priority in the offseason.
“I’ll look to increase our right-handed hitting production,” he said. “As important, I’ve identified other areas. We need to shorten periods of a season that drag us down. Losing 18 out of 20 is one example and we need to find out why that happened. Also, we need to do a better job of scoring runs. Yes, we may add some personnel, but we need production deep in games. That was a problem.”
Perhaps the most pressing question is addressing team collapses. In 2018 and 2019, the Diamondbacks faded in September and did not quality for postseason play. In 2020, they were simply out from the first week of the season and suffered through two months of underachievement.
“There’s a pattern here over the past few years, and I need to find out why this happened,” Lovullo said. “Believe me, we’ve had this conversation many, many times over the past year or so, and now, this needs to a real priority.”