Slugless Snakes tap into some power

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
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You had to figure the D-backs were due to break out at some point. Playing in one of the baseball’s best ballparks to hit in, but posting a .133 Isolated power rate, below even the .140 league average? That wasn’t going to last. And Ted Lilly, 5-0 and looking invincible going into Wednesday night’s start in the ballpark formerly known as Bob? As good as Lilly has been this season, he’s a guy who’s averaged almost 30 homers allowed per 200 innings pitched on his career, so that wasn’t going to last either.

Something had to give -- and did. Lilly gave up an extra-base hit in every frame while allowing 14 baserunners and eight runs before he was yanked in the fourth, and the Snakes’ parade around the bases got the benefit of an additional Justin Upton three-run shot in the fifth off Jamey Wright to seal the deal.

A lot of what went right for Arizona reflects what’s supposed to be going right for it, and what worked for it last year. Upton is supposed to air-mail Earl Weaver specials into the cheap seats, because Arizona is supposed to slug well in its home park -- that’s what it was built to do, and last year’s 38-point relative advantage in slugging at home as opposed to on the road was fairly normal. Even though we’re past the quarter mark, these are things that are so, but aren’t likely to remain so.

Upton isn’t the only guy failing to deliver power relative to expectations. After Paul Goldschmidt slugged .474 as a rookie, you would expect that he isn’t going to slug under .400 all year. Then again, he was also only projected to slug .428 before the season by ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski (via ZiPS). On the other hand, Miguel Montero isn’t going to have an ISO below .100 ... but if he doesn’t it will be a bitter climb-down for the defending division champs.

But failing to slug isn’t the only thing that’s different about the D-backs this year. After ripping his third-inning double, Goldschmidt stole third base for the first time ever in his young career -- and that’s very much Kirk Gibson’s brand of baseball, setting loose his basepath commandos. It’s also something we’ve seen less of this season as the D-backs have struggled to get their offense on track. Gibby likes pushing defenses on the bases, perhaps not unlike the wide receiver he once was, but from 2011 to 2012 the Snakes have sunk from third to 13th in the league in extra bases taken on base hits. So not only have the Snakes lost their thunder, they’re no longer lightning on the bases. Instead, teams like the Marlins, Braves and Dodgers are the ones advancing aggressively on the bases.

It will be interesting to see how things shake down in the lineup in the weeks to come. Staying the course and expecting that their guys will get back on track is the easy thing, the patient thing, the choice that relies on courage of the actuarial kind. But these Snakes aren’t made of stone, and changes are being made on the margins. You can see why the switch-hitting Josh Bell was brought up: Not just to play some third base and perhaps push Ryan Roberts into a utility role after Tatt Man’s slow start, but to give the lineup another power source from the left side if the plate. (Stephen Drew’s latest rehab setback doesn’t help matters any.) Roberts was one of the people Gibson turned to and won with last season; so was Goldschmidt.

The D-backs can’t sit entirely still, not after a title, and not after they watch the promising youth of key stars from that 2007 NLCS team fail again to top that feat. But if they don’t start hammering foes with some regularity, it won’t be people like Upton or Montero or Chris Young who get moved aside. Instead, it will be the guys with options -- like Goldschmidt -- or the guys who are fundamentally replaceable -- as Roberts has always been -- who will become targets of convenience for a club that may need to shake things up sooner rather than later.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Kevin YoukilisRob Carr/Getty ImagesLook at me, I'm out, I'm still out... doesn't anyone here understand irony?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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