We've been doing some research on baseball throughout the last two decades, and 1994 in particular. Part of this research has led to our compiling various and sundry stats and numbers for all teams in those last 20 years. Well, as we were looking through my (rather headache-inducing) spreadsheets, we were consistently shocked by one thing: the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Today, the Diamondbacks are sort of an afterthought. They've got three franchise-type players in Dan Haren, Brandon Webb (if he comes back healthy), and Justin Upton, but other than that, it's a fairly nameless collection of guys. We'd estimate that beyond those three, the only notable player on the team is Chris Young, and that's as much for his precipitous fall from a near-30/30 rookie year to being demoted to the minors last season as because of any skills. In terms of baseball news, the only truly notable thing we can recall happening to them is when catcher Chris Snyder suffered a rather horrific injury. And we say 'rather horrific' in a British-style understatement. You can read about it here, if you need a grisly reminder.
But at about the turn of the decade, the D-backs were just the bee's knees. They came into the league as an expansion team in 1998, performed about as you'd expect from an expansion team (65-97; only two games better than their fellow expansioneers in Tampa). And then...well, then they sort of lit the world on fire. What changed? Time for a history lesson, folks!
In 1998, their best-hitting regular was Devon White, with a whopping .792 OPS. Catcher Kelly Stinnett actually lead the team in OPS+ with a 107 mark that just topped white's 106, but in about half the plate appearances. The young Tony Batista (which is a weird phrase to type) was a productive bench bat, punching up a .519 slugging percentage, and...well, that's about it. As for pitchers, only Andy Benes and Brian Anderson made more than 30 starts, though Benes was slightly above-average (106 ERA+) in his appearances. Omar Daal rather improbably had 23 starts for the team, and was actually the best hurler of the bunch, posting a 2.88 ERA. Gregg Olson was serviceable as the closer, but the bullpen was certainly nothing to write home about. Like we said, they were an expansion team.
In 1999, we saw a revamped D-back squad. Damian Miller replaced Stinnett at catcher, Andy Fox and Jay Bell swapped positions up the middle, and Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, and Tony Womack replaced the former outfield of David Dellucci, Devon White, and Karim Garcia. Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez, and Steve Finley hit like men possessed by the spirits of better hitters, and Tony Womack stole 72 bases at a sublime 85% clip. They brought in a man you may have heard of by the name of Randy Johnson to head the rotation, and he did so admirably, striking out 364 in 271 innings, and allowing an excellent 1.02 baserunners per inning. Omar Daal regressed a bit, but was still a good number 2, and the rest of the rotation ranged from barely below average (Andy Benes' 96 ERA+) to playoff-caliber starter (Todd Stottlemyre's 113 ERA+). The bullpen was excellent this year, with no member that threw more than 10 innings having an ERA+ less than Byung-Hyung Kim's 100.
To quantify this change, consider the following: they went from 65-97 to 100-62, a 35-win turnaround. They went from being outscored by 147 runs, which was third-worst in the league, to outscoring opponents by 232 runs, the best mark in the majors by almost 60 runs and a turnaround of 379 runs. They increased their weighted On-Base Average by 39 points, and decreased their QuikERA by 76 points. Essentially, they improved dramatically in all facets of the game. How did they do it? By orchestrating a downright masterful offseason. Take a look:
Free agent signees: Randy Johnson, Steve Finley, Byung-Hyung Kim, Erubiel Durazo, Todd Stottlemyre, Greg Colbrunn, and other useful parts.
Trades: Traded Karim Garcia to the Tigers for Luis Gonzalez (which is still one of the more lopsided trades ever executed). Traded Jason Boyd and Paul Weichard to the Pirates for thief-extraordinaire Tony Womack.
And as if building a 100-win core through free agency and trades wasn't enough, they even drafted future useful players (albeit for other organizations) Lyle Overbay and Chris Capuano. Essentially what they did was to lay out the template for a team looking to get better in a hurry by making the right free agent signings and smart trades, and everything panned out for them – probably better than even they expected, for that matter. And of course they would then trade for Curt Schilling in the middle of 2000, giving them 3 ½ years of ace-level pitching and a two-headed rotation monster that would see them lead the league in QERA in 2 straight years and bring home the 2001 World Series.
To put this all in more modern terms, let's revisit the story of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. As mentioned, they entered the league with the Diamondbacks, and then did a great job of being terrible their first year and somehow managing to not get any better for 10 years. Which is really sort of impressive, when you think about it. They made bad free agent signings, short-sighted trades, and did a terrible job of player development...but it all changed in 2008, when they went from winning 66 games the year before to a league-leading 97 victories. Now, that 31-game swing was – and is, I guess – the largest of the decade. But it's less than than Arizona's 35. The Rays improved greatly on defense, and went from being outscored by 103 runs to outscoring opponents by 212 – a shocking 315-run swing. But it's less than Arizona's 379. And the only place they really improved was on defense; their wOBA went up by one (1) point, and their QERA went down by one (1) point.
If anything, the Rays' remarkable 2008 season should serve to highlight what was an incredible year by their expansion counterparts – a year that seems to go largely unnoticed today. Which is a real shame; the Diamondbacks of 1999 are perhaps the best single manifestation of the proverbial hope that springs eternal come March. Pirates fans should have this team's poster up on their walls; the Nationals should be worshiping at the altar of Joe Garagiola, Jr. The Diamondbacks came into the league a laughingstock, went home, tooled up, and beat up on everyone who'd mocked them the year before. And, really, isn't that what America is all about? You heard it hear first (and probably last): the 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks are America's Team!