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BOB MELVIN left no red rock unturned when investigating what went wrong in the desert last season. From bad baserunning to bad defense and struggles in the starting rotation and the bullpen, the Arizona manager believes that he has enough material to write a book explaining why his team coughed up the division lead last September after being in front for 153 consecutive days.
From the owners' box down to the dugout, the Diamondbacks take their statistics seriously, and if there's one number that can't be ignored, it's all those strikeouts. Arizona fanned 1,287 times in 2008, second most in the majors. "We have some guys here who are going to strike out, but they've got some power," Melvin says. "It's when we strike out. We need to make more productive outs."
The strikeout problem was so profound, Melvin says, that he often had to turn off the green light in obvious running situations (3 and 2, less than two outs, for instance) for fear of double plays. Truth is, though, for the D-Backs an even bigger problem than making contact with runners on—they fanned 346 times with men in scoring position (tops in the majors)—was getting on base in the first place. Arizona's .251 batting average was the NL's third worst, its .327 OBP was eighth and its 720 runs was 10th in the league, inexcusable numbers for a team that plays in one of the most favorable hitters' yards, Chase Field.
For Melvin and his staff during spring training, combating the K's was a top priority. Batting coach Rick Schu devised an innovative hitting drill that involves ... not hitting a thing. Schu set up pitching machines in side-by-side batting cages at the Diamondbacks' spring compound in Tucson. In the first cage hitters would stare down a breaking ball that cut over the plate for a strike. In the second one they would eye a curveball that broke just off the plate. The following day Schu would mix in different pitches and locations to simulate what a batter might expect to see deep into a count.
"It helps you get [a better sense of] the flight of the ball and its spin," says third baseman Mark Reynolds. "You figure out where the ball starts out when it's going to be a ball or a strike." Reynolds stands to gain the most from the drills, since he set a major league record last season with 204 strikeouts. He also led the team with 28 home runs and 97 RBIs. "My goal is to be less of a roller-coaster ride and more of a flat train ride," Reynolds says.
But the 25-year-old Reynolds is just one of many serial offenders in the K's department. Centerfielder Chris Young, 25, went from 141 whiffs as a rookie, in '07, to 165 last season. Rightfielder Justin Upton, 21, is going to be a star, but he went down on strikes 121 times in only 356 at bats as a rookie. Add in 26-year-old shortstop Stephen Drew (109) and 28-year-old catcher Chris Snyder (101), and five Arizona players—incidentally, the core of the lineup—cracked the century mark. "When there's a runner on third with less than two outs, the ball's got to be in play," Schu says. "These guys have to understand that a ground ball to short is an RBI. If they learn to shorten the swing, they'll get the job done."
The no-swinging drills in the batting cages are helping. Young and Upton, in particular, say their batting eyes have improved and that they're learning which pitches to lay off. Then again, mastering a drill is one thing. "It's pretty easy when you know what's coming," says Reynolds, "but there's nothing like the real thing."
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
With Eric Byrnes fully recovered from the hamstring injury that curtailed his 2008 season, there will be the temptation to put the fan-favorite, well-paid veteran into the starting lineup. The Diamondbacks, however, have three low-cost, righthanded-hitting outfielders on the upslope of their careers, including Chris Young and Justin Upton, who have the potential to be superstars. Along with leftfielder Conor Jackson, the trio has to play every day for Arizona to contend. Byrnes (left), despite two years and $22 million remaining on an ill-advised three-year deal, is best-suited as a fourth outfielder and bench player who can pinch-run for most of the lineup, pinch-hit against lefties and provide occasional days off for the starters. Energy is good, left turns at first base are better; Byrnes and his .325 career OBP don't provide enough of the latter.