Well, one World Series team, anyway. The Rangers went from 60 wins to 90 and the championship largely through investing big bucks in high-quality free agents and getting a quality manager, which isn’t going to happen with the Sox until Jerry Reinsdorf’s keister is no longer up and around where front office types can affix their lips to it.
The Diamondbacks, though, can give some hints.
After all, Arizona lost 110 games just two years ago, and made it all the way to the Series without spending much of any money — a system Reinsdorf would be very happy with. And not only did the 2021 Rattlers have a terrible record, they were terrible at pretty much every aspect of the game, just like the 2023 White Sox. Arizona did have a much better farm system at the time, but, hey, you can’t have everything.
So let’s look first at personnel, and then at how particular results have changed.
LET’S START AT THE TOP
Not much to see here.
Diamondbacks general managing partner Ken Kendrick has been a part-owner since the team’s creation in 1985, so he’s been in the game almost as long as Reinsdorf, and also came from the money biz (banking and software). He became the head man in 2004, so was around for the big decline and the big upward move — a move that didn’t include big spending, as Arizona started 2023 with a payroll of just $116 million, 21st in MLB and well less than the White Sox.
Of course, Kendrick is a young whippersnapper compared to Reinsdorf, as he’s only 80.
General manager Mike Hazen replaced Dave Stewart in 2016, so he had already been around quite a while when the 2021 crash occurred. One difference with the Sox — Hazen came from the Red Sox, where he was assistant GM for a very good team, not from an internal position where he was a proven failure.
Shortly after taking office, Hazen went to his Red Sox roots and brought in bench coach Torey Lovullo to helm the Snakes, rather than finding a new manager in the dregs of MLB. Go figure.
Thus, no changes at all at the top. So let’s look at the players, and where they came from. And let’s include some numbers, all from Baseball Reference, so it’s bWAR in each case.
A lot of the Arizona lineup has changed since 2021, but not all of it. Notably, Ketel Marte (4.9 WAR in 2023) was obtained in a trade with the Mariners in 2017 and Christian Walker (3.8) was picked up off waivers from the Reds the same year. Pavin Smith, who had a terrible 2023 (-0.8), had actually been fairly good in 2021, and Geraldo Perdomo (2.2), who had been signed as an international free agent in 2016, had a sip of coffee on the 2021 team.
The others came in a variety of ways.
Presumed NL Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll (5.4) was a first-round draft choice in 2019, some 13 picks after the White Sox took a slightly below-average first baseman despite having an All-Star first baseman already (Carroll was picked 16th, so a whole lot of teams made the same mistake). Alek Thomas (1.1) had been chosen in the second round the year before, the same round in which the Sox took the immortal Steele Walker.
The big trade move was last December, when Arizona got Gabriel Moreno (4.3) and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (3.0) from the Blue Jays for Dalton Varsho. Varsho played well for Toronto, but the D-backs definitely came out ahead with their two-fer.
Another offseason trade brought Emmanuel Rivera (0.3) from the Royals (the Diamondbacks couldn’t avoid K.C. altogether) for Luke Weaver. A deadline swap with the A’s didn’t fare so well, with Jace Peterson (-0.3) hitting just .183 after the trade. Another deadline move went much better, getting Tommy Pham (1.5) from the Mets.
The Diamondbacks also did some Sox-like delving into the bargain-bin free agent pool, getting 37-year-old Evan Longoria (0.5) for $4 million, adding to the veteran experience they acquired with Pham.
WHAT ABOUT PITCHERS?
Much more of Arizona’s pitching staff was already in place in 2021.
The two star starters had both been Diamondbacks since 2019: Zac Gallen (4.4) as the result of sending Jazz Chisholm Jr. to the Marlins and Merrill Kelly (3.9) after three years throwing in Korea. Both had slightly down years in 2021, but were still solid — Gallen with 2.1 WAR and Kelly 2.4.
The third starter used extensively in the playoffs but horrible during the year, rookie Brandon Pfaadt (-0.4) was a fifth round draft choice in 2020. Two other starters, Tommy Henry (1.1) and Ryan Nelson (0.0), were both drafted in the second round in 2019.
As for relievers, closer Paul Sewald (1.2) was a trade deadline acquisition from the Mariners for three minor leaguers. Setup man extraordinaire Kevin Ginkel (1.3) had been drafted in the 22nd round in 2016 and was with the parent club in 2021 — albeit with a horrible 6.35 ERA, a far cry from this year’s 2.48.
Most of the rest in the pen came to Arizona as low-cost free agents: Joe Mantiply (0.1) before the 2021 season, Miguel Castro (0.4) in December and Ryan Thompson (0.2) in August, after he was released by the Rays. The big rookie reliever, Andrew Saalfrank (0.5) was a sixth round draftee in 2019, a very good year indeed for Diamondbacks amateur scouts.
All in all, as with position players, the pitching was not a strategy much different from that of the Sox — just done much, much better. Plus, it appears the D-backs actually develop their players, both in the minors and majors. Maybe the White Sox will take that up now that they’ve picked up Arizona director of player development Josh Barfield.
SO WHAT WAS THE RESULT?
The most obvious one is going from 52 wins in 2021 to 84 and the World Series in 2023. That’s even one win more impressive than the White Sox improving from 56 to 87 from 1970 to ’72. But how does that break down?
The Diamondbacks improved in virtually every hitting category from 2021 to 2023 — runs from 25th in MLB to 14th, HRs from 29th to 22nd, BA from 25th to 14th, OPS from 26th to 17th, strikeouts from eighth to best ... but the big difference, the one that made them not just better, but good, was speed.
With a triples-friendly home park, the Snakes were already fifth in that category in 2021, but moved up to first this season, 31 three-baggers improving to 44. The really big difference was in stolen bases, from just 43 (good for 28th place) to 166 (good for second behind the Reds) while only being caught 26 times. Carroll’s 54 swipes were a big factor, but the biggest part was an attitude of attempting steals regularly and knowing how to do it right (despite several fast runners, the White Sox were tied for 23rd, with just 86, while being caught almost as many times as the Diamondbacks, 22).
Of course, you can’t steal until you get on base, and Arizona was also very good at plate discipline this year, with the sixth-lowest percentage of swings at bad pitches. The White Sox were, as usual, dead last, by quite a margin, but anyone who watched many Sox games already guessed that. Plate discipline helped the Snakes be middle of the pack in walks in both ’21 and ’23 and the Sox be so far the worst in MLB no other team was even close.
Arizona pitching took a pretty big step up in the two years, but only because it was so far down there was nowhere else to go. They’d been 29th in runs allowed and ERA (only the other super-improver in 2023, Baltimore, was worse) and 28th in FIP and strikeouts and 22nd in walks. In 2023, they only got up to 20th in runs and 23rd in K’s, but achieved a mid-range 15th in free passes.
Not much improvement, maybe, but enough.
Now, here’s where big jumps were definitely made (for the Rangers, too). In 2021, Arizona was 26th in defensive efficiency, 27th in errors and defensive runs saved, and 18th in the range-factor RTOT stat. Those were all ahead of the White Sox, of course, but, then, pretty much everybody always is.
Come 2023, the Diamondbacks moved up to a middling 13th in defensive efficiency, but fourth in runs saved, third in range, and the best in MLB with just 56 errors (the Sox were ahead of the A’s in runs saved, so there is that).
Speed and defense, folks, speed and defense. They stood the Sox to good stead for 17 straight years of winning seasons in the ’50s and ’60s. Scream all you want about the GuRF being a home run park, but the Sox were 20th in HRs this season and 29th in runs scored. You may not always be able to count on the long ball, but speed and defense don’t slump.
Of course, plate discipline doesn’t hurt, either. And a competent manager. And an intelligent front office that can draft well, And player development. And, apparently, culture, whatever that means for a baseball team. And ... and ... and ...