June 12, 2012

Real, fluke, or something in between: How good is Scott Diamond?

I liked the Twins' decision to pluck Scott Diamond from the Braves' farm system in the Rule 5 draft, writing at the time that "he's had success at every level" and "may be able to find success in the big leagues without missing a ton of bats" because he "has done a tremendous job inducing ground balls and limiting homers" in the minors. That was December of 2010 and later that offseason I ranked Diamond as the 36th-best prospect in the Twins' farm system.

I hated the Twins' decision to trade Billy Bullock to the Braves for Diamond to circumvent the stipulation that Rule 5 picks must remain in the majors all season or be offered back to their old team. It seemed silly to give up Bullock, a hard-throwing reliever drafted in the second round and given a $533,000 bonus just a year earlier, when the Twins already had Diamond and could have retained him simply by keeping him on the roster as a long reliever at age 24.

Diamond ended up spending nearly the entire second half of last year in the majors anyway, meaning the Twins basically traded Bullock for the ability to keep him in the minors for an extra three months. And in those three months Diamond had a 5.56 ERA at Triple-A, so it wasn't surprising when the left-hander struggled in his first taste of the big leagues with a 5.08 ERA and ugly 19-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 innings while allowing opponents to hit .317.

Bullock had issues of his own following the trade with a 4.44 ERA and 34 walks in 51 innings at Double-A, but he still threw in the mid-90s and still racked up 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings while holding opponents to a .199 batting average. Bullock continued to look like a potential late-inning reliever, Diamond continued to look like a potential back-of-the-rotation starter, and the Twins' thought process behind the trade continued to make little sense to me.

Despite making seven starts for the Twins down the stretch last season Diamond was never in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot this season, getting sent back to Triple-A as part of the first round of spring training cuts. He fared well in Rochester with a 2.60 ERA in six starts, but also allowed opponents to hit .270 and managed an unimpressive 26 strikeouts in 35 innings as a 25-year-old spending his third consecutive season at Triple-A.

When injuries and ineffectiveness wrecked the Twins' rotation for a second straight year they again turned to Diamond, calling him up on May 5. In returning to the majors Diamond brought with him a 4.50 ERA in 39 total Triple-A starts, which along with his modest 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings there and the equally modest fastball velocity he showed in debuting last season seemingly provided little reason for optimism.

And so naturally six weeks later Diamond has a 1.61 ERA through seven starts.

You can call it fluky or lucky or unsustainable or maybe even none of the above, but obviously Diamond isn't going to maintain a sub-2.00 ERA for very long. However, in watching Diamond's seven starts this season compared to his seven starts last season it's just as obvious that he looks like a much different pitcher. Looks can be deceiving, of course, but a deeper inspection of his numbers also shows significant improvement along with some good fortune:

YEAR     PA     SO%    BB%    HR%     GB%     LD%     BIP     LOB
2011    181    10.5    9.3    1.7    46.2    21.0    .338    67.4
2012    183    15.3    2.2    2.2    61.7    20.8    .308    82.6

Diamond faced 181 batters last year and has faced 183 batters this year, so while small the sample size is equal. He's gone from as many walks (17) as strikeouts (19) to a 28-to-4 ratio, increasing his strikeouts by 46 percent and decreasing his walks by 76 percent. He's allowed the same number of line drives and actually given up more homers, but Diamond's ground-ball rate went from neutral at 46 percent to among the league leaders at 62 percent.

He's also seen his luck even out a bit, as his batting average on balls in play went from .338 to a more typical .308 and his percentage of runners stranded on base went from slightly worse than average at 67 percent to substantially better than average at 83 percent. In his second go-around as a major leaguer Diamond's pitching and luck have both improved dramatically, although what he's thrown and how he's thrown it haven't changed all that much:

YEAR     PA     FB%     MPH     CB%     MPH     CH%     MPH
2011    181    58.4    88.9    27.7    79.9    14.0    83.0
2012    183    63.2    89.6    27.8    81.2     8.9    83.9

Compared to last year Diamond has cut down on his changeup in order to throw eight percent more fastballs while utilizing his curveball the same amount. He's added around one mile per hour to each of his three pitches, but Diamond's average fastball still clocks in at just 89.6 mph to rank 131st out of the 168 pitchers with 30 or more innings this season. His repertoire has been pretty similar, with a few tweaks, and the per-pitch results are also similar within that:

YEAR     PA    STR%    ZON%    1PS%    SWG%    MIS%
2011    181    63.3    49.4    59.5    45.9    15.9
2012    183    65.6    51.8    61.1    44.3    13.0

Diamond has gotten slightly more strikes, thrown slightly more pitches in the strike zone, and jumped ahead of batters with first-pitch strikes slightly more often, but all three of those rates are within a couple percentage points of last season and he's actually induced slightly fewer swings and slightly fewer misses than in 2011. Add it all up and Diamond's results are vastly improved, but his raw stuff and general approach haven't changed a ton.

That could mean he's simply learned to make better pitches, which would obviously be a good thing, but it could also mean he's been fortunate that pitches thrown at roughly the same velocity and roughly the same frequency have created far better results. There's no doubt that Diamond has looked and pitched better, but exactly how much better and the sustainability of his improvement is an interesting question that will require more than 14 starts to answer.

For now I'm cautiously optimistic that Diamond can be a solid third or fourth starter, although admittedly fifth starter was more likely based on his track record prior to rejoining the Twins last month. He throws strikes and keeps the ball on the ground, which is a great foundation for success, and if Diamond can maintain any kind of decent strikeout rate he could be part of the Twins' rotation for a long time. Or at least long enough to make everyone forget Bullock.

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  • frightwig

    Yeterday, one of you on “Gleeman & The Geek” compared Diamond to Carlos Silva, and I’d agree that Diamond right now is like The Good Silva, groundball specialist who had incredibly low walk rates (0.4 BB/9, 7.89 K/BB) at his peak in 2005. Trouble is, nobody can sustain that level of control for long. Diamond’s walk rates (this season, currently: 0.8, 7.0) will regress, too, and he’ll start to look more like the back-end filler we expected. Whenever his K/9 also starts dipping into the 4′s, he should be out of the majors quickly thereafter, as well.

    Unless Terry Ryan foolishly gives him the Blackburn Contract, I’ll give Diamond two more seasons in the Twins rotation. Three more, tops. But it really wouldn’t surprise me if the wheels fall off as soon as next year.

  • Jimbo92107

    Scott Diamond is a precision lefty. He will be a good pitcher for a decade.

  • Mike Lohre

    Aaron, nice article on Diamond. We’ve already forgotten the hard throwing reliever. So please, NEVER MIND THE BULLOCKS.

  • spoof bonser

    Mike L., ever since Nirvana hit the scene it is spelled as one word, “nevermind”

  • http://www.highcheez.com Schlotts37

    Aaron, good article. One thing left out though that can’t be measured is mental toughness and confidence. For a pitcher that can be all the difference (something Liriano doesn’t usually have). Diamond could still be feeding off of his first start this year. So it will be interesting to see what happens when he gets hit around and has a Blackburn like start. Will he be able to bounce back? That will be the true test.

  • Josh

    Some of these stats seem to feed into each other, which could be a sign for sustained success: increased GB% is going to help bring down the BABIP, and if that stays the course (he’s always had good GB%) then he should be able to stay effective if he limits the HRs and BBs.

    Is the walk rate sustainable, or at least close to it? Could be. If he gets hit hard a couple of times and starts to nibble around the plate too much, he could get into trouble quickly. If he sticks with this approach, then it could happen.

    At a certain point he’s going to regress a little bit and have a bad outing or three (based on prior history). But it doesn’t mean that he can’t survive it. I think AG is right: he’s showing signs of being a potential 3rd starter for this team if he can continue to perform this season. That’s a good sign.

  • http://aarongleeman.com aarongleeman

    Some of these stats seem to feed into each other, which could be a sign for sustained success: increased GB% is going to help bring down the BABIP

    This is false. Ground balls are converted into outs at a lower rate than fly balls. So the opposite of what you said is actually true.

  • Dave T

    Twins infield this year is a lot better than last year’s. I think this has helped Diamond’s confidence and his “luck” on ground balls.

  • http://jszym2write@yahoo.com jfs

    diamond looks like he’s confident and enjoying himself. now, if the twins would just let liriano be himself, perhaps we would have two very good starters at the top of the rotation.

  • mariettamouthpiece

    R.I.P. Boz – you were most definitely one of a kind

  • LaBombo

    The nice thing about a having a crap rotation is that you’re filling a serious need economically with a cheap kid whose happiest story is 4th/5th starter.

  • jokin

    “Some of these stats seem to feed into each other, which could be a sign for sustained success: increased GB% is going to help bring down the BABIP”

    “This is false. Ground balls are converted into outs at a lower rate than fly balls. So the opposite of what you said is actually true.”

    While technically correct, the difference in recent years is minimal- MLB GB .2336 vs. FB .2329 since 2006, all the while MLB FB BA has actually beat out GB BA in 4 of those 7 years. And, Diamond has lowered his LD% by .2%, which is significant in that LD BA since 2006 is .715.

    There may be some luck involved, as mentioned better TWins IF defense- but his BABIP this year is .308, compared to .338 last year and .323 for his career.

  • JeffNH

    Just to throw out Bullock’s stats from this year as a 24 year-old repeating AA:

    3.72 ERA in 29.0 IP – 26:24 K/BB – .84 GB/FB

    Could still be a useful bullpen piece, but even if Diamond levels out as a ~4.20 ERA starter the deal will still look pretty good.

  • toby

    Jokin: People are talking about BABIP, not BA. BA includes home runs on fly balls.