Peter Gammons: Mike Hazen and the culture of accountability and understanding

The deal wasn’t an MLB lead story. It happened late on the night of last November 23, between two teams in the left time zone that finished a combined 31 games out of their respective Western Divisions. Jean Segura had played in parts of six seasons and in 2016 batted .313, Mitch Haniger was a month from his 26th birthday and had 108 games of experience above double-A, Taijuan Walker was 22-22. 4.18 and the Mariners thought so much of Ketel Marte that they were willing to deal a 23-year old Walker to replace Marte with Segura.

“It was a traditional baseball trade,” says Mariners’ general manager Jerry DiPoto. “Four players who were under control. No money moving. It was all about baseball talent and how that talent was evaluated and a building tool for two teams looking at the long term.”

As it turned out for DiPoto, it has gone somewhat overshadowed because of a season in which the Mariners have been digging out from an avalanche of injuries. Haniger has been limited to 74 games, Segura has been nicked, and, worst of all, their pitching staff has been so strafed that they have set a record by using 40 different pitchers—10 more than any other team—and 17 different starters. And still stayed in the shadows of the wild card race into September.

But for the Diamondbacks, it was one of the many subtle additions that the Mike Hazen organization instituted to take a team that had won 69 games in 2016 to the third best record in the National League as their winning streak was at 13 on Friday night. “We needed Segura at the top of our order,” says DiPoto. “But give the Diamondbacks a ton of credit. They’ve done a great job with Walker, and he’s gotten over the hump and become a consistent, young major league starter.”

At the time of the deal, one of the members of the Arizona front office said, “don’t underestimate Marte. He can be a really good middle infield player.” At the time time, Hazen said, “Haniger is a heckuva player. Watch. But to get a young, controllable power starting pitcher, there is a cost. We paid it.” So a deal without money or prospects was made based on need and evaluation.

A few months later, with the D’Backs hitting .213 against lefthanded pitching. Hazen beat other teams to J.D. Martinez, not only for statistical reasons, but because, as he said at the time of the trade, “these players have played their hearts out, and there’s a time when a GM has to open his clubhouse door and say to the players, ‘you deserve our help.” A four home run game. A 1.159 OPS against lefties.

Then, back to Marte. A key factor in the development of this team was the way Torey Lovullo used his players. Nick Ahmed is arguably one of the two best defensive shortstops in the National League, and defense was something Lovullo wanted to patch. Chris Owings is a legitimate shortstop who Lovullo used as their Ben Zobrist, available at seven positions. So the two could be in the lineup at the same time, especially since Ahmed had a 1.078 OPS against lefthanded pitchers. But Ahmed’s hand was broken on June 30, Owings was hit by a pitch and broke a bone in his hand a month later, and with some remaining hope that each could play if and when they make the post-season, Marte has been invaluable, with a 1.0 WAR, +3 Defensive Runs Saved and an OPS+ of 96 in his first 154 at-bats.

What is so remarkable that in a season when Paul Goldschmidt, Pollock, Ahmed, Owings and Robbie Ray have suffered injuries, they reached this weekend with that 13 game winning streak that includes a sweep of the Dodgers in Phoenix, a sweep of the Rockies in Denver and another three game sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles, they have allowed 27 runs. In the last five games, in Coor’s Field and Dodger Stadium, they allowed five runs. “Our pitching,” says Hazen, “is really good. Everything starts there. A lot of it was here when we got here. Zack Greinke is a great pitcher. Robbie Ray has crazy stuff. Patrick Corbin was an all star before having Tommy John Surgery, and now he’s healthy again. Zack Godley has been really good. So has Walker.”

Indeed, playing half their games in what was traditionally considered to be a hitters’ launching pad, Greinke has lost one home game all season. Since May 20, Ray has survived a brutal line drive to his head, courageously returned and been 10-2, 1.94 with a 125-36 strikeout-walk ratio; four 10+ strikeouts games against the Dodgers doesn’t exactly hurt.

On Friday morning, there were six qualified starting pitchers with earned run averages under 3.30. The Greinke/Ray/Corbin/Walker/Godly rotation had a combined ERA of 3.22. Overall, their starters were second to the Dodgers. In their 13 game winning streak, their starters’ ERA was 1.56 and allowed just 6 home runs in 80 1/3 innings.

Arizona’s ERA+ was 133; Cleveland’s was the only one better, at 134. Their staff strikeout/walk ratio was 2.9, third best in the N.L.(Cleveland’s 3.7 is the best in MLB history, according to Joe Sheehan). Playing half their games in that park, they have allowed the fewest home runs in the majors (146, one fewer than the Indians).

And their bullpen WAR of 2.8 leads their league. Now, a huge part of that rests on the shoulder of Archie Bradley. He was Arizona’s second first round pick in 2011, had physical and adjustment issues, and when Lovullo put him in the pen in spring training, he took off. Originally, the idea was to use him as a reliever to develop confidence in his ability to outstuff major league hitters, but he has a 1.25 ERA in 55 games, 71 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings, and Hazen now wonders if his football mentality doesn’t make him think like an everyday player and fits this role.

Can Fernando Rodney close post-season games if the ‘Backs are playing the Dodgers, Nationals or Cubs? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact that they won’t need five starters in October allows them to use one of those starters in front of Bradley.

A lot has to go right come the post-season. First, they likely have to beat Colorado in a play-in game, and, remember, the Rockies have the fifth best record in the league, power pitching, a deep bullpen and arguably the best position player team in the league. If they beat the Rockies, they likely will play the Dodgers, and while they have beaten L.A. six straight, they will have probably used Greinke in the play-in game,  the Dodgers will have the home field advantage, the Diamondbacks’ OPS is 135 points higher at home than on the road.

Still, having Greinke and Ray for three or four games in a series makes them exceptionally dangerous. They also have had a full season to implement their game, which is based on aggression on the bases; go to FanGraphs, and their baserunning runs are 17.9, almost three runs better than the runner-up Nationals at 14.1.

Whatever happens, the Diamondbacks are a study in an organization in lockstep from Hazen on down. The two assistant general managers, Amiel Sawdaye and Jared Porter, came with Hazen from Boston, where anyone who knew that organization knew that they are two of the most respected evaluators and possible GM candidates in the game. Hazen went and got one of the brightest analytics minds in the sport in Mike Fitzgerald.

And Lovullo is not only energetic and smart, he is trusted by his players. Just as Hazen learned under Theo Epstein that a general manager in this era has to be able to relate to players, remain engaged and emote trust when he walks in the clubhouse.

When an injured shoulder forced Hazen to retire in the Padres organization, his Princeton coach Scott Bradley said, “Mike may have the greatest leadership skills I’ve ever been around.” Months after he had to retire, he was hired by the Indians, where he worked under Mark Shapiro with Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff before Epstein brought him home to Boston.

As this is written, the Antonetti, Chernoff and Hazen teams have a 28 game winning streak, during which their average scores are 6.8-2.1. They may not go this way again, but those 28 wins aren’t chance, they are the designs of executives who were raised in organizational cultures of accountability and understanding that Marine leaders learn in officer schools, that the first and most important tenet of leadership is authenticity.