The Diamondbacks were 56 games under .500 on Sept. 23, the day they announced Torey Lovullo would return as manager in 2022, bringing joy to few people outside of Lovullo’s immediate family.
In the clubhouse, however, it was a different story.
“I guess we’re going to keep hanging out together,” outfielder David Peralta told Lovullo last fall after hearing his manager was returning.
Lovullo’s popularity with players was just one reason to bring him back. Among other things, as general manager Mike Hazen detailed at the time, the entire organization, not one man, was responsible for a team that ended up finishing 52-110, and that one of Lovullo’s strengths, working with young players, was just what the Diamondbacks in 2022 needed when they thought their lineup was going to be young.
It was a wise decision in September and now things are looking even better.
No, the Diamondbacks are not a good baseball team yet. They’re averaging, 23-23 at the start of the weekend, and have a long way to go to compete with the Dodgers, who they defeated 14-1 Thursday night at Chase Field.
But the average is several stories higher than the Diamondbacks a year ago, when they couldn’t be observed after April. They went 5-24 in May and 3-24 in June. Combined, that was a .143 win percentage, and the only thing that kept it from even more intense public ridicule was that many of us were distracted by the Suns’ playoff run at the end of a belated basketball season.
“Misery,” is how Lovullo described it.
Any proclamation about a baseball team made before June at the earliest should start with “so far,” because by doing so, Lovullo not only justifies the Diamondbacks’ decision to extend his contract to 2022, but also encourages Diamondbacks to exercise their option to extend his contract to 2023 to keep.
The starting behavior has improved. They don’t kick the ball around or make bad shots like they did last year. They don’t let players learn multiple positions to create “positional flexibility” like they did last year, and in May the Diamondbacks started hitting.
They’ve done so with youngsters gaining significant game time at third base (Josh Rojas), shortstop (Geraldo Perdomo), midfield (Daulton Varsho and Alek Thomas), right field (Pavin Smith) and the catcher (Varsho). .
Lovullo deserves some credit for their success, Rojas said.
“When you’re a young man coming up, you’re going to go through these ups and downs, these struggles,” Rojas said. “You really want someone who believes in anything you can do, and I think Torey does that really well.”
When Rojas went through a bad patch on the plate last year, Lovullo caught up with him to remind him of who he was – and who wasn’t – as a player.
“Basically,” Rojas said, the conversation was, “We didn’t bring you here to be a power hitter. You’re not an Aaron Judge. You’re not a home run hitter. You are here because you have zone discipline You will swing at the correct pitches You will draw a step when needed.
“It was a reminder of, ‘Hey, play how you play.'”
Lovullo inherited a veteran lineup when he became Diamondbacks manager in 2017. He was successful that season, but in subsequent years he showed a tendency to stay with struggling veterans for too long.
A younger team like this year’s is a kind of recalibration for Lovullo, or at least a return to his roots. Lovullo began his coaching career as a traveling coach in the Cleveland organization and then spent nine years as a minor league manager.
That decade-long experience is one reason the Diamondbacks might envision Lovullo guiding them back to seriousness. And the extra motivation that comes with leading a 110-loss team can’t hurt.
This year the Diamondbacks are at least worth seeing, although the number of visitors still requires a lot of convincing. The Diamondbacks ranked 20th out of 30 teams in attendance, according to baseball-reference.com, and only played 17,057 against the Dodgers as of Thursday night.
“It’s too early to say we deserve the love of the fans,” Rojas said. “There’s still a lot to do before we can go out there and say, ‘We deserve to have more people here.'”
For now, Lovullo said he was “satisfied” with how his team played, given the “misery” of last season. “But this team is far from where it needs to be to play these significant games in September,” he said.
But so far, almost into May, the decision to allow Lovullo and the Diamondbacks to continue hanging out looks like a wise decision.
Kent Somers can be reached at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Keep following him tweet @kentsomers.
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