Wednesday, September 21, 2011

So, the Diamondbacks. What the Hell?

Back in May, when the SweetSpot Network was a bit smaller than it is now and we were routinely called upon to make comments on teams other than the Angels or White Sox on ESPN's Power Rankings, I drew the assignment of writing something up about the Diamondbacks. Widely picked to finish in or near last place in the NL West, the D-Backs had started out roughly as everyone predicted, but then rattled off six straight wins, ending the day on Sunday, May 22 at a surprising 23-23, with one more run scored than allowed. They'd shocked the world, basically, by being middle-of-the-pack for a month and a half.

My ESPN comment was skeptical, and I followed it up with a post with the following intentionally inflammatory title: Power Rankings Explained: Why the Diamondbacks Still Stink. The points were basically that (a) four of their six straight wins had been by one run, three against the Twins; (b) a journeyman named Ryan Roberts had been their best player; (c) Chris Young, on whom the offense heavily depended, had been terrible; (d) the pitching after Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy (who themselves were question marks) looked awful; and (e) other than a potential emergence from Justin Upton, there just wasn't anything else to get excited about. I saw them as "an 85- or 90-loss team," finishing in third or fourth place behind the Giants, Rockies, and possibly even Dodgers.

Well. Since then, through Monday, Arizona's gone 66-42 (.611), close to a 100-win pace. Their run differential hasn't been quite as good at all that, but it's clear that, for the season, they've been legitimately the best team in their division. They've topped the Giants by nearly ten games in that span, while the Rockies simply packed it in early, so there's really not been much competition.

So, I was wrong. But yet, you look at this team, and it's just hard to see a 90-plus game winner. What went right?

Well, the biggest single reason has to be Justin Upton. Since May 24, Upton has been one of the best players in the league, hitting .300/.390/.580 in that span, and has moved himself at least into the periphery of the MVP discussion. (Side note: for the season, he's one of those rare, fun cases where FanGraphs thinks he's a superstar because he's saved 10 runs with the glove, which is in line with past performance, while Baseball-Reference thinks he's just pretty good because he's cost seven runs with the glove.) Upton was the one little bit of upside I saw for the team back on May 23, and he's certainly more than made good on that.

But that's not all of it, of course. Roberts has predictably been dreadful since I wrote (.240/.324/.407), and the always-dreadful Willie Bloomquist has had to take most of the starts at shortstop following an injury to Stephen Drew. But the slack has been picked up by upticks from Kelly Johnson (.227/.316/.445, which sadly is a huge improvement over his April-May 22 numbers), Young (.235/.344/.398, the loss in power since May more than made up for by the 70-points-better OBP) and Gerardo Parra (.297/.351/.461), plus continued strong play from Miguel Montero. They've also gotten a ton of help from late additions Aaron Hill (.297/.333/.465, mostly replacing Johnson), and promising call-up (and Portland Webfoot) Paul Goldschmidt (.263/.340/.504, which replaced sub-replacement-level Angel Miranda's .213/.315/.402). It hasn't been a great offense -- fourth in runs in the NL, with a friendly home park -- but it's been better than anyone could reasonably have expected back on May 23.

More importantly, the pitching has been stellar, or lucky, or buoyed by a great defense, or healthy shares of all three. Ian Kennedy had been excellent as of May 23, but has been better since, with a 2.71 ERA in about 150 innings, while Hudson has been almost as good; for the season, they have identical 4.9 Fangraphs WARs (though their Baseball-Reference WARs are drastically different). It gives them a one-two punch that might not quite match the Giants' or Angels' right now, and certainly doesn't compare to the Phillies', but fits pretty comfortably in that fourth-in-all-of-baseball position.

Then, they found a solution to the biggest problem I saw with the team: rookie Josh Collmenter stepped up and did a fine job as the de facto number three starter, with a 3.42 ERA and 3.69 FIP in nearly 150 innings. And then Joe Saunders did Joe Saunders things, namely putting up a 3.66 ERA despite underlying numbers that can't support it at all. The defense has been solid (top in the majors by UZR, sixth by Total Zone), which, as always, is what makes Saunders' line appear palatable. As a fourth starter, really, he's been just fine. The starters as a whole haven't been great, but that's because they had to give starts to people like Zach Duke, Wade Miley, Jason Marquis, Barry Enright and Armando Galarraga; the guys they'll be going with in the playoffs aren't going to remind the Phillies of themselves, but they're plenty solid. Add in that David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler have joined the excellent J.J. Putz to form a dominant bullpen, and they've put together the kind of pitching staff that doesn't look out of place at all in October. They didn't appear to have any of that, save Putz and less trustworthy versions of Hudson and Kennedy, on May 23.

So none of this is earth-shattering, but the point is: I was wrong. Really wrong. But: I actually don't think the analysis was far off; it just goes to show that the team that ends the year isn't often the same one that started it. This is a team that was really pretty bad, but had been pretty lucky, on May 23. Since then, through personnel moves and the reemergence of Upton, they've become a different, much better team (though they've continued to be pretty lucky, with a Pythagorean record six wins behind their actual one). Kevin Towers deserves some credit for that, and it's very possible (though I haven't paid nearly enough attention to form an opinion) that Kirk Gibson and his staff do, too.

But while I'm here, though, I might as well piss some more people off: this strikes me as a case where the D-Backs had better make the most of the opportunity they've carved out for themselves, because it's not coming around again real soon. Upton may be developing into a perennial superstar, maybe Goldschmidt and Parra become very solid supporting pieces, maybe Hudson and Kennedy are both really this good. That's still a lot of holes to fill, with no apparent long-term options at second base or third and big question marks at short and in center. Saunders just isn't very good, and Collmenter seems to be seen by scouts as more of a back-of-the-rotation starter that's had a good few months. Without significant changes in the offseason (which they won't be motivated to make) and/or a whole lot of luck, I don't think things are going to come together as prettily for the Diamondbacks in 2012 as they have in 2011. But I'm perfectly happy to have been wrong about the 2011 version, and I kind of hope they make a nice run in the playoffs and people really start paying attention to them.

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