Saturday, June 15, 2013

Diamondbacks Defying the Odds

Somehow, someway, the plucky Arizona Diamondbacks are exceeding expectations
I'm not sure how they're doing it, but the Arizona Diamondbacks are sitting at the top of the National League West above the defending World Series champions. Chalk it up to grit, heart, and tenacity all you want, but this is not a new development: Arizona took over first place four weeks ago and hasn't relinquished it despite playing .500 ball over that stretch, which explains why they haven't been able to pad their cushion larger than 2.5 games.

Once again, the Diamondbacks have one of the better offenses in the National League, ranking second in doubles, third in walks, and fourth in runs. They've managed to scrape together runs by hitting well with runners on base (.765 OPS with men on versus .690 OPS with the sacks empty), overcoming injuries to and slumps by most of their key position players. Miguel Montero hasn't hit a lick. Aaron Hill hasn't played since April 14th because of a strained left wrist. Cliff Pennington is all glove and no stick. Martin Prado's been victimized by bad luck (.263 BABiP) and hasn't provided anything close to what Justin Upton has given the Atlanta Braves. Jason Kubel hit well in April but missed time and hasn't done much since. Cody Ross has disappointed after signing a three-year, $26 million deal last winter. A.J. Pollock makes too many outs and produces all of his value with defense.

So where is the scoring coming from? Let's start with NL RBI leader Paul Goldschmidt, who's evolved into one of the best hitters in baseball. Goldy's mashed all year long and finds himself at the center of MVP discussions. The teammate he's driven in most often is leadoff hitter Gerardo Parra. Perhaps the best defensive outfielder around, Parra leads the Senior Circuit in doubles and has been the league's second most valuable postition player (according to bWAR) behind only Carlos Gomez. Then there's rookie shortstop Didi Gregorius, who's batting over .300 and might end up stealing NL Rookie of the Year honors from Shelby Miller. Eric Chavez and Wil Nieves have been big coming off the bench, too.

Unlike most great teams, the Diamondbacks lack strong starting pitching. In fact, their rotation has been subpar (4.30 ERA) despite remaining healthy and receiving strong defense behind them. Sophomore Patrick Corbin, a Cy Young candidate, is the lone exception with his 9-0 record and 2.28 ERA, Trevor Cahill, the next best starter, has been merely average. Ian Kennedy keeps getting worse, making his stellar 2011 look more like a fluke with every passing start. Wade Miley has taken a massive step back after finishing second to Bryce Harper in last year's NL Rookie of the Year voting. Brandon McCarthy hasn't looked anything like the pitcher he was with Oakland the last two seasons. Perhaps time on the DL will do him some good, but he just hasn't been the same since taking a line drive to the head last year.

The bullpen, on the other hand, is one of baseball's best (3.04 ERA). Brad Ziegler, Matt Reynolds, Josh Collmenter,  and Will Harris have all been tremendous. Heath Bell's bounced back from a disastrous season with Miami, filling in for injured closer J.J. Putz. No wonder the D-Backs are 15-9 in one-run games.

A few months ago nobody thought the Diamondbacks would be where they are now. It's tough to see them holding up without adequate starting pitching, especially since Corbin and the bullpen are bound to regress at some point. It will help when the hitters get healthy and start producing like they can, but I still don't see Arizona winning the division. San Francisco's pitching is going to come around, and when it does the Giants will take their rightful place (as in first). Seeing as how San Francisco gets 10 straight games against the Padres, Marlins, and Dodgers starting on Monday, I expect them to overthrow the Diamondbacks by the end of June.

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