Without two key moves last year, the Diamondbacks probably wouldn’t find themselves in contention for a playoff spot. While the team’s offense, fourth in the NL in wOBA, has carried it most of the way to its 44-38 record, the other components are not as impressive. Their team defensive efficiency is right at the league average, so they’re not getting help much there. The starting rotation as a whole hasn’t fared particularly well, ranking 11th in ERA, 10th in FIP, and 14th in xFIP in the NL. But two pitchers are helping keep them afloat, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. If not for one trade in the 2009-2010 off-season, they might still be crawling in the basement.
At the time it appeared that the Diamondbacks had little to gain from the three-team trade where they sent Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to the Tigers. The Yankees got Curtis Granderson, while the Tigers got Scherzer, Schlereth, Austin Jackson, and Phil Coke. The Diamondbacks essentially replaced Scherzer, a young and promising pitcher, with Edwin Jackson, who was a known quantity at the time, and then added Kennedy, who had been a disappointment in a 2008 big league stint and had been hurt most of 2009. They might have filled out their rotation, but there appeared to be a downgrade in quality.
A few months later, as is the case with any trade, the outlook changed. Kennedy was in the midst of a quality season, but it was Jackson who was trailing. No hitter be damned, he still had a 5.16 ERA and 4.24 FIP at the end of July, and was doing the last place Diamondbacks little good. And so, for the second time in a month, the DBacks traded their nominal best pitcher. First it was Dan Haren, and then it was Jackson, going to the White Sox for Daniel Hudson. In a span of six months the Diamondbacks turned one promising young starter into two. Those two are currently carrying the pitching staff.
In terms of ERA, Kennedy has led the staff with a 3.01 mark through 116.2 innings. (Josh Collmenter has a lower ERA, but is 50 innings behind.) He has pitched right along the lines of his scouting report: high 80s fastball with some movement, three off-speed and breaking pitches that he’ll mix to almost equal degrees. With that arsenal he’s struck out 7.48 per nine, which leads all DBacks starters, and walked just 2.31 per nine. His 3.34 FIP, however, isn’t quite as shiny as Hudson’s, which is 2.69. That comes mostly from a minuscule 0.39 HR/9. His .303 BABIP has helped bump his ERA up into the mid 3s. Both Kennedy and Hudson lead the team with nearly identical xFIP marks, right around 3.45.
That’s not to say they would have done poorly by staying out of the deal and retaining Scherzer. Despite a short trip to the minors after a rough start last season he still turned in a fine performance, 3.50/3.71/3.79 (ERA/FIP/xFIP). He’s struggled at times this year, particularly with the home run ball, but he can certainly turn it around, as he did last year. But that would still give the Diamondbacks only one quality starter. The point of the trade, said former GM Josh Byrnes, was to replace Scherzer with two quality starters. Little did he know that while the plan would work out, the second quality starter would come from a later trade consummated by his interim replacement.
The Diamondbacks’ surge into relevancy has come as a surprise, mainly because they’re similar in composition to last year. While the bullpen’s improvement — -2.1 WAR last year, +1.9 WAR this year — makes a big dent, so does the starting staff. They produced just 9.6 WAR all of last year, with a 4.40 ERA and 4.62 FIP, but this year they’re already at 6.9 WAR with a 4.05 ERA and 4.07 FIP. Kennedy and Hudson stand out from the pack, providing innings and effectiveness that have helped stabilize what was a rough pitching situation in the desert. There’s plenty of season to go, but at least for the first half the Diamondbacks have benefited greatly from a trade that no one thought they’d win.