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Will Pitching Sink the Diamondbacks in October?

Major League Baseball’s surprise team may run out of luck in the playoffs. After finishing dead last in the NL West last season, the Diamondbacks currently lead the division by seven games, and look poised to enter the postseason. While their hitting and fielding have both been solid this season, the pitching has been the real reason for the Diamondbacks’ turnaround. Led by one of the worst bullpen performances we’ve seen in recent years, the Diamondbacks finished last in pitching WAR in 2010. This season, the Diamondbacks have improved to roughly league average due to breakout performances by Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Still, those performances may not be enough to lead the Diamondbacks to victory in October.

A quick look at the FanGraphs team pitching leader board reveals the obvious. Of the eight projected playoff teams — the current division leaders, plus the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox — the Diamondbacks currently rate eighth in pitching WAR, dead last among playoff teams. When you break it down into starters vs relievers, the Diamondbacks don’t fare all that well either. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen rates fifth among the eight playoff teams, while the starting pitching still puts the D-Backs in last.

Pulling up WAR leader boards for starters is somewhat misleading, however, considering teams go to a three man rotation once the playoffs begin. A look at the individual pitching leader boards reveals somewhat of a surprise. Outside of the Philadelphia Phillies’ “Big Three,” the Diamondbacks have the two best starters in the National League playoffs according to WAR. The Diamondbacks may struggle in the “quantity” department, but they certainly have quality at the front of the rotation with Kennedy and Hudson.

But it would be foolish to ignore the third slot in the D-Backs’ rotation. Hurting for pitching, the Diamondbacks traded for Jason Marquis to shore up their rotation. Unfortunately, he promptly broke his leg and it’s unclear whether he will return for the postseason. The Diamondbacks could turn to Josh Collmenter — who has been their third best starter despite only throwing 130 innings this season — but he’s unproven in the playoffs. If all else fails, the team can turn to Joe Saunders. Which ever pitcher the D-Backs decide to roll with in the playoffs, the third spot in their rotation is going to be a problem.

The Diamondbacks’ bullpen also has two strong performers in David Hernandez and JJ Putz. They may not rate higher than the Braves back-end trio, the mustachioed man in Milwaukee or the Phillies duo, but Hernandez and Putz have put together strong seasons for the Diamondbacks. If the Diamondbacks’ starters can pitch deep into games, their pen might be able to hold things together this season.

On the surface, the Diamondbacks’ pitching looks overmatched entering the NL playoffs. Once we dig a little deeper, however, the Diamondbacks look like a team that might surprise on a national stage with their unheralded starters. At the same time, that third rotation slot is a major question mark that puts the D-Backs at a disadvantage no matter which team they face. The Diamondbacks have the quality arms needed to contend with the big boys, but they still lack the quantity needed for a deep playoff run.