Where the Diamondbacks Have Found Their Wins

Yesterday, the Diamondbacks throttled the best team in baseball, winning by 13 runs. Last Thursday, they beat the same team by seven runs. Wednesday, they beat them by two; Tuesday, they beat them by one. Before that series, the Diamondbacks swept the Giants, and took three of four from the Mets. Between the last two series against the Dodgers, the Diamondbacks swept the Rockies, and they did so on the road. In all, the Diamondbacks have won 11 in a row, and 13 of 14. A playoff position that was once in some doubt has now been effectively sealed.

It’s certainly true that the Diamondbacks aren’t this good. No team is this good, because no team has ever been this good, because no team could ever be this good. Every team looks perfect when it’s riding a winning streak, and winning streaks end. Heck, from June 28 until the start of this run, the Diamondbacks went 17-29. That’s bad! But that’s why you always need to look at the bigger picture. The Diamondbacks have baseball’s fifth-best winning percentage. They have baseball’s sixth-best BaseRuns estimated winning percentage. This team is good, and better than it was expected to be. Let’s think about that for a few minutes.

Here’s a link to our current playoff-odds page. The Diamondbacks are almost certainly going to make the playoffs. So far, they have 80 wins. They’re projected to end up with 93 wins. Technically, 93.1. That can’t actually happen in reality, but, you get math. You know how this works.

Compare that page to this one. That’s our preseason playoff-odds page. The Diamondbacks didn’t look likely to make the playoffs. They were projected for about the same record as the Rockies, but, more to the point, they were projected to end up with 77.3 wins. That’s quite a bit lower than 93.1, wouldn’t you say? Yes indeed! In this plot, you see the biggest differences between current projected end-of-season win total and preseason projected end-of-season win total.

You could say the Diamondbacks have been the biggest overachievers. It’s possible you don’t like that word; it comes with certain connotations. An overachiever might be expected to regress, and regress hard. Might not happen here. So, alternately, you could say the Diamondbacks have been the biggest positive surprise. As fun as it’s been to watch the Brewers hang around on the periphery of the playoff race, the Diamondbacks might be the bigger shock. They’re on track to exceed their projection by about 16 wins. To this point, they’ve exceeded it by about 14.

That’s 14 extra wins. Where did they come from? To try to answer that, we can refer back to the positional power rankings. During that series, every team had its projections separated out by position. For reasons that are too complicated to get into, we can’t easily isolate actual performance by specific position, but here’s a general outline. Here’s where the Diamondbacks have already overperformed.

  • Position players: +5.3 WAR
  • Starting pitchers: +6.0 WAR
  • Relief pitchers: +2.4 WAR

Add those numbers together and you get +13.7 wins, which is basically the same as 14. If you’d like a slightly different way of looking at this, I’ve prepared a table. In this table, all the positions. In the more left column, you see where the Diamondbacks ranked in that position, by projected WAR, just before the year. In the more right column, you see where they rank in that position, by projected rest-of-season WAR, now. So, of course, this considers updated projections, which consider performance through the first five months. I find this table to be pretty telling.

2017 Diamondbacks By Position
Position Preseason Rank Projected Rank Change
C 29 30 -1
1B 2 3 -1
2B 29 28 1
SS 28 22 6
3B 22 17 5
LF 30 14 16
CF 6 7 -1
RF 19 10 9
SP 18 7 11
RP 30 16 14

This doesn’t quite capture everything. There would be no way for it to do so. But if you want a simple summary of how the Diamondbacks have done what they’ve done, this gives you plenty of hints. They’re not exactly great behind the plate, or in the middle infield. Paul Goldschmidt, as expected, has been terrific. The most meaningful changes are toward the bottom. The Diamondbacks now look a lot better in the corner outfield. And, of course, the entire pitching staff has substantially improved. We’ll get to that after a few of the hitters.

I should say that, while Goldschmidt has been great for a while, this year he’s been particularly outstanding. He’s already exceeded his projected WAR by 1.3, with a few weeks still left. That’s part of this. Another boost has come from David Peralta, who’s mostly bounced back after an injury-riddled 2016. And you can’t overlook the addition of J.D. Martinez, who the Diamondbacks got in advance of the deadline for what felt like a very low price. Martinez is a power hitter more than anything else, and he’s not much of a runner or defender, but he’s a huge step up from Yasmany Tomas, who entered the year as a starter with a projected -0.1 WAR. Martinez has only been around for a short time, yet still he’s made an impact.

Yet what’s most dramatic has taken place on the mound. The Diamondbacks were projected for the No. 18 starting rotation. They’ve actually ranked second, and they project out in seventh. And the Diamondbacks were projected for a league-worst No. 30 bullpen. They’ve actually ranked ninth, and they project out in 16th. The rest-of-season projections figure the Diamondbacks aren’t quite this good, but still they see a massive step forward, and here’s how some pitchers have done relative to their preseason projections, even with weeks remaining on the schedule.

That’s the story of the Diamondbacks, right there. Maybe you don’t think the pitchers are this good. Maybe you still refuse to trust Fernando Rodney. Perfectly justified. But look at all of that extra value. It was supposed to be a big blow when the Diamondbacks lost Shelby Miller, since, for Miller, this was supposed to be a major bounceback campaign. It took a little searching, but the team settled on Godley as the replacement, and Godley has been among the very biggest pleasant surprises. Greinke has shaken off whatever was bothering him in 2016. Corbin has dramatically increased his strike rate. And Bradley has made a wildly successful conversion to relief. Even though Bradley has lately run into a little walk trouble, he still fares well by both WAR and WPA, and having that kind of weapon has made a staggering difference for a relief corps that was expected to be perhaps the team’s greatest liability. It hasn’t been all Bradley, of course, but he leads the bullpen in innings by almost 15. They’ve leaned on him, and he’s responded.

What looked like a lower-third pitching staff now looks like an upper-third pitching staff. It’s to the point where it’s not even clear which starter might need to get bumped to the bullpen in the event the Diamondbacks make it to a playoff series. That’s nothing that can be taken for granted — they will still need to pass through a one-game playoff, and just about anything can happen over the span of nine innings. But between improvement on the mound and improvement in the outfield corners, the Diamondbacks have become a legitimate title contender. It’s easy to see how adding a Martinez can give a team a jolt. Pitching will forever be the king of volatility. The Diamondbacks put together a talented group of volatiles. It’s now up to everyone else to take heed.

We hoped you liked reading Where the Diamondbacks Have Found Their Wins by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Did you just write an entire article about the DBacks without even mentioning Robbie Ray’s name in passing? Well done, sir!