The remains of the season: the Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona won the 2007 National League West with sabermetric smoke and mirrors, posting the best record in the league despite being outscored by their opponents. This season, they find themselves leading the pack once again, despite being four games behind last year’s pace as far as win-loss record goes.

Dan Haren has delivered for the Dbacks this year. (Icon/SMI)

The season so far

It’s thanks to the weakness of the NL West that the Diamondbacks are doing so well; Arizona’s overall record would be good only for fourth place in either of the two other National League divisions. They have gone 29-15 against the rest of the West, compared to only 28-39 against everyone else. Of particular note, they are only 14-27 against teams outside the West and currently above .500. The following chart illustrates how their performance through the first four months appears to be closely related to the number of games they play against their divisional opponents:

Month    OPS  ERA    W-L  West
Mar/Apr .813  3.25  20-8   22
May     .731  4.09  11-17   6
June    .628  4.57   9-15   0
July    .757  3.82  14-11  13

While the team’s offense falls near the middle of the pack in run scoring, Chase Field plays a good part in that: away from home, they are scoring fewer than four times per game, 13th in the league. It’s their pitching which has kept Arizona in contention, with an ERA+ of 117, trailing only the Dodgers (121) and Cubs (119). Again, park factors disguise this somewhat, but on the road, Arizona is the only team in the league to allow fewer than four runs per game.

Dan Haren, who arrived from the A’s as the only major player acquired by the Diamondbacks during the offseason, has been a large part of that. Initially troubled by a lingering upper respiratory infection, he has now recovered, and in 11 games since the start of June he has a 1.62 ERA and K:BB ratio of 74:13. Brandon Webb has been as solid as expected, with an ERA near 3.00, and after a dreadful spell, Randy Johnson has bounced back to win five games in a row—he still has an outside chance at reaching 300 wins before the season ends. Doug Davis has been up and down, however, and Micah Owings was optioned to Tucson last week. There’s a big question mark over whether he has enough good pitches to be a starter.

Generally, though, the rotation has been good, giving Arizona quality starts over 60 percent of the time, the best figure in the league. On the other hand, the bullpen has been a problem; their 10-18 record is significantly worse than 2007, when they were 30-19. Chad Qualls currently leads all major league relievers with seven losses despite an ERA+ of 118; he has had particular issues with inherited runners, and his opponents’ batting average shoots up from .202 with the bases empty to .317 with men in scoring position. He and his colleagues have struggled to hold leads in close games in a way not experienced last season, when Arizona’s 32-20 record in one-run games was a large part of their success. Compare and contrast the results below, which show their win percentage when ahead at various points:

Leading after   2007   2008
=============   ====   ====
Five innings    .861   .755
Six innings     .890   .759
Seven innings   .912   .875
Eight innings   .953   .945

Last year, the Diamondbacks won almost nine out of 10 games when they were ahead after six innings; this year, they’re barely at three of four. It’s only in the final frame, where the records almost even out, thanks to Brandon Lyon, who has been a fairly solid replacement for Jose Valverde this year, converting 24 saves in 28 chances.

On offense, the outfield has been the main area of concern. Left fielder Eric Byrnes, signed to a long-term contract during 2007, was troubled by hamstring injuries all year, and though he is now gone for the season, that might be a merciful relief, since he was batting just .209. Chris Young in center is proving painfully easy to get out on pitches down and away, with an OBP below .300. And in right, Justin Upton had a brilliant April, but since then he has looked like the 20-year-old player he is and is now also on the DL with a strained oblique muscle.

The injury to Byrnes resulted in a move of Conor Jackson to left field, and he has flourished there, continuing to be the team’s best hitter with an OPS near .900. This has opened up first base for the returning Chad Tracy, back after a knee injury, and allowed Mark Reynolds to continue to occupy third base. Reynolds is on pace for 32 homers, 102 RBI and also looks likely to end up with over 200 strikeouts this season, something no one has done before. Stephen Drew and Orlando Hudson occupy the middle infield, and both have been solidly productive.

Arizona’s bench is another weakness, with the Diamondbacks only getting a line of .219/.323/.292 from their pinch hitters. None of the bench spots has an OPS of .700 or better; in particular, Chris Burke‘s existence on the roster remains a complete mystery. He has appeared in 64 games despite an OPS of .540, ranking him 328th among the 333 major leaguers with 150+ plate appearances. Tony Clark was brought over in a trade with the Padres to try and address this issue. I have my doubts that he is going to be of any real help on the park, valuable as his veteran presence may be in the clubhouse.

Looking forward

The schedule is kind to the Diamondbacks the rest of the way; only 15 of their 51 games are against teams with winning records (two series each versus the Dodgers and Cardinals, one versus the Marlins). It’s likely the six remaining games against Los Angeles will go a long way in deciding the NL West champion.

Arizona made no major moves at the trade deadline, though the team did acquire Washington closer Jon Rauch as a setup man—he may take over the closer’s role next season, with Lyon a free agent. The plan is now to go forward with the current roster and hope they can produce consistently. The only change likely the rest of the way is the return of Justin Upton to right field, probably within about two weeks—we’ll see if he can recapture the form he showed at the start of the season. Rookie phenom Max Scherzer may be called up in September, either to bolster the bullpen or provide a fresh arm to the rotation. Micah Owings’ spot has been taken, for the moment, by Yusmeiro Petit, with Scherzer still working to improve his arm strength down in Tucson.

If Webb, Haren, etc. continue to pitch as they have, the team will be kept in most games. The question is, will the offense score enough runs? When firing on all cylinders, as they did in April, Arizona is almost unstoppable. However, they need to get solid output from all three outfield positions, and the bullpen needs to stop coughing up leads. The acquisition of Ramirez by Los Angeles certainly stole all the headlines from Arizona, with some commentators all but anointing the Dodgers as a result. Still, the Diamondbacks haven’t been worse than tied for first since April 5, and this is not a team that will give up its position as reigning champion without a fight.

References & Resources
All stats after games of August 3.

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