Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Diamondbacks Are a Lovely Story

Isn't it sort of refreshing that four of the six divisions will feature a different division champion than the previous season? The World Champion San Francisco Giants will not repeat or even make the playoffs. The Reds were never a factor. The Bay Rays will not win their division again nor make the playoffs and the Tigers ended the long hold the Twins have had on the AL Central. There are a ton of great stories in there. Jim Leyland has done a wonderful job with the Tigers. Joe Girardi did a wonderful job getting the Yankees were they are. Milwaukee is loving their Brew Crew. But the story that captivates this writer more than any is the division title from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

First of all an admission. This writer did unequivocally state before the season that Kirk Gibson was the wrong guy for the Diamondbacks. If ever there was a stupid statement made by this writer, it was that one. Managers do get too much credit when their teams win, but you'd have to say that Kirk Gibson set the tone in Arizona and it has flowered in the desert. The Diamondbacks are a full six games over their Pythagorean O/U for the season. You have to give the manager some props for that kind of magic.

But who picked the Diamondbacks to win the division this season? Gibson was unable to turn them around after taking over last year's team. They won only 65 games in 2010. So this writer wasn't alone in not giving the Diamondbacks any hope of competing this season. Once again, baseball shows us that the more we know, the more we don't know and can't predict what will happen when the games are actually played. Everyone loves a good Cinderella story, right? The Padres almost pulled it off last season. The Diamondbacks did fill the bill this year of Cinderella and they are going to the ball.

The numbers say that the Diamondbacks are unremarkable. They are tenth of sixteen NL teams in batting average. They are eighth in on base percentage. Their pitching ERA is eighth, or smack in the middle of the National League. They are fourteenth in the NL in pitcher strikeouts. Their two big off season acquisitions were Joe Saunders and Jason Marquis--two 30-something pitchers coming off of terrible seasons. Marquis got hurt early. Saunders has given them surprisingly effective innings. They traded away Mark Reynolds and his strikeouts after setting a record last year in that statistic. But they still strike out more than twelve other teams in the National League. If you look at the numbers, you have to wonder how this has happened.

Can you say that somehow the stars have aligned? Josh Collmenter came out of nowhere to win nine games and had a 3.56 K/BB ratio despite only 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Micah Owings hasn't looked like much more than a novelty act for most of his career and somehow went 7-0 in vulture wins and spot starts to compile a nifty 3.10 ERA. Aaron Hill had looked like his career was withering for the Blue Jays the past two seasons. Yet he came to the desert at the trade deadline and has hit at an .876 OPS clip for the D-backs. But if you want a little pixie dust, look no further than first base.

The Diamondbacks employed no fewer than seven players at first base. Combined for the season, the D-backs first basemen have a collective .740 OPS. For an offensive position, that isn't very good. But the last guy they tried, Paul Goldschmidt, an eighth round draft pick on nobody's prospect radar, has an .830 OPS and hit the division-clinching triple in last night's game. Talk about serendipity! In just 43 games, Goldschmidt has seven game winning hits. Amazing.

So what exactly do the Diamondbacks do well? They field the ball very well. They are fifth in the NL in fielding efficiency and in the top five in fielding percentage, but are just mere points behind the leaders. They don't hit into double plays. Their 79 GIDP are by far the fewest in the National League. Their pitchers don't walk people. Only the Phillies and the Brewers' pitching staffs have allowed fewer walks in the National League than the Diamondbacks. They do not allow free bases to other teams either. Their 41 percent success rate at preventing stolen bases leads the National League. 

To be sure, the Diamondbacks have had some outstanding breakout seasons by Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy. Daniel Hudson has been a top starter all season. J. J. Putz has had a fantastic season as the closer. But in the end, this is simply a team that seems to do a lot of little things well and that has to reflect some on the manager and his staff and the front office led by Mr. Towers. 

The Diamondbacks are a lovely story. Who knows what will happen in the playoffs. Those events are usually determined by who gets hot when and how the ball bounces. It would be kind of neat for a Diamondback/Yankees World Series ten years later than the last one. But, for the Diamondbacks to lose 97 games in 2010 and come back to win the National League West a year later is truly one of the best stories of the year in MLB. The Diamondbacks make you smile. That's all there is to it.

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