D-backs need to share the load to stay atop NL West
PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks had breakout performances before the All-Star break, and they had breakdowns. They played through an uncommon number injuries.
With unanticipated All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and Patrick Corbin providing the impetus, the D-backs moved into first place in the NL West on May 19 and have held a least a share of the division lead for 57 consecutive days as the race resumes in San Francisco on Friday.
All things considered, it was a good start.
Sustaining it is the next step.
The D-backs may have surprised some people along the way, although not by much. Their 50-45 record is just two games ahead of what Bill James’ pythagorean winning percentage suggests it should be.
They have compensated for a lack of sexy individual stats — save for Goldschmidt, Corbin and perhaps Gerardo Parra — with the tenacity to handle high-leverage situations.
They lead the major leagues with 21 one-run victories and 10 extra-inning victories. They have won 21 games in their last at-bat and have 27 comeback victories.
Attitude does not slump, and if we have learned anything about the D-backs, it is that they stay energized. It is impossible to know what factors will play into winning the division race, but that is a good trait with which to start.
The D-backs might also do well to consider:
A MORE RELIABLE BULLPEN
The D-backs are in the top third in the NL in saves and bullpen ERA, but those numbers have been overshadowed by their 19 blown saves, tied with the Chicago Cubs for the most in the majors.
The D-backs have won eight of the games in which they have blown saves, but the extra work makes it hard on everyone, mainly by taxing the relief arms. Most teams function best when relief roles are defined, starting with the closer, and the D-backs want that, too. But until/if J.J. Putz regains his velocity, it is a cloudy issue.
Who will begin the post-break schedule as the closer? Brad Ziegler has been their most effective reliever in his setup role, but be also converted all three of his save chances in the last two weeks. Heath Bell did a nice job filling in for Putz during his seven-week stay on the disabled list, but both he and David Hernandez have an ERA over 4.50 and have given up eight home runs. Will Harris has been a fine in his setup role, and Josh Collmenter can supply needed length. Whoever the closer, he needs to solidify the ninth inning.
MORE BALANCE IN THE ROTATION
The D-backs privately believed that Corbin was the top candidate for the No. 5 starting job in spring training, but it is fair to say no one expected such a remarkable start — 11-1, 2.35 ERA, 16 quality starts in 19 appearances. He has snapped three- and four-game losing streaks, and the D-backs have won 17 of his starts.
The trouble is, Corbin has not had much help. The other four starters in the opening day rotation are 14-27 with a 4.73 ERA.
Wade Miley has showed recent signs of returning to form, but Ian Kennedy has not won in his last seven starts. Trevor Cahill has spend the last three weeks on the disabled, and Brandon McCarthy has been there for seven weeks.
Randall Delgado has filled in well, as has Tyler Skaggs on occasion, but the D-backs would be better served if the veterans who have had success in past pennant races get back on track. Kennedy has a strong second-half track record, something he can use to build on.
GETTING THE BATS ON TRACK
Goldschmidt has carried the offense thus far, and he should be on every short list of NL MVP candidates with Yadier Molina, Carlos Gonzalez and 2012 winner MVP Buster Posey. Like, Corbin he could use some help beyond Parra and rookie A.J. Pollock, who have put up good numbers.
Catcher Miguel Montero, outfielders Jason Kubel and Cody Ross and infielder Martin Prado have all been among the culprits who have fallen far short of their track records.
The D-backs are not built to hit home runs, but that is not a bad thing. They are fifth in the NL in runs and tied for second in doubles, and that should be considered good good sign inasmuch as Aaron Hill missed two months with a broken left hand, Ross and Kubel missed time with left leg injuries and expected leadoff man Adam Eaton has only been active for a week because of an elbow injury in spring.
Prado seems to be back on track, hitting .314 with three homers and 10 RBIs in his last 18 games, and Ross is hitting .290 in his last 18.
HOLDING HOME COURT
Only San Francisco has more post-break home games than the D-backs, and that edge will flip-flop away after the three-game series at AT&T Park this weekend. The D-backs will play 35 of their final 64 games at Chase Field, where they are a plus-seven.
Playing at home is more than just getting the final at-bat. It is no lost luggage, no wakeup calls, no non-conforming beds. It is taking the kids to school and stopping for coffee at a favorite spot.
In addition, the D-backs have more than half (39) of their remaining games against teams that are .500 or below at this point. That could change, of course. Philadelphia and Toronto are hovering near the break-even mark, and the D-backs have 10 games left against always pesky San Francisco, who have historically has given them the most trouble.
The D-backs have only three games outside the Pacific time zone starting Aug. 26, and those three are in Colorado.
CONTINUE TO MAKE THE PLAYS
The D-backs built this team to win with pitching and defense, and while the pitching has been in and out, the defense has been the best in the league from the start of the season. The D-backs have the fewest errors (41) and the highest fielding percentage (.989) in the league, the traditional markers of a good defense.
It goes deeper.
Parra is considered the best defensive outfielder in the league based on advanced metric called “total zone runs.” He has nine assists, second in the league. Shortstop Didi Gregorius has made all the plays since his recall in his mid-April, and scouts rated his arm a “70” rating on the traditional 20-80 scale. Pollock has shown good range in center field. His diving catch to save two runs (and possibly a game) last Friday is emblematic of the type of defense the D-backs have played this season.