Arizona Diamondbacks: Strikeouts fueling pitching turnaround

Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers were the worst in baseball last year. They have been much better so far in 2017, and it’s all thanks to a surge in strikeouts.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have been one of the real surprises in the early part of the 2017 season. They own a 17-12 record, placing them just a half-game behind the (also unexpectedly) first-place Colorado Rockies in the National League West. Their robust +31 run differential is good for second-best in the NL.

What has been the key to turning around a club that lost 93 games last season? While first-year skipper Torey Lovullo has rightfully received a lot of credit, and the D-Backs’ offense has continued scoring runs at a rapid clip, look no further than the pitching staff for the biggest difference in Arizona this season.

In 2016, D-Backs hurlers posted a 5.09 ERA as a group. That was the worst number of its kind in all of baseball, just below the 5.08 mark managed by the 103-loss Minnesota Twins. At this point in the 2017 campaign, Arizona pitchers boast a 3.73 ERA – which puts them all the way up at seventh in the league.

Obviously, that’s a huge swing, one that sees the Snakes jump 23 spots into some pretty enviable company among MLB’s better pitching staffs. Given last year’s disaster, and Arizona’s history of failing to put together a strong group of hurlers out in the desert, it’s a fairly remarkable reversal. But just what has caused it as we progress into the season’s second month?

One word: strikeouts. D-Backs pitchers have accumulated 273 strikeouts so far, trailing only the Astros (279) and Dodgers (274). They certainly weren’t awful in the category a year ago, just in the middle of the pack; they finished 12th overall with 1,318 punch-outs. At its current pace, Arizona will blow past last season’s total with 1,525 Ks. For what it’s worth, that would have led the league in 2016 (Dodgers – 1,510).

The Diamondbacks’ recent affinity for the strikeout has even begun to enter history-making territory. Though they fell to the Nationals by a 2-1 margin in Wednesday’s contest, D-Backs starter Robbie Ray fanned 10 Washington hitters over his six innings of work.

In doing so, Arizona became the first team ever to record at least 10 strikeouts in nine consecutive games.

It’s been a group effort up and down the staff, too. In the starting rotation, Ray (12.1 K/9) and Taijuan Walker (10.2 K/9) both sport K/9 rates over 10. Zack Greinke comes in just under that threshold with a 9.8 rate.

The bullpen has been even better in this regard. J.J. Hoover leads the way with 13.5 K/9, having struck out 16 opponents in 10.2 frames. Veteran lefty Jorge De La Rosa, the longtime Rockies starter, has made a successful transition to a relief role, working a 10.0 K/9 with a 2.31 ERA. Youngster Archie Bradley could rejoin the rotation at some point, but he has thrived in the pen as well, to the tune of a 1.13 ERA and 10.7 K/9.

And while closer Fernando Rodney has been a rollercoaster (11.45 ERA, two blown saves in nine chances), he hasn’t struggled retiring hitters via the strikeout, with 11.5 K/9.

Filling their staff with pitchers who can rack up strikeouts with ease appears to be paying off for the D-Backs in the early going. While they might not continue at quite this pace for the entire season, the club has to be encouraged by the sizable improvement seen in its pitching.

It’s frequently been said that the pitching has held back a talented offensive attack in Arizona. Could this be the year that changes?

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