Here we are 1/3rd of the way into the season and the D-Backs are the surprise team of the league. Who would have thought they'd be leading the division over the WS Champion Giants, and the deep pocketed Dodgers. Most every analyst had them 3rd place in the division and not even making the wild card.
Yet, here we are in the beginning of June, watching every game with stunned amazement at the way this team is producing. They are still the only team in MLB to have never been shut out this year. That is a trend I think we all expect this "gritty" team to continue. There doesn't seem to be any let-go even in 9-0 games. They still want to win all the way to the 27th out.
What is even more amazing is the lack of production from some of our "star" players and the number of injuries this staff has had over the course of the year already. Kubel, Ross, Bloomquist, Hudson, Gregorius, Chavez, Eaton, McCarthy, Kennedy (ok so it was just a minor cut, but still), and perhaps our biggest loss... Aaron Hill. Those aren't bench warmers, there are some big names on that DL to the DBacks organization. It's a marvel that the team isn't in last place, let alone first.
But as it stands they're on track to win 90+ games and if not win the division at least be vying for one of those wild cards. So how are they doing it?
Two words. Kevin Towers.
Although there is plenty of praise to go around to the players, which I will get to. I don't think KT gets as much of the credit that we should all be giving him. His preparation in the form of depth for this team simply cannot be under stated. The bullpen is deep, while pitching in the farm system is full of guys who look ready. Let's face it. Trading Bauer was a huge risk which so far seems to have paid off more than the national pundits would probably like to admit. Didi has been spectacular and really lived up to the hype KT gave him. He's a good bat and excellent defender. KT seems to have been the only one with the cojones to pull that off.
Looking at the other big trade of JUp for Prado may still seem like a toss up, but for me I think we can all see it was the right thing. This was supposed to be somewhat of a rebuild year, but instead we have a winning team. We didn't need a 5th outfielder that had questionable outfield ability and an inconsistent bat. Yes he was injured, but we needed a culture change.. not just a lineup change. KT and Gibby wanted a team full of "tryhards". Prado is the epitome of "tryhard". (I'm using tryhard instead of gritty just because I can. Leave me alone.)
If I was to list in order of importance, who was the most responsible for this season, after KT (and staff) it would be Parra. Yes I know Goldie is having an incredible year, but where Adam Eaton was supposed to set the tone for the team Parra has been even better than we could have hoped for in the lead-off. Despite being a major TOOTBLAN expert, he puts pressure on every defense every day, no matter where he's batting. Not bad for our 4th outfielder. Speaking of 4th outfielder, AJ Pollock is doing nicely this year too. Not quite to the level of Goldschmidt or Parra, but still proving the depth of our roster. I don't even mind how often Parra is getting thrown out. I'd rather him be aggressive and fail than stand on first and wait for a ball in play every time.
You also have to admire Parra's "gunslinger" mentality in the outfield. How many guys have you seen try to pick off a runner at second with a single to right? Before Parra I didn't even think such a thing was possible but I've seen him darn near do it twice this year. Both times the runner would give Parra a look like "WTF was that about"? Parra would just smile back like he does to EVERYONE after EVERY play. If there was one person who personifies the way I think the game should be played, it's Parra. All out, every time, tries to get everyone out, and turn every single into a double if he can. Runs 1st to 3rd on singles, and smiles constantly. He must be one helluva team mate and one of the reasons everyone is having so much fun in the dugout.
Paul Goldschmidt isn't my MVP of the team, but that's only because there can't be two of them. If Paul gets MVP I wouldn't be in the least bit heartbroken either. His defense is beyond what anyone expected from him in the minors. We knew this last year, but he seems to be making even better plays this year. So far, he's made 2 errors this year. That's it.. just 2. He plays WAY off the bag at first showing he's a much better athlete than just your average 1st baseman power hitter. Usually 1st base is designated for the power guy in your lineup that isn't quite as agile as everyone else. But look at the pictures that Nick Piecoro has in this article: http://www.azcentral.com/insiders/nickpiecoro/2013/06/02/staying-positive-goldschmidts-defense-matt-williams-on-jeff-samardzija-minor-league-notes-farm-report-other-stuff/
I don't even think Joey Votto plays that far off the bag with such ease. The only way someone can play that far off of 1st, that comfortably, is if they have the agility of a short stop. Does anyone doubt he could play SS if we needed him to? It shows up on the basepads too. The power hitter in our lineup has 6 stolen bases out of 7 attempts. He's only been caught once and if I remember correctly that was on a throw over to first... not a throw from the catcher. He's deceptively speedy.
But you can't mention Paul Goldschmidt without discussing his bat. 68 hits, 40 runs, 46 RBI's, .337 BA, .604 SLG, and 122 total bases. His WAR is 3.5, and he's 26 runs better than the league average. BTW, last year he had 252 total bases the whole season. How's that for a guy who's only earning a half million this year?
Besides those two obvious guys, we've seen incredible production from Didi Gregorius who's still batting .315, and has 4 home runs. AJ Pollock who bats the occasional lead off with a .275 BA, and has scored 23 runs in only 48 games. Oh, and he's only got a measly 16 doubles (1 behind Parra). When your two lead off men combine for 33 doubles in 66 games, that's going to keep your team from getting blank'd.
Before going down Chavez was batting .325 as our part time clean-up man behind Goldie. He has 25 RBI's and 7 HR's. But with an Oblique strain he could be out some considerable time. Luckily at the same time Eric went out, we got Willie Bloomquist back. Although not the same kind of player, Willie can definitely help move runners over and get on base. He's almost like a second Martin Prado.
In fact, when you look up and down this lineup the hitting styles and play styles of many players are very similar. I would group Didi, Willie, Prado, Parra, and AJ all in the same group of hard-nosed players. Sprays the ball everywhere at the plate, and makes great plays in the field. Overall good athletes that aren't there to hit 40 HR's but win games for you with their strong defense and good hitting.
What is really exciting to think about is that we're starting to see some production out of Montero, Prado, Kubel, and Ross. Prado is starting to look a bit more comfortable at the plate and really looks like he's planning his hits better. Instead of just trying to make contact, he's knowing where he's going to make contact to. For a guy that's supposed to be 2nd in our order, that's what you want. Right now he's a bit lower in our lineup, but he seems to be back into the form of last year finally and could easily take over 2nd again.
Also exciting is the return of Willie Bloomquist, along with soon to be Aaron Hill and Daniel Hudson. I'm hoping Hill makes it back by this Saturday for his bobble-head day. Willie is a good fit for this team and can really help out in the situational hitting. He's probably not going to get more than 10 home runs but he'll be a big help in the RBI category and advancing runners. He's also a good option as a defender anywhere on the bases. The only question is will he stay healthy. He seems somewhat injury prone and right now, that's the last thing the D-Backs need right now.
Hudson coming back could be a big sigh of relief since McCarthy is out. Right now it looks like Skaggs may throw a game or two while Hudson is still getting ready for his MLB return, but we'll probably see Hudson back before the end of the month. He's changed his mechanics from how he used to throw, so he might be even more dominant than he was. On the flip side, he might be less dominant. Something that stick in my brain though is the impression that as a general rule, guys who come back from Tommy John surgery seem to be better pitchers after the surgery. I wish I had some stats on that.
There are still a few things that concern me about this team. There still seems to be a lack of any big bat to help protect Goldie. Chavez was helping before he went down, but even then he was still not an every day player. Hopefully Miggy can continue to warm up at the plate and start to be that guy the DBacks paid $10 million for. Although Hernandez has been pitching MUCH better as of late, and Bell has done a decent job as closer the bullpen still worries me. Both our lefties (Sipp and Reynolds) have had their struggles while Joe Pa is absolutely dealing in Reno. Our starting pitchers seem to have trouble getting off to a good start and have given up 59 hits total in the first inning, and 28 runs. That's the most runs given up per inning. Putting the team behind early is difficult on moral and seems to be a trend with this team for several years.
Lastly, I'm really getting fed up with national media coverage of this team. While watching the FOX broadcast on Saturday the studio crew started talking about the NL West division and didn't even mention the D-Backs once. It was Dodgers and Giants the whole time with everyone agreeing that the Dodgers would be coming back into the conversation. Seriously? They're supposed to be SHOWING THE D-BACKS GAME in just two minutes, and you can't even mention THE DIVISION LEADERS???!!!??? I swear if the D-Backs didn't trade it's top prospect and top player in the same year, they'd never get any coverage at all. Now I see they're ranked 10th in the power poll despite having the 8th best record because supposedly they've have 16th strength of schedule. Just because you've played 3 games against the Marlins shouldn't mean you have that low of a SOS. Look at some of the teams they've played and BEATEN. Giants, Rangers, Cardinals, Rockies, and the Phillies.
Nothing about them on any national sports radio. Barely EVER get mentioned on MLB network, and it's usually a brief sidenote leading up to a lengthy discussion about SF and/or LA. Parra isn't even on the All-Star ballot, and Pennington is. SERIOUSLY. Go check it out. http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/all_star/y2013/ballot.jsp
At first when I became a D-Backs fan I just wrote it off as my not being knowledgeable enough about sports media, and I was just missing it. But over the past several years it seems like they still believe we're having stagecoach hold-ups, train robberies, shootout's at the OK, and fighting Indians for land out here. How could we possibly have a major league sports franchise that won a World Series and is leading their division currently. Instead lets talk about a 5 game winning streak from the last place Cubs. Could this finally be the year? Good grief.
Alright, well thanks to anyone who managed to read all 2000+ words of my essay. I guarantee it took me 4 times as long to type. Ciao.