By some measures, the Dbacks are better than last year, and they’re in much better position in the standings. As late as last July, AZ was trailing by 4.5 games. Obviously they can't keep freefalling and expect to win, but the division is shaping up much like 2005 and I’m unconvinced they need to play much better in order to take the West.
What? Diamondhacks is the voice of optimism? We're doomed. :-) However, there is some merit to his arguments. Now, i am under no illusions over how badly we have been playing of late, and while our overall totals for ERA+ and OPS+ are about the same as last year, the trends, at first glance appears to be of serious concern. Here is the breakdown for the months so far, along with our win-loss record - ignore the last column for the moment, since I'll get to in a bit:
Grim reading, huh? Now, i don't think April represents our 'true' level of ability. Still, to have only 20 wins over almost two months looks pretty bad. We haven't been that low since 2004 [we managed only thirteen in July and August combined that year!]. But if you look at the final column, that represents one possible explanation - it contains the number of games we have played each month against our divisional rivals. Over the 59 games from April 28-July 3, only six are against the NL West.
Question is, which is cause and which is effect. Is our record against the NL West so good, because we played them in April when we were ridiculously hot? Or did playing our mediocre divisional rivals make us seem an awful lot better than we are? If it's the latter, then we are still very much in this thing. As the calendar turns and we head into the second-half of the season, you'll find that we will be facing the other teams in the NL West a good deal more.
The key is, how well we do in the second half against our divisional rivals. If we can reach the All-Star break still in first, or thereabouts, then 13 of the first 16 back, we play the NL West. All told, in the second-half, 41 of 65 games are versus them. That will decide our fate, even if it's hard to win your division while losing outside it. I think the last NL team who did were the 1997 Astros, with a 49-50 record outside the Central [the famously-sucky 2005 Padres went 36-35]. Our extra-division record this morning stands at 20-32, and we'd need to win two-thirds of the remaining 36 to even that out, so we're basically toast there. But the more unbalanced schedule works in our favor, with more games against the division, and the twenty victories already piled up against the West are solid gold.
Here's another point to ponder when looking at the upcoming calendar, and it's one that will be very helpful. As previously noted, we have only won five games against "good" teams - ones who now have a winning record. Ouch. Fortunately, after we complete this road trip and then play Milwaukee at home, we won't be seeing many more of them. In 63 of our last 76 games, we face opponents currently below .500: the only exceptions are single series against the Phillies, Marlins [yeah: again...], Cubs and Cardinals. I don't think there's any doubt that the team needs to play better - and in particular, start scoring more runs. However, schedule-wise, the worst is just about over - and we are still in first-place.