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SnakePit Round Table: Arizona Wins The NL West [Logical Response]

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I had to check the standings this morning, just to be sure we had actually won the division. It seems to be the case. It's clear that Kirk Gibson and the team regard this as the start and not the end of their work. But for now, it's worth taking a step back and looking to see how this remarkable feat happened. We asked the SnakePit authors for both their logical and emotional responses to the championship. Here are the former; the emotional side will be here this afternoon, once it has finished running around the house with its shirt pulled over its head.

How did a team, expected to finish last by many, and under .500 by most, win the division?

Dan Strittmatter: Whether because of the quality of the coaching staff (this should not be undersold), the culture of wanting to win now coming from the very top of the organization, natural progression of talent, or dumb luck, the returning players from the 2010 team took their abilities to a completely new level in 2011.  Yes, Kelly Johnson regressed (heavily), Stephen Drew got hurt, and Chris Young took a small step back, but look at some of the incredible jumps in production from the rest of the returnees.

Justin Upton had 3 fWAR in ‘10, currently has 6.9 fWAR in ‘11.  Miguel Montero had 1.8 fWAR in ‘10, currently has 4.1 fWAR in ‘11.  Gerardo Parra had 1.1 fWAR in ‘10, currently has 3.4 fWAR in ‘11.  Ian Kennedy had 3.0 fWAR in ‘10 (combined pitching and hitting), currently has 5.0 fWAR in ‘11 (combined).  Dan Hudson and Edwin Jackson combined for 4.3 fWAR in ‘10 (combined), Hudson currently has 6.0 fWAR in ‘11 (combined).  Sure, Dan Haren and Joe Saunders combined for 4.6 fWAR in ‘10 compared to 1.3 fWAR from Saunders thus far in ‘11, but the D-backs also replaced Rodrigo Lopez’s combined 0.3 fWAR with 2.3 fWAR from Josh Collmenter and goodness has the team’s #5 starter performance improved.

Finally, there’s a stark contrast between the number of below-replacement-level players to grace the 2010 ballclub and this year’s version.  In 2010, the D-backs had a total of seventeen below-replacement-level players on their roster at one point or another throughout the season.  Those players: Bob Howry, Billy Buckner, Dontrelle Willis, Jordan Norberto, Tony Abreu, Augie Ojeda, Cole Gillespie, Conor Jackson, Konrad Schmidt, Esmerling Vasquez, Saul Rivera, Zach Kroenke, Kevin Mulvey, Daniel Stange, Rafael Rodriguez, and even (believe-it-or-not) Ryan Roberts and Barry Enright (yes, this is fWAR).  In 2011?  Just nine: Armando Galarraga, Melvin Mora, Russell Branyan, Sean Burroughs, Xavier Nady, Barry Enright, Sam Demel, Aaron Heilman, and Jason Marquis.  That’s a lot of value not being sucked out of the team in 2011.

snakecharmer: I think it’s a combination of the right players, the right attitude, and performance. First, Kevin Towers brought in the pieces we needed most - a solid closer in JJ Putz and an amazing set-up man in David Hernandez. He kept the 6 pieces of the starting 8 - Parra, Young, Upton, Montero, Drew, Johnson. The corners were question marks, as was the back of the rotation and middle of the bullpen, although they were solid for a little while. Towers knew he needed veterans and knew what he wanted off the bench.

But give credit to the management knowing when players weren’t working out, like Branyan, Mora, Miranda, Galarraga, Heilman. They weren’t afraid to eat a bit of salary to put together a better team. And also give credit to the previous management teams for putting together a farm system that actually produced good results when we needed it, like Josh Collmenter and Bryan Shaw.

But above all, I think Gibson instilled a winning attitude in these guys. They’ve been good late in ballgames because they never give up. They fight till the last out. Even back in May, there was one SF game and they lost I think 7-3 or 7-5, something like that. But they had runners on base in the 9th inning, and it wasn’t an easy win for SF. Gibson has gotten these guys to play up to their potential. Who would’ve thought Ian Kennedy would win 20 games? Daniel Hudson winning 16? Ryan Roberts with 18 home runs, Gerardo Parra hitting nearly .300 (he was at .299 last week). Many of these players are the same as last year, but infused with the new guys and new attitude, they know they can win, and they just do it! (™ Nike)

Kishi: Well now I’m going to look under-prepared no matter what I put here, thanks, you two. So, I’ll go simple: the bullpen gave us what we needed, and the team didn’t give up easily. This team has fought to be where they are.

C. Wesley Baier: Thanks Dan for taking the words right out of my mouth. I think there’s been two big changes from last year: The bullpen is a huge strength now, and our defense has been one of the best in the league. Our outfiel

Jim: Two main reasons. Existing players playing a lot better, as Dan already detailed, and the bullpen turning from a glaring weakness into a strength, especially as far as preserving leads goes. Additionally [and I finally find something not already stated, hooray!], as well as saving games, the A-bullpen has done a lot better at keeping us in close games, giving the offense a chance to come back. This year, Arizona have lost only twice in games which were tied after seven innings, and we have won ten games while trailing at that point. Last year, the same numbers were eighteen defeats, and five come from behind victories. That’s a huge difference.

To expand on other’s thoughts, the zero tolerance policy for suck has certainly been a positive factor. Towers has shown a ruthless approach there: it doesn’t matter how much you get paid, if you don’t produce, then "See ya!" Armando Galarraga, Barry Enright, Zach Duke, Melvin Mora, Aaron Heilman, Russell Branyan, Juan Miranda, Brandon Allen: all failed to perform and saw their roles handed to others. Contrast last year, where no-one threw more innings than Rodrigo Lopez, who posted a -0.7 bWAR.

ZM: With good players.  Oh sorry, you wanted more?  Justin Upton transformed from a solid-enough right fielder into one of the top 10 position players in the National League.  Ian Kennedy improved almost every aspect of his game, and became one of the top starters in baseball, and paired with Hudson to form one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball.  Gerardo Parra transformed from an offensive black hole to an actual above-average starter.  Miguel Montero became one of the best offensive catchers in baseball.  Overall, the Diamondbacks have an decent offense that looks pretty darn good at home, a rotation with two stars, and three other pitchers that keep the team in the game, and a back of the bullpen that’s good enough to close out close games.  Put that together, and you’re going to have a team that competes for a playoff spot.  The only thing that’s a surprise is the names of people doing the work.

Shoe: Pitching, as it turns out. While the offense was up and down, Kennedy and Hudson were terrific all year, Saunders rebounded from a tough start to have a very solid year, and after struggling with some of the dregs KT brought in, Collmenter came up and contnued to defy predictions of regression and post one of the 2-3 best seasons by a rookie pitcher this year, (and perhaps the 2nd best rookie season by a d back since Webb's 2003 season).  And of course Putz, Hernandez, Patterson, and more recently Ziegler were excellent.  This pitching staff is better than the seasonal numbers which are dragged down by the early suck of Galaragga, Enright, Duke, and Heilman. In fact, here is the money stat:  During  the last month with the division on the line (since August 21st), the team ERA is 2.64, which is not only best in the NL, but 2nd best in the majors. In that stretch, Philadelphia is at 2.94.

CaptainCanuck: Everything from the breakouts of Upton, Parra, Roberts, Montero, Kennedy, Hudson, and the revamped bullpen.

What one move would you say was the biggest key to turning things around?

Dan Strittmatter: I was asked this question on the brief radio spot I did last week, and really couldn’t come up with one single transaction that made sense.  In my mind, the biggest reason for our success, as mentioned in the answer to the first question, is the incredible improvement in the club.  As such, I’m going to have to say that the biggest key to turning things around has been the assembling of a fantastic coaching staff that has helped the young talent on the club develop to the best of their abilities.

snakecharmer: There are so many keys to why they’ve done so well. I think it’s attitude, and that comes from Gibby, yes, and it also comes from the front office putting in the right players so that they can win. The Diamondbacks invested in this year’s team, and they did it really well. As far as specifics go, I think the Hernandez and Putz acquisitions were huge. The bullpen was a major problem last year and everybody knows it and I think it affected the offense too. So having solid 8th-9th inning pitching really helped the rest of the club.

Jim: I think getting the bullpen in order would be top of the list. Most of the other pieces were in place, even if so many have played above expectations. But the relief corps underwent a radical revamp, not just over the off-season, but once it started. Our second-half bullpen ERA has been about three-quarters of a run better than in the first-half, as the fine-tuning continued. We’ve played almost sixty games since July 20 - know how many have been losses out of the bullpen? One. That’s just insane.

Shoe: Signing JJ Putz

CaptainCanuck: No one move, I don't think. Signing JJ Putz was a good one, and the Mark Reynolds trade for David Hernandez too, in hindsight, as well as picking up Joe Patterson in the Rule 5 draft. And not trading Justin Upton, of course... But mostly patching up the bullpen.

Did Arizona win it, or is it fairer to say San Francisco and Colorado lost it?

snakechamer: Well, Colorado lost it due to injuries. I don’t really know what happened to them. It’s hard to say who really "lost it", because in the end, it comes down to wins and losses, no matter who those wins come against. Yes, it certainly helps to beat your division foes, which AZ and SF both do really well. But we’re on the cusp of 90 wins. 90 WINS. Arizona had some wonderful long winning streaks, and San Francisco just couldn’t win as much as we did. We had injuries (Drew, mainly, and Juan Gutierrez, Blum and Nady) and recovered from them because our management put together a good team. They had injuries and couldn’t. Their aging team just couldn’t perform the way it did last year. So I think we won it. We just surged up and took it.

Kishi: We won it. No question in my mind. I don’t want to hear any whining from Giants or Rockies fans about how their team gave it away, because the Diamondbacks have not had this win handed to them. Yes, other teams might have struggled, but every team struggles from time to time. The Diamondbacks have fought to be here, they have earned this title, and they deserve to celebrate.

Jim: A bit of both. The Giants had injury problems, there’s no doubt about that, but so does every team [except the 2010 Giants, who appeared to be coated in adamantium]. However, their lack of depth was cruelly exposed with just about every DL trip, and while their pitching remained great, that only goes so far, when your offense scores two runs or less 43% of the time.

The Rockies were the real surprise, folding like cheap motel sheets after Ubaldo struggled to start the year. While I suspected they weren’t quite as good as projected, I certainly didn’t see them fighting with the Padres for last. Admittedly, the D-backs showed how it’s possible to turn things around very quickly, but Colorado are about three credible pitchers short of a rotation at this point, and have a number of question-marks on offense. We may not see them contend for a couple of seasons.

But that isn’t to take anything away from the D-backs. This wasn’t expected to be a window of opportunity for Arizona, but they deserve full credit for levering it open and climbing through, when given the chance. I wasn’t here for the 1999 turnaround, where the team improved by even more games, but that was accompanied by a far higher bump in payroll.

ZM: Almost without exception, you have to be a pretty decent team to win at least 90 games (the ‘07 club is the exception that proves the rule).  Fun fact: if the D-Backs go just 2-4, they’ll finish with as many wins as the Giants did last year, and I think it’s fair to say that that was a pretty good team.  Sure, the Diamondbacks owe a lot of their success to their play within the division, which would have suffered had the NL West been better, but let’s not pretend that this team didn’t earn this.

Shoe: Although NL West competition was weak this year, Arizona still won it. 13-5 vs. Colorado, 9-6 vs LA, 11-7 vs SD. Although 6-9 vs the Giants, MUCH better results over the second half.

CaptainCanuck: Nah, I think we we would have won it even if Colorado hadn't tanked, or if the Giants decided to stop playing baseball in August. It'd be a lot closer though if Ubaldo Jimenez hadn't pitched below standards, or if the Giants had been luckier with health. But in the grand scheme of things, you can't just expect everything to go right for them, either.

What does the team need to do in the post-season?

snakecharmer: Pitch as well as they have of late - 6-7 innings, 2-3 runs from the starters, clean innings from the bullpen - and trust their offense to step up. Kennedy shouldn’t have to feel the pressure to throw a CG SHO just to win a postseason game, as he nearly had to for his 20th. I think if the starters can keep the game close, the offense needs to be able to win it.

Kishi: Keep the pitching solid and warm up the bats. We’ve seen good work on the mound from pretty much everyone, and that will be key to any chance we have to win. We’ll also need to see our offense step up and do what they’ve done so many times this year- we may not need a lot of hits, but just get us hits at the right time.

Jim: Play solid baseball. Errors, be they defensive or base-running ones, can be costly, so the team really needs to avoid those. Getting good starts from Hudson and Kennedy is almost essential. At the plate, as Upton goes, so goes the offense - we’re only 25-24 when Upton is held hitless. He’s the engine that drives our run-scoring machine, and if that sputters, it’s likely the team will.

ZM: My "Player to Watch" for the playoffs is Daniel Hudson.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kennedy is the safest bet in baseball to keep his team competitive right now, but Hudson has had some starts this year where the game has gotten away from him early, and that can’t happen to a team’s number-two starter in a short playoff series.  

Shoe: Stick with what got them here, obviously. Pitch well, play good defense, keep games close and never quit.

CaptainCanuck: Just... Play well. Run into some luck too, I must admit. Going deep in the post season is tough for any team, especially when your team isn't as great on paper as the others.

How far will the D-backs go in the playoffs?

Dan Strittmatter: I think Arizona has a legitimate chance to win their first-round series, as the 1-2 punch of Kennedy and Hudson can compete with any of Milwaukee, Atlanta, or even San Francisco IMO.  Philadelphia will obviously be difficult to topple, but the good news for Arizona is that Philly is very lefty-heavy in the rotation.  For most clubs, the big power bats come from the left side, a natural result of the primary power position - first base - being better suited defensively for left-handed throwers.

For Arizona, the only big power bat that hits from the left side in the lineup is Miguel Montero, who has shown the capability to go the other way with the ball and fend off a decent lefty.  Our lineup against Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels can go Roberts, Hill, Upton, Goldschmidt, Young, Montero, Parra, McDonald, Pitcher, setting us up to have a 1-5 capable of teeing off against the Phillies’ two phenomenal southpaws.  Things will get rough against Halladay, but who doesn’t have a hard time hitting the best pitcher in baseball?

snakecharmer: I am nervous, very nervous. Atlanta is scuffling right now, it may even be the Cardinals, but we haven’t yet caught the Brewers. We lost 5 of 6 to Philly and Atlanta on the road, and we got lucky in beating Halladay in the 9th inning. It’s hard to see us being able to beat Philly in the first round. I would be so, so proud of this team if they could get to the NLCS, but I’m just as proud with them getting to the NLDS.

Kishi: Man, I’ll just be happy to be there. I think we have an outside shot at surprising someone with a first round win, but I’d be glad just to see our boys on the field.

Jim: Really, anything is now gravy, and each win will be a bonus. That said, I don’t fear any of the play-off teams, as we went 9-9 against them this season. Admittedly, there’s a stark home/road split [6-2 at Chase, 3-7 elsewhere], but on its day, this team can stand up to anyone. No doubt, based on the regular season, the Phillies are the class, but as we’ve seen, regular-season record counts for nothing now, bar home-field advantage. Respect the other playoff teams, and fear none of them.

ZM: I’ve had a change of heart about the NLDS, and am now rooting as hard as I can for the D-Backs to face the Braves in the first round.  Obviously, anything can happen in a short series, but I think the Diamondbacks match up fairly well with the depleted Braves, and they would have home field.  I think the Diamondbacks face an uphill battle against either the Phillies or Brewers but, again, anything can happen.

Shoe: I'm not predicting that.  Philly is a great team, probably best in baseball. In addition to having an incredible rotation, they don't beat themselves. Fewest outs on the bases. Best at getting sac bunts down. Best Fielding percentage. They just don't make many mistakes. Beating them would be quite an accomplishment. So I hope we don't have to.  I hope AZ wins out, overtakes Milwaukee, and we face Atlanta in the first round.   Let Milwaukee go try to upset the Phillies.

CaptainCanuck: The realist in me says we'll get knocked out in the NLDS... That's if we face Philly in the first round though. But, even if the slightest of turns swings in our favor, we could pull it off. We can handle Atlanta, I think, but again, we'd also need some luck. It's tough to say how each individual series will turn out, but I can only hope for the best.

How do you rate our chances to repeat in 2012?

Dan: Our pitching depth on the farm is nice, but I worry that we’ll see regression from Kennedy and/or Hudson, and the lineup seems to have hit a simultaneous peak in 2011.  This year has looked like it’s as good as it can get for a reason: it might be.  I’m not going to count out this club by any means, because I think San Francisco will be even weaker in 2012 and Colorado’s pitching staff is still a huge question mark, but Arizona is going to have to see continued development from guys like Paul Goldschmidt and Gerardo Parra, while Stephen Drew needs to return in strong form at the plate, even if he has to move to second base defensively.

snakecharmer: Believe it or not, I’m more nervous about next year now than I was before the season. Everybody said we wouldn’t win this year but our farm system would develop and we’d win next year. There were no expectations. Now, there are even bigger expectations for next season, because our young guys are expected to be better. I don’t know who we’ll lose to free agency and what our budget is going to be like after arbitration, I haven’t thought that far ahead.  People always say, it’s harder to defend your title than fight for it. But defying expectations has been a common theme with the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks, and I feel good that they can keep it up for next season.

Jim: I’m optimistic. Upton, Parra, Goldschmidt are still young enough they should improve simply through age, and none of the other regular starters should be exactly over the hill. I tend to think the rotation, overall, should be stronger, with Parker, Bauer and Skaggs all potentially boosting things. There’s a couple of question-marks, e.g.second-base and short-stop [will this be Drew’s last year?], but the Dodgers look likely to be in disarray, and the Padres + Rockies seem to have too many holes to compete immediately. The Giants will likely be the main competition in 2012; whether or not they can get their offense running will determine their chances.

ZM: The additions of Bauer and/or Parker should make the pitching enough better to offset any regression from Kennedy, Collmenter or Saunders (if he’s still around).  As Jim mentioned, the offensive core is good enough and young enough to continue being a strength.  But it will be interesting to see how Towers addresses the team’s weaknesses is the offseason.  Right now, I think the Diamondbacks are the favorite going into next season, just because none of the other teams look good enough to make the leap, but I’m not counting anyone out.

Shoe: Pretty decent, depending on the offseason. The pitching should be good... although you never know with bullpens. If the team can spend some money and add another good hitting infielder, they'll have a better shot.  They DID just get a career year from Ryro, and who knows how long it will take Drew to fully recover.   KT has yet to prove he can work his magic with position players though. So he will need Goldschmidt to continue to develop and Upton to continue to emerge and grow into his role as perennial MVP candidate, and of course good health.

CaptainCanuck: Oh, I don't know. The off season hasn't even started yet. I think we'd still be conteders next year, with the payroll possibly rising after KT has been given the OK from ownership after the season we just had. I do expect the Giants to make a splash this off season though; surely they can't be content with an offense with an average age of 65. I can see Colorado and LA refueling too, given they both have a solid core of players. Even San Diego. I can see all five teams competing at some point this year. It should be fun, but there's some baseball left this year! I want to enjoy that first.

emily: I have nothing to add here, because I’m too busy dancing around my apartment and going WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! NO MORE LOGIC.