I'm so confused. Tuesday night, the Diamondbacks suffered their most demoralizing loss of the year, blowing a 6-1 lead in the last three innings, and falling 11.5 games back of the Dodgers. The fanbase was not happy, shall we say. Then, last night, the same two teams faced off.... Except, this time the Diamondbacks offense demolished Ted Lilly, reaching double digits in runs for the first time this year, and cruising to victory in a manner befitting a real contender. So... Is our season over? If it is, how should we treat the rest of the year? If it isn't, what changes need to be made to get us back in contention?
With an off-day, seems a good time for an open thread to discuss all this. After the jump, I'll put on my equivocating head, and try to argue both sides of the argument.
There's no denying it has been a very disappointing start to the season: 20-25 is not where the team wants to be, and if they don't start winning a lot more games, especially at home,. it will really become a season to forget. While winning the NL West would be extraordinarily difficult, the team currently sits only five out of the second-wild card spot, currently held by the Cincinnati Reds. With 117 games left, that's certainly a deficit which can still be overcome. Will it be easy? Of course not. But the wild-card teams in both leagues last year were a lot further back, much later in the season, and still prevailed - including the World Series champion Cardinals.
The big problem the team has had, is their performance in one-run games. After sweeping the Giants in a trio of these contests over the opening weekend, they have lost eleven of the past 12 in which they've been involved. That's an overall 4-11 record, in stark contract to last year, when they went 28-16. If you assume a 50/50 chance in each game, there's less than a 6% chance of a team going 4-11 or worse. Outside of those, the team has a much more respectable 16-14 record, likely a better measure of our true performance level. They'd quite possibly be above .500, except for their really bad luck in the crapshoot which are one-run games.
Now, they can't get those losses back, but it does suggest that, even if they play at the same mediocre level they have, this would probably be a .500 team going forward, based on their performance over the entire season to date, even as they've undeniably been playing poorly and been hampered by injuries to several key individuals. Obviously, significant improvement beyond that would still be needed. But the returns of Daniel Hudson and Stephen Drew should provide a boost, and you've got to believe that Justin Upton is a lot better than the 103 OPS+ he has produced for the Diamondbacks thus far.
That's what gives me hope - the amount of upside present at a significant number of positions on the D-backs roster, even though the hitters are still ranked fourth in National League fWAR. This ranking is due in significant part, to the team's defense, which remains among the best in the league. Pitching, and relief pitching in particular, have been more the problem for the team - and we know how volatile bullpen arms are. I can guarantee you, J.J. Putz will not have a BABIP of .372 over the whole season. not when league average is .296. He's still striking out better than a hitter per inning, with almost no walks - prior to Tuesday night, just one in 14 innings.
After 45 games last season, the D-backs did have a slightly better record, at 22-23, but went on to win the division by a comfortable eight-game margin. While, admittedly, they were a lot closer to first, they were 4.5 games back in the wild-card, a comparable deficit to what the 2012 version, with many of the same personnel, now faces there. That the 2011 Diamondbacks were able to turn things around is all the proof needed that the 2012 Diamondbacks can do the same thing. To quote one of the great motivational speakers in cinematic history:
Hey! What's all this laying around stuff? Why are you all still laying around here for? What? Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no! And it ain't over now. 'Cause when the goin' gets tough... The tough get goin'! Who's with me? Let's go!
I. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
-- Sir Isasc Newton
The above is one of the laws that holds the universe together: what it means is, a body that's moving will keep moving, and one that's not moving will stay still, until something causes that to change. It might be hit by something else, be affected by another body's gravity, that kind of thing. But it applies pretty well to baseball teams too. Baseball teams that are playing well, will tend to keep playing well, in the absence of injury or other "external forces." And baseball teams like Arizona, who have lost more games since the first week of play than any other team in the National League, will probably keep right on sucking, unless something changes.
Sure, there are exceptions, but examine the standings after Arizona's 45th game last year. Take a look at the teams with 20 or less wins. Baltimore, Minnesota, Chicago Cubs, San Diego, Houston. Many of them make the playoffs? Heck, any of them win more than 71 games? Nope. That's Newton's first law of baseball motion in action. 45 games is generally more than enough to get an idea of whether or not a team is any good. And the 2012 Diamondbacks haven't been good, particularly at home where they have lost six consecutive series. Even the 2004 team - the one which lost 111 times - never did that.
Both the hitting and pitching have been at fault particularly in Chase, where the team has been outscored 92-121, with a home ERA well over five (5.14). That's historically awful: no National League team has had that over an entire season since 2005, and league ERA that year was about half a run higher than currently. Their current ERA sits at 4.23, compared to 3.99 through the first 45 games last year. If that's going to work, you're going to have to make up the difference on offense, but Arizona isn't. After 45 games last year, they'd scored 201 runs; this year, only 188. So remember how badly we played early last year? We've been worse.
And, unlike 2011, the team is going in the wrong direction. Last year, a poor April was followed by a a 19-10 May. With six games left, Arizona would need to sweep both the Brewers and Giants, simply to reach .500 for the month. If there's a turnaround happening, I'm not seeing any real signs of it year: the team needs to be winning series, and winning them consistently, for that to happen. Instead, they have taken one of the eight sets in which they have taken part this month. Either the team needs a radical shake-up, or some miraculous win potion needs to be mixed into the locker-room punch.
Even if you concentrate purely on the wild-cards, it's not just a question of how far back you are, it's how much traffic there is between the team and it. The even worse suckiness of the Rockies and Padres has kept Arizona third in the NL West, but in the East or Central, the team's current record would only be good enough for fifth place. Overall, the are twelfth in the National League, so they need to overtake seven teams, almost half the entire league, in order to reach a wild-card spot. The odds are, even if Arizona makes a run, one of those seven franchises are also likely to do so.
Yes, there is still a chance, but a mid-market team like Arizona can not afford to hang on to pipe-dreams. They need to be pragmatic, and act accordingly. At this point, that now means looking at what pieces can be sold, to build a better team for future seasons, because the 2012 campaign is a lost cause.