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The Bard's Take: Contention or Illusion?

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Less than a week ago, the Diamondbacks possessed a .500 record and were in second place in the NL West, only 4.5 games back. Are they really in contention? Or is it an illusion of the schedule?

It is that time of the season where speculation mounts as to whether or not a team should sell itself on the idea that it is in contention for the playoffs, that decision paving the way for further decisions to be made at the non-waiver trade deadline, which is coming up in 16 days. This year, the Diamondbacks have surprised a great many people. On July 10, they started the day with a .500 record and were tied for second place in the NL West with the San Francisco Giants. With a 49-39 record, the Dodgers were only 4.5 games in front of the division. At first blush, that would certainly seem to be a team that is in the very thick of contention.

Maybe it is those consecutive years under Kevin Towers where the team finished .500 but nowhere near the playoffs, despite front office notions to the contrary. Or maybe it is how hard the Diamondbacks had to struggle in order to reach that .500 mark before heading to New York to take on the Mets. Sadly, it is probably a mixture of those experiences and more, that add up to the Diamondbacks looking far less like a potential playoff team than the initial record showed.

So, what do the Diamondbacks have to do in order to make the playoffs this season? First let's look at where things stand now. When games resume play around the league tomorrow, the Diamondbacks will be in third place in the NL West 7.5 games out of first, behind the Dodgers and the Giants. As for getting to a 1-game play-in as the second wild card, the Diamondbacks will be five games out, behind the Giants, Mets, and Cubs. Despite the margin being larger in the race for the division, winning the division is likely to be the easier course. In either case the Diamondbacks need to unseat the Giants. In order to win the second Wild Card though, they also need to pass both the Mets and the Cubs. Arizona has already completed its season series against the Mets, and has only three games left against the Cubs who already hold a five game margin. This means that, not only do the Diamondbacks need to win those games, but they are going to need plenty of help from the rest of the league. In order to win the the NL West, much more of their fate remains in their own hands.

What does that fate look like though? Here's a snapshot of what the rest of the season has in store for the Diamondbacks.

Diamondbacks

Dodgers

Giants

fWAR Bat/Pit/Overall (rank)

8.8/4.9/13.6 (9)

12.6/9.0/21.6 (1)

10.7/5.6/16.3 (6)

ERA/FIP/xFIP (ordinal)

13/13/11

4/3/1

8/9/9

Runs Scored (rank)

392 (1)

376 (4)

377 (3)

OBP (rank)

.323 (3)

.328 (2)

.329 (1)

wRC+ (rank) lg. avg. 94

95 (5)

109 (2)

113 (1)

OPS+ (rank) lg. avg. 94

97 (4)

108 (2)

110 (1)



By themselves, these numbers tell us very little. When placed in bigger context, they do not paint a pretty picture for Arizona. For all the credit the NL West used to receive as a pitcher-heavy division, it has now become something of the offensive juggernaut of the NL. With a 94 league average OPS+ and wRC+, the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Dodgers are all over the mark. What is more, the Giants and Dodgers are the only two NL teams to eclipse the 100 mark. The Diamondbacks have scored the most runs in baseball. However, the margin they hold over both the Giants and the Dodgers is not a terribly large one. The three teams rank first, second, and third in OBP, matching their place in the standings, but the Dodgers and Giants are both slugging better than the Diamondbacks.

Meanwhile, as anyone following the Diamondbacks knows, Arizona's pitching has been awful. Ranking no higher than 11th in the NL in any of the triple-slash categories, they are a far cry from the Dodgers, who are at or near the top, despite a struggling Kershaw and no solidified rotation in the 3-5 slots. Thus, while the Diamondbacks have a marginally more prolific offense, it is not a more reliably potent one. On the flip-side, Arizona's pitching is not in a position to keep up with the Dodgers or the Giants.

Looking at records and expected outcomes, things only get more depressing for Arizona. Of all the teams in baseball, the Dodgers currently hold the highest percentage chance of winning the World Series. If not for their struggles against the Giants (which cannot just be hand-waved away), the Dodgers would be running away with the NL West. Already 4.5 games up on the Giants despite their struggles against San Francisco, a pedestrian .500 record against the Bay area rivals would give them the second-best record in baseball and a nearly insurmountable 7.5 game lead. One thing to note about the Dodgers' struggle against the Giants, as well as their success against Arizona, is the number of times that Kershaw and Greinke have toed the mound. The Giants have seen Kershaw a total of three times, twice having Madison Bumgarner beat him in a stellar pitching duel. Greinke though, has faced them only once this season. In fact, Greinke has faced the Miami Marlins twice, or the same number of times he has faced the Giants and Diamondbacks combined.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that the Dodgers have found substantial success within the NL West without the aid of their two ace pitchers getting much of an opportunity to contribute. With the Diamondbacks having seen the two aces from Los Angeles once each, Arizona is still a woeful 3-9 against the Dodgers. The Dodgers have only 19 games remaining this season against teams with a better record than they own. So far this season, the Dodgers are 5-9 against those teams. That should give the Diamondbacks some hope. But then, the Dodgers have 25 games left against the NL West, where they are currently 29-20 and hold a .722 winning percentage against teams not from San Francisco. Of those remaining games, 13 will come against the Giants and Diamondbacks.

To close out the season, the Diamondbacks have 29 games left against teams ahead of them in the standings, against which they currently hold a .366 winning percentage. The only team against which they have a winning record is the Giants. The Diamondbacks also get to play six games against the Houston Astros, including a three-game set to finish the season.

The Take: While it seems quite possible, though somewhat unlikely, that the Diamondbacks could indeed catch the San Francisco Giants in the NL West, any thoughts of trying to catch the Dodgers would seem more like wishful thinking than anything else. No, I do not think this team should just throw in the towel on the season. However, the Diamondbacks should be looking at the reality of their situation over the next 16 days and planning accordingly. A .500 record, in second place, only 4.5 games out of the NL West lead really did look good on paper, but the Diamondbacks were much further out of it than would lead the casual observer to notice. Adding a spectacular arm to the rotation is not going to fix it enough to make up for the difference between Arizona and Los Angeles in the pitching department - not this season. Rather than trying to make one last push to overcome exceptionally steep odds and a truly unfavourable schedule, the Diamondbacks should continue to simply hold the course. Spend the rest of the season getting Corbin healthy rather than relying on him to carry the weight of the pitching staff. Do not make deals for short-term pitching improvements that cost the team any more of its farm system. Promote the likes of Blair and Drury and get them some real playing time at the highest level so that they are ready and beyond the jitters stage to open next season. Find out what Oscar Hernandez has to offer, rather than giving ABs and pitching reps to the likes of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has no future with the franchise.