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What the Arizona Diamondbacks must do to come back

Win three straight. What? You want more than that?

Divisional Round - Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Diamondbacks lost the first two games in Los Angeles, putting the team in a big hole as they return to the desert. The series will continue on Monday at Chase Field, but there is no more room for error. If Arizona don’t win there - as well as the following day, and again on Thursday back in Los Angeles - their season will be over. It’s not impossible - indeed, about one in eight teams that fall behind 2-0 do still prevail, which is more than I’d expect. But if that’s going to happen, the team is going to need to step up their game significantly, in a number of areas.

Cliff Corcoran looked at teams that fall behind 2-0 in best of five series, and what happened thereafter. “Of the 75 best-of-five series to start 2-0 prior to this year, 45 (60 percent) ended in sweeps, 15 more ended in four games, and six more went the distance only for the team with the early lead in the series to win anyway. Altogether, teams that have gone up 2-0 in a best-of-five series have won 66 of 75 series, or 88 percent.” He analyzes the remaining nine cases, the most recent of which was the 2015 American League Division Series, where the Toronto Blue Jays came back to defeat the Texas Rangers, despite losing the first two games at home.

So where does Arizona need to improve?

#1. Starting pitching

Back on September 18, I wrote, “I’m more or less convinced that this team will go exactly as far as their starting pitching will take them.” Unfortunately, this series has proven me correct, with first Taijuan Walker and then Robbie Ray failing to launch. Between them, they have thrown only 5.1 innings, and allowed eight earned runs, for an ERA of 13.50. That’s in stark contrast to their regular season performances, where the pair combined for a 3.18 ERA. They’ve walked more than a batter per post-season inning, with a WHIP of 2.625. Given the huge improvement out starting pitchers showed this year, largely responsible for getting us here, it’s a massive disappointment.

The main issue has been the Dodgers’ have not been swinging at the pitches we want, especially at the bottom of the strike-zone. After Game 1, Joseph Jacquez of Venom Strikes showed that, and concluded, “If the Dodgers continue to stay patient and wait for mistakes, the D-backs are in trouble because Ray relies on strikeouts and whiffs out of the zone.” And that happened again yesterday. Ray did get six strikes in his 4.1 innings - but also walked four, and threw a career-high three wild pitches. His swinging strike percentage last night was only 17.0%, well down on his regular season figure of 24.4%, a rate which trailed just Max Scherzer in the majors among qualified pitchers.

#2. Absence of clutch

There are two aspects to this. A failure to get hits with runners in scoring position is the obvious thing. The Diamondbacks have managed precisely one such hit so far in this series, that being Brandon Drury’s three-run homer in Game 2. All our other runs have also been driven in by the long-ball: the four solo homers in the opening contest, and Paul Goldschmidt’s shot with a man on first, in the first inning yesterday. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have had ten hits with RISP: they are batting .333 in those situations, while the Diamondbacks are hitting .125. Given that, it’s perhaps surprising we haven’t been outscored by more than 17-10.

But the above stats are partly driven by the massive superiority Los Angeles has had with regard to opportunities with runners in scoring position. Through two games, they have had no fewer than THIRTY such at-bats. Arizona? Eight. The overall OPS difference this series isn’t that much: the Dodgers are at .873, while the D-backs sit at .817. But that’s largely because of our six home-runs, compared to one for them. The Dodgers are hitting .333, more than a hundred points better than our .227. The gap is larger still when it comes to on-base percentage, where the figures are .415 and .301 respectively.

Some of this is, likely, luck. If it feels like the D-backs have been BABIP’d to death, with their opponents squirting balls through or blooping them over the infield, while ours have relentlessly been finding gloves... that’s because they have been. The Los Angeles BABIP in the first two games is ridiculous: something around .460, more than twice that of Arizona (.209). That’s largely why the Dodgers, collectively, have hit 84 points better than their regular season figure, while the Diamondbacks are 27 points worse. There is likely not much we can do about this. Grind it out: we can ill-afford to give away even a single at-bat, given the zero leeway for defeat remaining.

3. Solid bullpen work

Hardly less underwhelming than the starting pitching has been the bullpen work. Previously reliable arms have melted down in almost every opportunity, it seems. Overall, the Diamondbacks bullpen has allowed seven earned runs over their 10.2 innings of work: a 5.91 ERA, more than two runs worse than the 3.78 figure posted by our relief corps during the regular season. Jimmie Sherfy, who was literally untouchable in the regular season, starting his major-league career with eleven consecutive scoreless appearances, has been particularly roughed-up, having more earned runs allowed (four) than he has batters retired (three).

Is it overwork? Throw in the wild-card game, and that’s 16 innings of work by the bullpen in four days, which is a lot. However, it’s worth noting that almost half of that (7.1 innings) was pitched by temporary relievers/converted starters Ray and Zack Godley, and there were additional arms down there, particularly for the wild-card game. If we look at pitches thrown in the post-season - given there were two full days off before the wild-card game, you’d expect everyone to have a full tank of gas going into the playoffs - it’s hard to conclude they have been pitched into the ground.

Post-season reliever usage

Player Wild-card OFF NLDS #1 NLDS #2
Player Wild-card OFF NLDS #1 NLDS #2
Bradley 25 40
Chafin 7 4
De La Rosa 2 36
Godley 100
Hernandez 12
Ray 34
Rodney 23
Sherfy 13 10


Come Monday, we likely need two of the above - and, ideally, all three - to break in the Diamondbacks’ direction for the series to be extended. Greinke was great through three innings against the Rockies, before falling apart in the fourth, though he didn’t allow that many hard-hit balls. Manager Torey Lovullo certainly seems to be behind our Opening Day starter, saying after last night’s game:

We have our guy, Zack Greinke, going. He's been that guy for us all year long. We've built around him. He set the pace for the entire pitching staff all year long. I know he loves challenges like this. Nobody prepares better. Nobody is going to work to make sure that on that day when he takes the mound that he's going to be comfortable, confident and ready. So if you've got to pick one guy to stop this situation that we're in, I think we've found the right guy.

We will see tomorrow how right Lovullo, and indeed, Greinke, are.