The 2007 Diamondbacks were one of the more memorable teams in franchise history for a number of reasons. First off were the new uniforms, which were a drastic change from the uniforms the team had previously worn throughout their history (like that would ever happen again.) It was also the first season in a long time without Franchise cornerstone and World Series hero Luis Gonzalez. Randy Johnson came back after a two-year exile in the Bronx, though he didn’t pitch much due to injury. Apparently, according to Baseball Reference, Augie Ojeda pitched in a game, so that’s neat.
The main story arc of the Diamondbacks that year was a team that unexpectedly won its division, rolled through the division round against a more highly-regarded opponent, but then ran into a brick wall in the LCS against some non home plate touching dinosaur lovers.
The secondary story is that team, which went 90-72 in the regular season, scored 712 runs during the entirety of the season, but allowed 732, for a run differential of -20. Teams that win the division and get to the LCS generally don’t do that. Also going into the year the team didn’t have obvious superstars or even stars beyond reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb (sob). So how did they put it all together? Blind dumbass luck? Well-timed fortune? Grit and the power of friendship?
First off, you have to figure out how a team can be 20 runs deficient (with a Pythag record of 79-83, closely mirroring their 2006 performance), but still win 90 games. If you thought about it logically without looking at any game results, you would probably come up with something to the tune of “They won games closely, but lost in blowouts.” There is truth to this. The Diamondbacks that year lost four games by double-digit runs. You might think four games isn’t a lot in a 162 game season, but if you turned those four games into one or two run losses, the run differential would have been positive. Conversely, the Diamondbacks only won a game by double-digit runs once, a 13-3 win against the Astros on May 25th.
The Game Results bar on the team’s Baseball Reference Page shows this, pictured below:
A lot longer stalagmites out there, but fortunately there were more stalactites.
Highlighting some individual players/player groupings might help explain why there were such funky margins within games.
- We’ll start with Brandon Webb. D-Backs fans remember this clearly, though he may have faded into ether of the rest of the Baseball world, Brandon Webb, from 2006-2008 was extremely good. In 2007 he lead the league in ERA+, and had an ERA proper of 3.01 with a FIP of 3.24. He had four complete games on his own (by comparison the 2016 Diamondbacks as a team had two.) This with pitching half of his games at Chase Field. Webb being on fire was good because....
- The rest of the starting pitching was.... well... they tried. The 2-3-4 starters were Livan Hernandez, Doug Davis, and Micah Owings finished the season with 4.93, 4.25, and 4.30 ERAs. The fifth starter was a rotating triumvirate of Edgar Gonzalez, Yusmerio Petit, and old injured Randy Johnson. To be fair, none of these guys were particularly bad, just not great, and not something befitting your usual contending team. If any of these guys had a lead late, that was good because....
- The back end of the bullpen was very good. That’s a strange thing to type for any 2009 onwards Diamondbacks fans, but in 2007 all of the bullpen stars aligned. Jose Valverde was always a roller coaster, but he racked up 47 saves that season and had an ERA+ of 179. Tony Pena, Brandon Lyon, Juan Cruz, and Doug Slaten all put up solid seasons. (Of course, their ERAs greatly outperformed metrics like FIP, which leads to non-2007 troubles, but let’s not focus on that.) The 2007 D-Backs, more often than not, could hold close leads late into games.
Position player wise, the Diamondbacks didn’t have an obvious Paul Goldschmidt type superstar. Orlando Hudson and Eric Byrnes were the offensive leaders, going by offensive bWAR, with a rookie Mark Reynolds, Micah Owings, and Conor Jackson rounding out the Top 5. Chris Young lead the team in Home Runs with 32, coming from the leadoff spot. Less impressive from the leadoff spot? a .237/.295 BA/OBP. The aughts were just weird, man.
It would also be prudent to note that Right Field was filled by numerous people. Carlos Quentin took up a majority of the starts there for most of the season, but he had yet to find whatever magic could only be found on the South Side of Chicago, and had a slash of .214/.298/.349. Jeff Salazar came in part way through the season and had a respectable line of .277/.340/.394, but that was only in 38 games. For some reason, due to a decade of time passing and a personal anecdote I’ll tell in a second, I thought Scott Hairston had been part of the RF shuffle, but nope, he was mostly used to spell Eric Byrnes in LF, and then was traded away to San Diego for RP Leo Rosales. (That’s a rare trade where two teams in contention in the same division trade with each other.)
(The personal anecdote is this: I was in the same degree program as Scott Hairston’s younger sister in college around this time. I didn’t make the connection til the second semester we had classes together, and she told me. She also told me that she was a bit irked that Carlos Quentin might take his playing time in the upcoming season.)
Also, that season marked the probably premature callup of Justin Upton, who was literally 19 years old at that point. That was younger than I was, and I was a Sophomore in college back then. He hit .221/.283/.364 in limited late season action. As said, he probably would have been best served staying in the minors the entire year, but the organization got kinda crazy. His lasting memory of the season was probably that slide in Game 1 of the NLCS that was called for interference and lead to a miasma of garbage making its way to Chase Field’s playing surface. Thankfully nothing controversial about Justin Upton ever happened again with his tenure with the Diamondbacks.
So a decent if inconsistent lineup, a bonifide ace, a sort of meh rest of the rotation, and a really good bullpen is part of the formula for a team with a good record but a bad run differential. The Diamondbacks that year were a perfect storm that, in hindsight, didn’t really have a chance of repeating itself. The Front Office was emboldened and decided to really go for it in 2008, and if you think about it, why wouldn’t they? They decided to trade the farm for Dan Haren to shore up the rotation, they gave Eric Byrnes a new contract, they had good young bats in Jackson and Reynolds. The sky was the limit.
The “Sky”, it turned out, was more of the height of the crawlspace in an air duct, as we later found out. 2008 started out hot but ended disappointingly. Jackson got Valley Fever and was never the same. The bullpen pieces that were so good in 2007 were either traded away (Valverde to Houston, bringing back, among others, QUAAAAAAAAAAAAALS) or regressed (Pena, Slaten, Lyon.) And we all remember what happened to Brandon Webb (We all do, right? Please don’t make me type all that out again it’s still unpleasant.) Eric Byrnes turned into a light hitting and injured guy with a TV show.
But man, the 2007 Diamondbacks were fun, mostly due to their improbability. Thanks to that perfect storm, the Rockies still don’t have a division title. (Don’t ask about the playoffs.) Following a contending team after some dark years of falling apart and Grimsleys was an incredible rush. The NLDS against the Cubs was a beating, especially since the Cubs were more highly regarded. In fact, Lou Pinella famously said they were going to save Carlos Zambrano for a Game 5. How did that work out for them? Let’s ask Ted Lilly:
Hm, yeah. Not great for you guys. Oh well.
Any great rush leads to a letdown or a crash. The 2007 crash was intense, and it came in the form of the 2007 NLCS. The Rockies were hot, and the Diamondbacks just ran into that buzzsaw. That buzzsaw became dull around World Series time, so the Diamondbacks still have more Division Titles and wins in the World Series against AL East teams. Credits where it’s due, the Rockies put a whipping on the Diamondbacks that series.
I was in Denver during Game 3 of that series for a funeral. After that we went to a Bennigans by the airport. My family and I were sat nowhere near one of the many TVs near the bar, so occasionally I would peek in and see what was going on. It was a 1-1 game throughout until the 6th. I had walked in a batter before Yorvit Torrealba hit a game-breaking three-run homer to take the lead and all but assure a 3-0 deficit. While the surrounding patrons screamed and high-fived, my world was very silent.
It’s a very striking moment to be in. I don’t recommend it.
It being a decade since the 2007 Diamondbacks happened is weird, cause while to me it happened in my first glimmers of adulthood, and thus seems recent, it’s not a team I really thought about as much as other Diamondback teams, though I probably should have. In any case, they’re a fascinating example of a team that had only the slightest margins of error to be in contention, and somehow against all odds was within it.