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The Diamondbacks and fast starts: a cautionary tale

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Great though this first month have been, let’s remember, we’ve been here before. And it didn’t end well.

Celebrity Fight Night XVI - Inside Photo by Andrew Goodman/Getty Images for Celebrity Fight Night

The Diamondbacks’ 2018 season has been about as good as we could possibly have hoped. The team has played nine series and won every one of them, surging to the front of the pack in the NL West as a result. A win tomorrow night against the Dodgers at Chase, and they would match the best record through 28 games in franchise history. It’s a great start. But it’s only the beginning. It’s perhaps salutary to remember that they’ve been there before - and failed to make the playoffs. That took place a decade ago, when as reigning NL West champions, they roared out of the gate to a 20-8 mark. But the 2008 D-backs couldn’t sustain it, and they imploded down the stretch, finishing with just 82 wins.

Let’s review the that season, see what happened, and figured out if there’s a way we can avoid history repeating itself.

The prologue

The 2007 Diamondbacks had prevailed in a tight race for the division, winning 90 games to end the season one up on the Padres and Rockies. They swept the Cubs in the NLDS but were swept in turn by the Rockies. The off-season, they lost one starting pitcher, Livan Hernandez and the team’s clubhouse leader, Tony Clark to free agency, but were otherwise largely intact. The big moves by Arizona that winter both came on the same day: Dec 14. They traded six prospects, including Carlos Gonzalez, to Oakland for Dan Haren, and also closer Jose Valverde to the Astros for Chris Burke, J.C. Gutierrez and Chad Qualls. Brandon Lyon took over in place of Papa Grande.

The first month

After dropping two of three in Cincinnati against the Reds, the D-backs reeled off eight wins in a row, including sweeps of both the Rockies in Coors and the Dodgers at Chase Field. They wouldn’t lose another series the rest of the month, and finished the month at 20-8. They had outscored the opposition by 56 runs, giving them the best run differential in the majors. On offense, they had an NL leading .468 slugging percentage, led by a torried month from Conor Jackson, who hit .348/.430/.630. Justin Upton batted .327 and Mark Reynolds led the team with seven home-runs. They were also aggressive on the base-paths, stealing 14 bases in 16 attempts.

However, it was mostly the pitching that got them there, with a team ERA of 3.25 which was the best in the National League. Brandon Webb was impeccable going 6-0 over his six starts with a 1.98 ERA, and the newly-acquired Haren was hardly any worse, with a 3.13 ERA. Micah Owings proved up to the task as a #3, while also providing additional value with his bat: together, the trio combined for a record of 14-1 in 17 starts, which more than countered a shaky first month from Randy Johnson and Edgar Gonzalez. Chad Qualls threw 15.2 scoreless innings, and we saw the debut of some guy called Max Scherzer, tossing 4.1 perfect relief frames. Whatever happened to him?

What went wrong?

The division lead peaked at 6.5 games on April 28. That proved enough of a cushion to see the D-backs through losing months in May and June without ever dropping out of first, despite going 22-33. It was a very weird year in terms of the NL West, with no team apparently wanting to win it in the first half. By the All-Star break on July 13, the D-backs had dropped to below .500, with a record of 47-48... yet were still in first place! The team traded for Jon Rauch to strengthen the bullpen, and brought back the veteran presence of Tony Clark. They also acquired slugger Adam Dunn in a post-deadline deal, though his team-leading .889 OPS was largely countered by terrible defense.

The team rebounded to a winning July, and the ongoing struggles of their rivals helped maintain a significant lead. As late as August 29, Arizona were 4.5 games up, and despite a mediocre 69-65 record, seemed in the driver’s seat with just 28 left to play. Then September happened. The D-backs didn’t play that badly, but the Dodgers suddenly found their groove, finishing 19-8 down the stretch. Over his final seven starts, Webb had a 5.70 ERA, Haren a 4.19, and Owings ended up part of the trade for Dunn. The team needed to sweep the Rockies over the final series to secure a winning record: though they did, ending at 82-80, the post-season was already gone and they finished two games back.

Turambar perhaps summed it up best: “The D-backs season illustrated by the life of Private Hudson. Positive and cocky at first, only to spiral towards dark doom in the end.”

Lessons to learn

This wasn’t a team particularly impacted by injuries. They had eight position players appear in 100+ games, and four (Jackson, Reynolds, Stephen Drew and Chris Young) in more than 140. The five most regular members of the rotation combined for 141 starts too. In some ways, this was a better team than the 2007 one, their run differential improving by 34 runs. But it’s safe to say the 2007 team was nowhere near as good as it appeared in the standings. Outscored by 20 runs, their record was largely powered by 32 one-run wins, most in the majors. That figure dropped by ten in 2008, covering all the decline in Arizona’s overall W-L, and then some.

On that basis, standing more or less pat during the winter was probably a mistake by GM Josh Byrnes. Valverde and Hernandez were worth 3.6 bWAR in 2007; while Haren and Qualls were certainly worth more wins (7.9), it wasn’t close to being enough for Arizona to overcome the unrepeatability of a season where the team outperformed their Pythagorean record by 11 victories. The good news is, that’s not an issue with regard to the 2017-18 D-backs. Last year’s model actually underperformed Pythag by three games, which should help cushion the loss of J.D. Martinez - although getting a healthy Steven Souza back should be useful in that department too.

We certainly should not expect the 2018 team to crumble, and teams with such a good early record do go on to make the post-season more often than not. Early form is a very good indicator of general form. We saw this last year, when the five NL teams in playoff spots at the end of April, turned out to be the same five teams who eventually made the post-season. This team has the best record in the National League, and deservedly so, having posted the best run differential. It’s certainly much better than the alternative, of having to play catch-up.

But as today’s game showed, there will be challenges to come over the next five months. Both the team and the front-office will need to be up to facing them, if we’re to avoid this season being a re-run of 2008.