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The 2018 Diamondbacks: Peering into the abyss

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The off-day presents a chance to catch our breath. Is the descent over, or are we merely pausing to admire the view?

Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Erupts Forcing Evacuations Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

We’ve been getting our money’s worth out of Hawaiian volcano photographs of late. But it’s an entirely appropriate metaphor for the way the season has gone. At the beginning of the month, Arizona were standing on an island beach, taking selfies in which Mt. 500 was a mere bump on the horizon. But three weeks later, Mt. 500 has come to us, sneaking stealthily up from behind, to the point where the back of the Diamondbacks’ necks are feeling a bit toasty. What is all that ash stuff doing on our towels? And where has the team bus gone?

On May 1, Arizona has a record of 21-8, with a six-game lead in the National League West, to 25-24. That’s a 4-16 record, with the D-backs having lost thirteen of the last fourteen games, a streak not matched by the team since the dark days of 2004, BS [Before SnakePit]. Somehow, this worst streak in fourteen years has not buried the team entirely. They are still only one-half game back, because since May 1, no-one else in the West has gone better than the Rockies’ 10-9. Fortunate, indeed, that the D-backs’ implosion largely came after they finished playing within their division. They are 16-8 vs. the West this year, with a winning record against all four teams; they are 9-16 outside it.

The current situation is not tenable. We’re almost fifty games in, and we appear to have reached an inflection point in the season. For those of you who have forgotten their high-school calculus classes, that’s the point of a curve at which a change in the direction of the curve occurs. A downturn can become an upturn, for example. But it can equally well become an accelerated decline. Without knowing the formula of the curve, you cannot tell, based purely on where the curve has come from, what direction it will head in going forward. But here are the three main scenarios for the rest of the season.

The Diamondbacks return to form

During this 14-game streak, the hitting has been terrible, with a collective line, over almost five hundred plate appearances, of .174/.242/.267, for a .509 OPS. Since the mound was lowered after the 1968 season, precisely one player in the majors has had as many PAs as the D-backs over this time, with a lower OPS. Tim Johnson had a .502 OPS for the 1973 Brewers. Even allowing for the effects of the humidor, and the drop in offense across the league this year [NL OPS is down forty points on the 2017 figure], I cannot envisage a scenario where the team continues to hit at that level. In the D-backs era - indeed, since 1982 - the lowest team OPS for a season was the 2013 Marlins’ .627.

Overall this year, the D-backs have a .660 OPS, and simply returning to that level will be a significant improvement. The pitching has been doing its best to keep them in games, conceding four or fewer runs in the majority of those fourteen contests, which would generally be enough to give you a good chance to win. There are reinforcements for the pitching staff on the way, in the shape of Shelby Miller and Robbie Ray. Jake Lamb’s return has been welcome: small sample size, obviously, but he has a .924 OPS in the five games since he returned. More playing time for John Ryan Murphy, and getting a hopefully healthy Steven Souza back could help.

Of course, nothing would cure our offensive woes better than the resurrection of its engine-room over the past five years, Paul Goldschmidt. While we haven’t seen it show up in the results, he has been tattooing the ball of late. Over the last 14 days, his hard-hit rate has been 60.7%, second in the majors. But he has a batting average over that time of .154. For comparison, the only other guy above 60%, Matt Carpenter, has a batting average of .429. That’s some bad luck for Paul, As a hitter, you can’t really control what happens after you hit the balls, but if Goldy keeps clobbering them the way he has been, eventually they will start to find grass. That could, almost single-handedly, get the offense back on track

The Diamondbacks are what they are

As usual when two opposing extremes have been seen, truth is most likely to be found somewhere in the middle. The Diamondbacks are not as good a team as they seemed in April, going 20-8. Nor are they as bad a team as they seemed in May, going 5-16. Right now, their Pythagorean record, bases on runs scored and allowed, has them exactly at the 25-24 they have produced. Second-order wins, figuring out how many runs they “should” have scored and allowed, have them at 24-25. But third-order wins, also taking into account the strength of their opposition, have them at a best in the league winning percentage of .518. All told, their current record appears a decent reflection of their overall performance so far.

Normally, a projected record of 83 wins would not trouble the playoffs, but as mentioned already, the NL West is turning into the baseball equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, with shit blowing up everywhere you look. The division is currently led by the team with the worst offense in the major-leagues, just ahead of the 28th-ranked team. The reigning champion Dodgers have a full rotation on the DL (Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Julio Urias, who combined for almost two-thirds of their starts last year), and have lost their 2017 co-MVP for the year (Corey Seager). The Giants are hardly any better off, and the Padres are, as ever, in a rebuild year. It’s as open as I’ve seen it after 50 games.

While the current 14-game streak has been unpleasant, it has not caused the season irreperable damage. Even the pessimistic Fangraph odds still gives Arizona a 20.4% chance of making the playoffs, which is down only slightly on the 24.0% it was on Opening Day. It’s not what the team has done over the first 49 games which will determine their fate. It’s what the Arizona Diamondbacks do over the 113 yet to play that will decide this. While things could change, it doesn’t seem likely we’ll see a repeat of last year, with both wild-cards coming from the West. Per Fangraphs, no-one in the West is higher than ninth in the NL for their wild-card odds, so winning the division may be the only way out.

The Diamondbacks continue to suck

This is the Judgment Day scenario, where the team continues to be unable of scoring more than two or three runs per game. Goldy never gets his mojo back; Alex Avila changes his legal name to Alex Albatross; Patrick Corbin’s velocity remains down, diminishing his effectiveness; and Shelby Miller bangs his surgically-repaired elbow on the mound (don’t ask me how), during his return to the majors. The Diamondbacks’ plummet from grace continues, and by the middle of June, they’re ten games out in the West, and still falling. There will come a point at which the front-office draws a line under this season, and decides that 2019 on have become more important.

Hard to say when that might be, especially with the NL West currently resembling a party of overweight men approaching a revolving door. But it will probably be before the trade deadline, with the team figuring out whether they are going to be buyers or sellers. If hope has melted, and the team goes into sell-mode, pieces like A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin are going to be top of the “for sale” list, since they’ll be free agents at the end of the year anyway. But it’s possible the team may decide that 2019 isn’t looking good either, in which case Brad Boxberger, Chris Owings and Shelby Miller might be gone too. Then there’s the nuclear option: trading Paul Goldschmidt, though his current slump would be selling low.

If that all goes down... Well, you thought the first half was torture. Imagine that team shorn of its best players, with the remainder trying to find the enthusiasm to play out months of meaningless contests. The worst second-half in franchise history was, you’ll not be surprised to hear, in 2004, when the team went 20-53, a win percentage 74 points below what they had in the first half. More recently, a decade after that, the 2014 D-backs managed only 24 victories after the All-Star break. On the plus side, the Netflix queue of Diamondbacks’ fans would be able to get cleared out. But let’s hope that nightmare scenario is not the one which comes to pass.

Poll

What do you think will happen going forward?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    The Diamondbacks return to form
    (61 votes)
  • 40%
    The Diamondbacks are what they are
    (75 votes)
  • 25%
    The Diamondbacks continue to suck
    (47 votes)
183 votes total Vote Now