As we went into the All-Star break on July 9, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies were all set to make the playoffs. The D-backs were a game up in the NL West. The Mariners had a comfortable 61⁄2 game lead over the Indians for an American League wild-card spot. And the Phillies led the NL East by a click or two from the Braves. But when the teams returned, it was as if all three had been replaced by cheap Chinese counterfeits. Going into play yesterday, Arizona’s 30-37 second-half record was the BEST of the trio, ahead of Seattle (29-37) and Philadelphia (29-41).
As late as the start of August, all three teams were still odds on to reach the post-season: according to Fangraphs, on August 1, Seattle and Arizona were both at 53.3%, with Philadelphia at 56.9%. But all three will be staying home after the weekend. How did things go so horribly wrong? Why did all three teams implode in the second half? Let’s look at the anatomy of their slumps.
- High playoff %: 69.3%, May 1
- High record: 15 above .500, Aug 22
- High lead: 6 games, May 1
- Last lead: September 1
- 0.0% date: September 22
When you have four winning months, you’re generally in good shape. But not when the two losing months both have a W% below .300. For Arizona were great, then they were terrible, then great again, and finally, REALLY bad. The team went from leading the division to elimination in three weeks of horrible baseball, which was the worst collapse in franchise history, and still has a shot at being the worst September ever as well. In hindsight, April’s performance probably set expectations far too high, even after May’s “correction”. Still, despite early grounds for concern, no-one could have predicted the utter collapse of the bullpen, or the entire offense bar Paul Goldschmidt forgetting how to score.
The team was basically destroyed by its inability to win the close contests, losing nine consecutive one-run decisions prior to Tuesday’s walk-off versus Los Angeles. That’s partly on a bullpen who set a franchise record for second-half losses, and partly on an offense batting .212 over more than a thousand at-bats since August 24. It didn’t help that they were handed a Sepocalypse schedule, with twenty consecutive games against opponents in or fighting for the division lead. However, the Diamondbacks flunked that test miserably, barely managing a handful of victories, and up until Wednesday’s finale against the Dodgers, had yet to post consecutive wins in September.
Our own Charlie Gebow had some thoughts to drop about this particular collapse.
Context is everything. Say the Diamondbacks finish 83-79, assuming a series win against the Padres. That’s a middling season, but if the Diamondbacks had looked middling throughout, you’d expect that, and maybe even be happy at the mild achievement of finishing over .500, and that it’s something to build on for the future.
Of course, this didn’t happen. Hope can be your best friend or your worst enemy, and it doesn’t quite decide which it is til a certain moment of reckoning. There’s a few places in the Diamondbacks season you can point to, but Matt Kemp facing Archie Bradley again in LA is when that hope turned from a vague something to reach for into the nightmarish visage of Klaus Kinski, laughing at you. Hope is cruel, it feels warm, then pulls the rug from under you.
You keep going back to it, because the one time it doesn’t feels like the gentlest breeze of a day. But it rarely happens. Life is pain. Eat at Arby’s.
- High playoff %: 88.3%, July 5
- High record: 24 above .500, July 5
- High lead: 2 games, June 5
- Last lead: June 13
- 0.0% date: September 21
There’s a case to be made that the Mariners’ collapse was worse than the D-backs. They had a higher playoff percentage at their peak, and a far better record too. On pace for 97 wins at the break, Seattle was apparently set fair to end their streak of playoff misses at 16 consecutive seasons, even in a strong American League West. And that’s part of the problem here. Their current 86-71 record is by no means bad, with Seattle still projected for their highest win total since 2003. In the National League wild-card race, it would have them a half-game back, instead of dead in the American League water. There’s an outside chance they may win more than the AL Central champion Indians, yet miss the playoffs.
So, a good team in a bad situation? Kinda. By fWAR, they’re eighth in the AL for hitting/defense and sixth for pitching, which fits their current overall ranking. But the American League is just incredibly top-heavy this year. The wild-card game there will be played between two teams whose win totals will be enough to take ANY league on the National side. While much of the Mariners’ staff will be back again in 2019, there’s not much reason to expect things to be different: 90 wins might not get you in the conversation next year either.
I asked our siblings at Lookout Landing for how things seemed from their perspective and received what follows from staff writer Isabelle Minasian. They’re clearly as deep into Werner Herzog as we are.
You asked for an inside view, Jim, but I don’t think you truly want an inside view. Inside it’s dark, the walls ooze an unidentifiable pus, and it smells like the old shoes of your loved ones - you love them, so you try to ignore it, but that just gives the stench more time to burrow into your nostrils. Each step you take squelches as though you’ve stepped in dog poop; there’s no poop to be found, but each time your foot squelches you’re filled with that just-stepped-in-dog-poop panicked dread. The air feels like Broad Street at noon, in the middle of July.
You spot a light off to your right, and hurry towards it!
Squelch, squelch, squelch.
The light gets closer, larger, and…
It’s Orbit. But with three rows of fangs, fearsome claws, and five extra arms. Its charming antennae are miniature Orbit heads, each with their own three rows of fangs. You turn and run back into the darkness.
Squelch, squelch, squelch.
- High playoff %: 70.0%, August 5
- High record: 15 above .500, Aug 7
- High lead: 21⁄2 games, July 28
- Last lead: August 12
- 0.0% date: September 22
Like the D-backs, the Phillies have been destroyed by September, going 6-17. But the issues started earlier: since their final day in sole possession of first (August 11), they are an NL worst 13-28. However, the situation is rather different in the city of bells ‘n’ cheesesteaks. Philadelphia wasn’t even supposed to contend this year, continuing a rebuild after their fifth consecutive losing season, along the lines of the Cubs and Astros. Younger, cheaper and, initially, suckier, biding their time before making a big splash in the upcoming winter, with the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both linked to Philadelphia. But much like the Braves, the fruits - at least, initially - appeared to have ripened earlier than anticipated.
It doesn’t help that the Phillies are almost certain to have the worst team in the history of the Defensive Runs Saved metric. That defense has handcuffed the hitting to such an extent, they trail the D-backs in overall offensive fWAR. This is not good. The pitching has been their engine room instead. While off-season acquisition Jake Arrieta has been underwhelming, Aaron Nola has been great, and the rotation highly resilient - only ten starts have been needed from outside the front five starters, mostly due to Zach Eflin’s late arrival. They may struggle to finish over .500, yet presuming the purse strings get loosened this winter, the first half of this season might well be a trailer for what’s to come in 2019.
The Good Phight were also asked for their take. No response was received, which after the mauling received at the hand of the Rockies (outscored 34-4 this series, going into today’s finale) is probably understandable.
Who had the worst slump of 2018?
This poll is closed
Of course, there may still be worse slumps to come. While probably not likely, if the Dodgers were to miss out on the post-season entirely, that would dwarf all of the above. Their playoff odds peaked at 98.2% on September 19. Even simply not winning the division would qualify, with Fangraphs giving LA a 96.1% of that on the same day. In the NL Central, the Cubs are also possible contenders: while they have secured a playoff spot, their lead is a flimsy one-half game, when just nine days ago, they had a 95.1% chance of the title. Here’s to an update being required to this article, for one or both of those teams, after the close of play on Sunday afternoon.