In the upcoming short season, the Diamondbacks are currently projected to be at or slightly above .500. PECOTA has them at 29.6 wins; ZIPS sees them going 31-29. Over the course of a 162-game season, an even record is going to leave you a significant way short of the playoffs, with the line typically drawn around 90 wins, nine or so higher. But in the 60-game spring we will see this year, the finish line may end up being considerably closer. Per ZIPS, the fifth-best record in the National League this year will come in at 32-28. The D-backs would just need to squeeze out just one additional win over expectation in those sixty games, to match that mark. How can they do that?
Random chance may simply be enough, with the odds improved due to the number of games being reduced to barely one-third of normal. If you are a “true” .500 team, there is a startling 35% chance of fluking your way to a 32-28 or better record over 60 games, Over a full season, there would be only a 19% chance of the same team lucking into an 86-win mark. Random weirdness is going to happen, with every game effectively “worth” 2.7 games on a normal schedule. Basically, each win or loss will almost be equivalent to a series sweep in a regular year. The opening four-game series against the Padres? If we can sweep that, it’ll be almost equivalent to an eleven-game winning streak to start the year.
Always important for a team’s success, even one with as much depth as the Dodgers. But the short schedule will magnify any absence. A minimum 15-day Injured List stint would be roughly equivalent to a 40-day one, with the player missing close to a quarter of the season. Additionally, there’s the COVID-19 elephant in the room, which has the potential to devastate any team. The importance of following the proper protocols, and maintaining a sanitary environment for a team’s players cannot be over-stressed. One momentary lapse could turn into an outbreak which completely derails the season of any team. It’s vital for the likes of David Peralta, Eduardo Escobar and Torey Lovullo to lead by example.
A breakout season
Just one. Even a huge, unexpected campaign would be hard pushed to improve a team from 81 to 90 wins. But with the Diamondbacks just one win our of a playoff spot, it becomes a lot easier for a single player to close the gap. This could be a veteran player returning to peak form. For example, remember when Jake Lamb was a three-win value? In 2016 he was worth 2.9 bWAR. Considering he was basically replacement value last year, if Lamb were to return to his form of four years ago, that would be there or thereabout the additional, unexpected win for which the D-backs are looking. Robbie Ray, worth 4.7 bWAR in 2017, compared to 1.4 bWAR in 2019, is another with plausible upside in his contract year.
Arizona’s youth movement may provide another source of such a player. Most of our top prospects are still likely to raw to contribute much this year. But Daulton Varsho is one possible candidate, along with sluggers Seth Beer and Kevin Cron (the sooner the team shop gets those Beer jerseys on the racks, the happier the Brute Squad will be!). It could even be a real dark horse. Anyone who watched Monday night’s contest must have been impressed with the way pitcher Levi Kelly carved up hitters: six up, six down, four of them by the strikeout. Of course, what could possibly go wrong with going off two innings in an intra-squad scrimmage? :)
Last season, the five NL playoff teams had an average record of 25-20, in games decided by a single run. Performing well in close contests is a good way to get your record bumped up above what it “should” be. The 2019 Diamondbacks did not perform too well in this area, going 24-26 - it didn’t help that they were the only team in the division to be below .500 there. Even the 71-win Rockies went 22-21 in one-run contests. It’s hard to say if winning these types of games is a “skill”; it tends to rely on clutch, both hitting and pitting. But having a bullpen who can be relied upon to keep games close, and hitters who can come through in those “late and close” situations, would be a big help for the 2020 D-backs.
Dodging the contrary
It’s not just going to be a case of good things happening. The Diamondbacks need to try and avoid bad things happening, just as much. Some of that will be out of their control, most obviously luck. There are always going to be games whose outcomes are decided by a weird play, a bad bounce, or a seagull dropping chicken tenders on the pitcher’s head. These will tend to balance out over 162 games. But as above, every game will be significantly more important, and a freak incident could end up being the difference between making the post-season and not.