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The Diamondbacks in 2004 vs 2021: How it all fell apart

Arizona Diamondbacks 2004 Team Photo Photo by San Diego Padres/MLB via Getty Images

Let’s start by plotting the “progress” of the two teams over the course of the whole season. The chart below shows their record, in terms of games above or below .500, over all 162 games of the season.

Those are quite similar charts. In particular, both teams started off in a way that did not suggest they would approach a 60-year high for futility in the National League. After 26 games, this year’s model were above .500, with a record of 14-12 at the end of April. The 2004 team were a couple of games worse off to that point, but still a respectable 12-14. The loss of Richie Sexson to a season-ending shoulder injury was clearly felt in 2004, but they actually sustained reasonable performance a bit further. May this year saw a 13-game losing streak, dropping the 2021 team’s record below that of 2004 on May 28. But late June saw the 2004 team slump too, losing 11 in a row.

The gap reached its season high after game 86. This year’s team dropped to 23-63 on Independence Day, while the 2004 D-backs won, improving to 31-55, eight games better than last season. But July proved a decent month this time, the D-backs going 11-12. Not so for the 2004 team, Arizona finishing the month 5-23, and the rosters reached the middle of August in a virtual tie. 2021 had a better month there, but a worse September, and it came down to the last series of the season. at Chase Field against the Padres (2004) and Rockies (2021). Both sides dropped the opener, but came back to take the final two games of the year, allowing the 2021 team to finish one game ahead.

Overall, you could make a case the 2004 performance was worse. Their total run differential was -274, compared to this year’s figure of “only” -214, which wasn’t even the worst in the majors for 2021. The Orioles may have ended with the same record at the D-backs, but they posted a differential of -297. [Over their 19-game losing streak alone, they were -110!] Back in Arizona, by Pythag, the 2004 Diamondbacks were expected to have won three more games, reaching 54. But the 2021 Diamondbacks were projected nine games better than reality, all the way up at 61 wins. That’s still not exactly respectable - but you can see it from there, if you have a good pair of binoculars.

Result splits

In some areas, the parallels are almost eerie when you break down the results in various categories. Both teams won six times in extra innings. Both teams lost exactly 31 one-run games. Both had a record of 30-56, when playing outside of the NL West. Both sides won only three times in nineteen attempts against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both of these dismal Diamondbacks outfits somehow managed to avoid a losing record versus the Cincinnati Reds. Admittedly, other areas don’t match up so well, and it’s likely meaningless. But it’s kinda fun to draw parallels, in the same way as those coincidences between the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy.

The 2004 team were better overall in those close contests. They were 15-31, a .326 winning percentage which is actually slightly in excess of their overall win rate (.315). The struggles this season in that area have been well-documented: 10-31, a .244 W% well below the season figure of .321. But the 2004 D-backs made up for it by being terrible in blowouts, with a mere eight wins all year by a margin of five or more runs - half as many as the 2021 team. The 2004 Diamondbacks managed just one blowout victory after June 17, over their final 96 contests. They had twenty-two blowout losses over the same period. That’ll do a number on your run differential.

2004 vs 2021 opponents

Opponent 2004 2021
Opponent 2004 2021
Colorado 6-13 9-10
Los Angeles 3-16 3-16
San Diego 7-12 8-11
San Francisco 5-14 2-17
NL West 21-55 22-54
NL Central 15-21 13-19
NL East 9-23 13-21
Interleague 6-12 4-16
vs. RHP 38-70 40-75
vs. LHP 13-41 12-35
vs. >= .500 30-70 22-63
vs < .500 21-41 30-47

The above chart breaks down records against their division opponents, the other two divisions in the National League, and the American League. I didn’t see much point in slicing the breakdown thinner than that. I’ll just mention in passing the 2004 D-backs taking two of three from the Blue Jays, despite being handily outscored, 20-12 over those contests. The two sides did have similar splits against right- and left-handed starters. But I do note the 2004 team had a lot more games against teams with winning records: exactly one hundred, fifteen more than they had to play this year.

Not all winning teams are equal though. While I’m obviously cherry-picking my line here, this year Arizona faced opponents who ended with 106+ wins a total of 38 times, compared to precisely zero times in 2004. That’s because no such team existed in 2004: the Dodgers won the division with a mere 93 wins, and the best in the majors were the Cardinals at 105 wins (and the Diamondbacks went 1-5 against them).

Finally, we can take a look at when the wins and losses took place. The numbers there diverge particularly dramatically at the end of six innings. Not when the Diamondbacks were ahead to that point: the 2004 team were 39-16 in those games, almost identical to the 2021 figure of 38-16. But the 2004 team were staggeringly bad at late comebacks. When trailing after six innings, there were 2-86. This year, Arizona were 7-79. The problem in 2021 was the games tied going into the seventh, where the D-backs were 7-15, largely a result of the bullpen hemorrhaging late runs (but we’ll get into that more in a future installment). In 2004, they actually had a winning record there, at 10-9.

Next time, we’ll look at pitching, and how the worst NL team in almost 60 years should have had the Cy Young winner.