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Do the Diamondbacks have a shot at the playoffs?

Regardless of the answer, it’s a question I didn’t even think I’d be asking in 2022.

MLB: OCT 02 NL Wild Card Game - Rockies at Diamondbacks - Workout Photo by Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before we go any further, let me get the obvious out of the way.

With that said... After last night’s win over the Royals, the Diamondbacks have a record of 23-22, and sit just one and a half game behind the Giants for the last wild-card spot in the National League. It’s a remarkable turnaround, considering that in 2021, the team did not achieve their 23rd victory until the second-half of the schedule, on July 1, “improving” their record to 23-60. Put another way, Arizona would need to lose their next thirty-eight games in a row to match their record from last season. And no, that is not a challenge. It’s especially impressive, considering most of their games thus far have been against teams who currently possess winning records.

Right now, the team are on pace for 83 wins. Even among fans, who can be expected to be more hopeful than most, that’s far above pre-season expectations. In our poll then, only 7% of respondents expected the team to reach 83+ wins. That’s understandable. Since the D-backs entered the game, only three times has an NL team improved even by twenty-five games, over a previous full season. Weirdly, all three belong to Arizona: 1999 (35 games better), 2005 (26 games) and 2011 (29 games). Going further back, the only sides since 1962 to improve by 30+ are the 1999 D-backs and the 1993 Giants, who went from 72 to 103 wins. So, if sustained, this 31-game improvement would be once in a generation stuff.

Now, caution is wise, considering we saw just last year how quickly things could go to hell in a handbasket. The 2021 D-backs started off 15-13, before the worst major-league run in more than a century, losing forty of their next forty-five games. [The last team to go 5-40 or worse over that span were the 1916 Athletics, who went 3-42 from June through August] That’s the kind of run which causes something approaching PTSD in a fan-base. It leaves them less able to appreciate any good performances, because of a fear the team will fall off a cliff again. Kick a dog hard enough, and you can’t be surprised if it’s a bit skeptical when you offer it a treat.

A major factor has been the team’s regression to the mean in terms of their one-run record. In 2021, the D-backs were historically bad, going 10-31, and to this point in the season, they had just a single one-run victory. They already have nine, so Arizona’s next such will match their tally of wins for all of last year. The team hasn’t been great, going 9-7 there; however, that’s at least in the same ballpark (hohoho) as their overall mark. On the other hand, they are still on thin ice with regard to their run differential. They have been outscored by 16 runs, which equates to a Pythagorean projected record of 21-24, two games worse than the Diamondbacks’ actual mark.

I think I’ll be significantly happier if we can get through the upcoming series against the Dodgers, and still be above .500 i.e. splitting the four games or (hey, we can dream!) better. That will mean 11 of the 19 against LA are in the books before Arizona has played fifty games. However, we still have 15 to play against the Padres, and haven’t even seen the Giants yet - remarkably, we won’t until July. Though this year’s San Francisco team seems a shadow of last year’s. It’s not impossible they could suffer the biggest plummet by a 100+ win team in the National League, since 2012, when the Phillies crashed back from 102 wins the previous year to finish an even .500.

After the Dodgers, the calendar does seem to lighten up for the D-backs. Their next 16 games are all against outfits who are currently below .500, including six versus the woeful Reds. That does include the reigning World Series champion Braves, but much like the Giants, they have struggled to recapture their form from last season, possessing a record of 20-23, in line with their runs scored and allowed. Hopefully, the Diamondbacks can take advantage of this schedule, and push further above .500, and perhaps even into a wild-card place. It’ll be interesting to see what this unexpected competence does to fan confidence when that gets polled next week.

I still have concerns, not least the bullpen. Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy lead the team in losses, with eight combined. While Melancon’s FIP is a lot better than his ERA (4.10 vs. 7.04), he’s not missing bats, with only eight strikeouts of the 73 batters he has faced - basically half his career rate. Kennedy’s WHIP is 1.552, leading to a FIP for him of 4.99. It feels like something is going to give. It may simply be their arms. Torey Lovullo has leaned perilously heavy on Kennedy, Joe Mantiply and Noe Ramirez so far. They are the only relievers in the NL with over 20 appearances going into play today. Getting some more, reliable arms would be very helpful: maybe Luis Frias can, and getting Kyle Nelson back could help.

It has been nice to see the offense pick up the slack, especially as pitching (most notably, though not exclusively, the rotation) has regressed. Their OPS in May has been 180 points better than April. Overall, an OPS+ of 95 still offers room for improvement, though it is eight points better than the 2021 season figure. The blossoming of Daulton Varsho, even after being forced into the catcher’s role, has been key, to the point that David Peralta’s 124 OPS+ may make him worth keeping for the second-half, if the team stays in the hunt. [It’s not as three months of the Freight Train would get much in the way of needle-moving prospects] Dare I say, perhaps buyers rather than sellers at the deadline? Who’d have thought it!

After two years where my interest in the game had faded to a low ebb, I’ll confess to paying some attention to the D-backs again. Certainly not watching every game, as yet, but at least checking the score on my phone - and that’s a damn sight better than I was doing over the latter two-thirds of 2021. Will it sustain? Only time will tell. However, there’s now little doubt the team seems likely to surpass most expectations, and that alone is encouraging. It’s still an outside shot: Fangraphs gives us only a 2.3% chance of making the playoffs. But then, they also say the Reds will win more games than the D-backs the rest of the way (56 to 51). So what the hell do they know? :)