And, exhale... A shutout defeat wasn’t quite the way the team perhaps wanted to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2017, but it makes no difference. The D-backs are going to taste post-season games, a mere two years after it took a walk-off home-run to dodge the worst record in baseball, and one of the worst all-time. Here are a few random thoughts on the subject, as the team gets ready to head off to <LOCATION UNCERTAIN AT TIME OF WRITING> for the wild-card series.
They shouldn’t even be here
Before the season, Fangraphs gave them barely a 15% shot of making the playoffs. But that seems excessively generous in comparison to some. Over on ESPN, of the 28 pundits who predicted the 2023 season, not one chose Arizona to move on. Yet here we are. This morning, Jack said the D-backs were “playing with house money.” I think that understates the situation. It’s more like they were just wandering past the casino, popped in to use the bathroom and found a hundred bucks on the floor. Even if they get blown out in two games, this year cannot be regarded as anything except a success, and one which has passed all reasonable expectations.
Everyone starts the post-season 0-0
Lots of comments on social media about the team “backing into the playoffs”, but it does not matter in the slightest. What happens, starting Tuesday, is ALL that matters. So what if in the final week, we could only win a series against a 100-loss team, then get beaten by the Astros? Because that’s exactly what the Phillies did last year, before making their way to the World Series. They went 7-13 down the stretch, with their sole series victory over the dire Nats, and dropped the final set against the Astros, before going 9-2 as they won the NL pennant. “Momentum” is a myth. Just ask the Reds, who crushed the Cardinals 19-2 on Friday, only to find themselves 10-0 down after the second inning on Saturday.
We probably should have seen this coming
Back in April, I wrote about how the standings tend to become relatively stable after a surprisingly small percentage of the season. This season has reinforced the results. A mere 30 games in, ten of the twelve teams who would eventually make the post-season were at least tied for a top six spot in their league. The exceptions were Houston and Philadelphia, replacing the Red Sox and Pirates respectively - and the Astros were just half a game back of sixth place. In that article on April 21st, I wrote “I’m bullish on the 2023 D-backs, though they have only 20 games in the books.” There were bumps thereafter, to be sure, but that .550 win percentage through 20, was only 31 points from the whole season figure.
Indeed, some of us DID see this coming
Fifteen SnakePitters weighed in before the season, with an average projection of 83 wins, which is a lot closer to the actual figure than the projection systems or Vegas line. In the attached poll, 25% of voters went for the 83-85 win range, which the team ended up occupying. But particular credit go to Dano and... well, actually myself - though, full disclosure, I did say “I don’t think the 2023 D-backs will quite be post-season caliber.” But we both nailed the final tally of wins with unerring precision, and leaned into the team’s youth movement. Here’s what we had to say back in March.
Dano: I believe the youth movement is actually starting to bear fruit, and we’re going to see the benefit of that this year. The young players who are coming up still have some maturing to do, but with the path mostly clear to them getting the majority of playing time, we will begin to experience the benefits of that.
Jim: The team has a lot of good, young talent which I expect to make a significant difference with a full season of play. The fact the bullpen has been almost entirely replaced after last year’s disaster is an indication of better to come. Even simply being league average will be a huge improvement, and likely worth a good handful of wins. I would have preferred to have gone full youth rather than resign Davies, but I think we’ll get there eventually.
Busting the spending myth
The Mets, Yankees and Padres between them this season had a payroll of $876,431,909 and will take part in zero playoff games between them. More playoff teams come from the bottom four in payroll this year than the top four. And it’s not just at the extremes. Exactly half the post-season qualifiers come from the lower half of MLB spenders: the Twins (#16), Brewers (#19), D-backs (#21), Marlins (#22), Rays (#27) and Orioles (#28). The price of wins increases: it’s more expensive to go from 85 to 95, than 75 to 85. So expanding playoffs is definitely a boon in getting lower-budget teams to the dance, because they need fewer wins. Contrast 2019, when Cleveland won 93 games and stayed home.
To me, it’s all about spending smarter and not harder. Big-ticket contracts very rarely work out better for the team than the player: you can’t realistically expect more than to break even over their duration. Now, you can reasonably argue the price of a World Series win. Patrick Corbin’s $140 million deal with the Nationals is a disaster, worth just 3.4 bWAR with one season to go. But he won Game Seven in the 2019 World Series for them, so... On the other hand, he had a 5.79 ERA that post-season. Arizona’s track record of big-budget deals has been terrible, and not just in the Mike Hazen era. That’s perhaps why I’m skeptical of demands for Ken Kendrick to open his wallet.
The resurrection of the D-backs bullpen
We’ve complained about our relief corps for a period in excess of half a decade. But they were nails down the stretch, when some predicted September collapse. Torey leaned on them hard in Sep/Oct, throwing a season-high total of innings. But after a disastrous July (6.04) and August (5.61), when they combined for 14 losses, they were among the best in baseball during the final month. Coming into the season finale, they were 6-1 with a 2.16 ERA. Now, I’m not going to be convinced unless that carries through into 2024. But when was the last time they had an ERA for a month as low? Only four times before, most recently at the start of 2018. If they’re to see playoff success, that needs to continue.
What happens in the wild-card series is purely gravy. At the very least, it’ll blood our young players into the post-season experience, so they will know what to expect going forward, and won’t be overawed in future. As a fan who has suffered through some terrible seasons in recent memory, I’m perfectly fine with whatever happens. I think I have already gone through the five stages of grief in the regular season, and have arrived at a near zen-like state of acceptance! I’ll be enjoying the games, regardless of the result, knowing that this is a pleasure denied to the majority of teams’ fans. Crack open a beverage of choice and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes us, and whenever it may stop.