Right now, the 2023 Diamondbacks have a record of 37-25. That would put them on pace for 97 wins, within striking distance of the franchise record mark of 100, set by the 1999 D-backs. Obviously, there are still 100 games to play, and matching that mark would require Arizona to go 63-37 the rest of the way. The peripheral metrics perhaps don’t quite suggest they have that in them. Arizona has outscored their opponents by 28 runs, which works out to a Pythag record (an expected W-L figure, based on runs scored and allowed) of 34-28, three games below their actual mark. Those wins aren’t going away, but to reach 100 wins, it’s likely the D-backs will need to score more runs, and/or concede fewer.
But looking at some of the metrics suggest this team certainly deserves to be ranked with the best D-backs’ rosters of all, in certain areas and based on their performance so far. On this unexpected off-day, I figured it would be nice to see where about they are potentially going to be ranked.
This is one area where the numbers do indeed suggest the 2023 team is the best Arizona has ever had. Right now, they’re averaging just over five runs per game, and if they keep that up, it will be 818 for the season. That doesn’t sound too impressive, considering those 1999 Diamondbacks scored 908 runs, more than half a run per game more. But the game was a very different one in 1999. The average in the NL that year was five per game - and that was with pitchers hitting. This season, even with all the rule changes to promote offense, the average is only 4.52, and the D-backs rank third in the league for runs per game. That’s still below the 1999 D-backs, whose 5.60 figure was top of the NL.
But we also have to remember that Chase Field is a different park from Bank One Ballpark. Not least because there’s now a humidor present, which was not the case in 1999. The multi-year batting factor from Baseball Reference was 101 that year; this season, it has dropped to 98. This also needs to be taken into account when comparing Diamondback hitting over the years. As a result, while the team’s OPS of .762 is only good enough for sixth place, when you adjust for the factors mentioned above, the OPS+ is 109, far and away the highest in franchise history. The 1999 team, which came in at an OPS+ of 101, is the only other above average. Fangraphs wRC+ figure is similar, this year leading at 105.
The problem with assessment comes away from the plate, when you try to factor in base-running and defense. Here, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs do not agree on how good the team has been. On the bags, Rbaser from B-R has Arizona already at +12; the highest mark ever was 2019’s +19, so they’re easily on pace to shatter that. But FG’s BsR metric is only at +6.9; a likely top five figure, but respectable rather than record-breaking. On defense, the gap is even wider. Rfield says Arizona is +16 runs so far; Def has the team below average, at -0.2. There, even Corbin Carroll is basically average, his good work in center negated by struggles in the corner. That all likely merits its own article though.
Putting all the elements together, we get a figure for WAR on the position player side. Or, rather, two figures, for bWAR and fWAR. I’ve pro-rated this season (and 2020) up to 162 games, obviously, and for all seasons have average the two numbers to get one which weighs both systems equally.
Doing this, the 2023 Diamondbacks do indeed come out top, ahead of the last time they won the division in 2011, and that 1999 juggernaut - also an NL West winner. What also stands out is an improvement in position player WAR which is currently projected to be close to twenty wins over the figure put up just two seasons ago.
Or “Now, the bad news...” :) Despite the heroic efforts of Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, you will be unsurprised to find that Arizona’s pitching staff this year overall, are not challenging for a spot at the head of the table. Both bWAR and fWAR agree that the top spot goes to the 2002 season, which is basically when we had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling at the peak of their prowess. That pair were worth about two-thirds of all WAR put up by Arizona that year, despite throwing little more than one-third of the innings (and that in a year where Byung-Hyun Kim was worth four bWAR, entirely out of the bullpen!). For example, by bWAR Randy and Curt produced 10.7 and 8.6 wins respectively, out of a total of 29.0.
Never mind Arizona, only three National League teams in the wild-card era, so that’s now getting on for the part thirty years, have produced more pitching bWAR than that. But I was also impressed how well the 2017 team ranks, coming in ahead of the World Series winning 2001 team. [However, the 2001 D-backs really weren’t all that. They only won 92 games in the regular season. Of the eight post-season teams that year, they ranked sixth by wins, and had 24 fewer victories than the Mariners. It’s what you do in October that really matters when it comes to becoming legendary] But I’ve done the same as on offense: pro-rated to 162 games, averaged bWAR and fWAR and ordered by the results.
Finally, to determine the best D-backs’ team of all time, we combine the two tables. For there have been times when we have had good pitching and bad hitting, or vice versa. This will give us a combined value for WAR (or projected WAR, in the case of this year’s model), that can be used as an objective measure of how “good” the Diamondbacks were in a certain season. So, without further ado...
|Year||Off. WAR||Pit. WAR||WAR|
|Year||Off. WAR||Pit. WAR||WAR|
Unsurprisingly, the teams that made the postseason - or are leading the division at the time of writing - turn out to occupy the top six spots on the chart. That 1999 team prove to have the best combination of hitting AND pitching. But that 2001 team turned out to be pretty damn good as well, even if their win total perhaps did not reflect it. Certainly, to this point the 2023 team are doing very well and are sitting in some fairly illustrious company. Some smart moves at the trade deadline by Mike Hazen will hopefully allow the D-backs to sustain this strong performance so far, and bring post-season baseball back to Arizona for the first time in six years.