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One month to go for the 2023 Diamondbacks

All to play for!

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Polaroid SX70 model I land camera, c 1973. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

“Being in the position to be aggressive at the deadline to buy and play meaningful baseball games in September — that's what I would constitute to be a successful season this year." -- Mike Hazen, February 17th.

Mission accomplished, I would say. The team added pieces such as Tommy Pham and Paul Sewald at the trade deadline. And, now, with exactly a month left in the season after the first game in September, they are tied with the Giants for the final wild-card spot. Meaningful games will follow. How deep into September those will continue, remains to be seen. But after a series of dismal seasons where the team has been eliminated from contention - in some cases, even mathematically - well before thus point, it's just nice to be at the dance. To that end let's look at the team’s position after the game of September 1, over the last few seasons.

  • 2023: 70-65, =3rd wild-card, 13.5 back in division
  • 2022: 62-68, 10 back in wild-card, 28 back in division
  • 2021: 45-90, 26 back in wild-card, 40.5 back in division
  • 2020: 14-22, 4.5 back in wild-card, 12.5 back in division [60-game season]
  • 2019: 70-67, 1 back in wild-card, 18 back in division

Note: for consistency, I’ve presumed in the above results the same wild-card format as currently, even though it actually varied from two to five teams per league. It's the first time since before the pandemic that Arizona has had genuinely "meaningful games" this late. [Technically, 2020 saw the team in the hunt into September. But Fangraphs gave us only a 5.7% chance] In 2019, the D-backs didn't play badly down the stretch, going 15-10 after September 1st. But the Brewers and Nationals played no worse, and we were unable to close the gap, ending the season four games back of the Brewers. We'll see what happens this year - so let's look at where things currently are, as we go into the last month.

The standings

The Braves and the Dodgers have their divisions all but locked up, and the Brewers are now heavy favorites to win the Central (an 82.7% chance, per Fangraphs). So until proven otherwise, let’s presume those three are done and dusted. Here’s where the NL Wild-card Race stands this morning, along with the Fangraphs percentages:

  1. Phillies 74-60, +4.5, 95.1%
  2. Cubs 72-63, +2.0, 57.0%
  3. Giants 70-65, +0, 59.2%
  4. D-backs 70-65, +0, 44.5%
  5. Reds 70-67, 1 GB, 13.9%
  6. Marlins 68-67, 2 GB, 14.1%

[The odds don’t add up to 300%, mostly because of the 15.2% chance the Brewers will lose the division, but get a wild-card spot instead] Philadelphia definitely has a very good chance, though they still will want to keep their foot down, as being the top wild-card is better than being the third, in terms of first-round match-ups. But everyone else is still in the position where one week - hell, as we saw, one unplesaant series - can turn everything on its head, for good or bad.

The schedule

The Diamondbacks are almost through the teeth of what looked like a brutal couple of weeks on the schedule, and in fairly good shape. By Sunday night, they will have played 12 consecutive games against contending teams with winning records. Going in, I would have been pleased if they had gone 7-5 in those contests. Despite the embarrassment which was the series in Los Angeles, that’s still very much in play. Thanks to the series wins over Texas and Cincinnati, Arizona has gone 6-4 with two to play. A split of the remaining two games, or better yet a sweep, would then see the schedule soften up considerably for a little while.

Indeed, right now, the remaining 27 games for Arizona are almost evenly split, in more than one way. They have 13 games at home, and 14 on the road. They also have 14 games vs winning teams (BAL x 2, CHC x 7, SFG x 3, HOU x 3) and 13 vs. losing ones (3 vs. COL, 4 vs. NYM, 3 vs. NYY, 3 vs. CHW). Overall, that leaves their remaining strength of schedule in a conaiderably better place than it was in the middle of August. There is now not much to separate the upcoming games for most of the wild-card contenders. Taken from Tankathon.com, here’s how those teams rank, ordered by average W% of the opponents they have to face.

  • #4, Miami: .536
  • #10, Philadelphia, .519
  • #16, Chicago, .498
  • #19, San Francisco, .492
  • #20 Arizona, .492
  • #24 Cincinnati, .479

The tie-breakers

Under the new system, sadly, there will be no more Game #163’s. I’m a little sad, as that always felt like it was the highest of high drama. Instead, if teams end up with the same record (and this applies regardless of the situation, be it for a division or a wild-card spot), then a series of tie-breakers will be used to determine playoff slots and seedings. The main one is head-to-head record, and that’s generally not good news for the Diamondbacks, because they would not currently win any of them. They were beaten by the Reds (3-4), Marlins (2-4) and Phillies (3-4). They have yet to face the Cubs, and they trail the Giants 5-6, with two games to play at Chase on Sep 19-20.

This all matters, because it effectively takes a game off the win total for the D-backs, since they are behind in almost all possible tie-breakers (they do own it over the Brewers, 4-2). For example, if the season ended today, the D-backs would be playing golf in October. They would lose the tie-breaker for the last wild-card spot to the Giants, based on their head-to-head record. That’s why winning the two remaining games against San Francisco, as well as most of the seven games versus Chicago could be critical if things get tight. The week beginning Friday September 15 could end up being decisive for Arizona’s post-season hopes this season.