The Diamondbacks, somewhat surprisingly, sit atop the NL West. They possess a 35-28 record, 1.5 games ahead of the Rockies and Giants. Their run differential (+20) is the lowest of any division leader by 21 runs, though, and the division could still go a few ways come September. But in managing an unspectacular $89 million payroll – Heath Bell and Miguel Montero, at $10 million each, are their highest-paid players – their success is worth examining. In parsing the stats, you find that the Diamondbacks are nothing more than a decent hitting and pitching team, buoyed by a few good talents and often subpar complementary players. But they’re really strong in the bullpen, and they play elite defense.
As a team, the D-Backs’ hitting is average: they are 8th in team OBP (.326); but only 22nd in ISO (.141); and 19th in wRC+ (95). By now, everyone knows that Paul Goldschmidt is one of this season’s premiere hitters, and he’s the best on the team by a wide margin.
Indeed, only Goldschmidt and injured third basemen Eric Chavez (153 wRC+) have an ISO above .250 for the Diamondbacks this year – which makes pushing runs across the plate quite difficult. The infield has had seen a bit of change due to Chavez’s absences, with Martin Prado (72 wRC+) shifting over to third, and Cliff Pennington (60 wRC+) and Josh Wilson (49 wRC+) filling in at second – both of whom are even bigger liabilities at the plate than Prado. But if Chavez can come back to contribute regularly, and Didi Gregorius (136 wRC+) can keep up his hot debut, the infield outside of Goldschmidt should be productive enough to get by. Outside of Gerardo Parra (129 wRC+), the outfielders aren’t quite tearing the cover off the ball either. Jason Kubel (80 wRC+), AJ Pollock (92 wRC+), and Cody Ross (74 wRC+) are each creating runs at below-average levels.
The next logical place to look to explain the D-Backs’ success is the pitching staff. Unfortunately, team starting pitching is largely in the same good-not-great range that offense is for Arizona.
Outside of Corbin, the starters have been underwhelming. But the bullpen is a different story: led by Brad Ziegler, Matt Reynolds, and Josh Collmenter, it has compiled 13 wins, good for 3rd in baseball.
As long as the starters can keep the game within reach, the ‘pen has done good things for them thus far this season. Something else of note: with the exception of Heath Bell, each Diamondback reliever (with more than 10 IP) has an ERA lower than his FIP – meaning the defense is helping them out. That’s because the Diamondbacks’ defense is among the best in the league.
Led by AJ Pollock, Cody Ross, Gerardo Parra, Paul Goldschmidt, and Didi Gregorius (of players with more than 300 innings in the field), the Diamondbacks have more defensive runs saved than any other team in the majors – far more than the 2nd-place Pirates, who have 29. They’ve made 208 plays out-of-zone, meaning they’re either quite range-y, or are using smart defensive alignment adjustments. Coincidentally, the Diamondbacks’ best defenders are also their best hitters – so they should be pretty tough to keep out of the lineup.
Since 2010, that team UZR per 150 games of 8.7 ranks 5th among all teams, just behind the 2010 Giants – eventual World Series champions – and the 2011 Rays, who lost in the ALDS. They finished just ahead of the 2012 Angels, who finished 89-73, five games out of first place. The top team on that list is: the 2013 Royals, with a 15.1 team UZR/150. Their pitching and offense isn’t performing well enough this season to keep them as competitive as the Diamondbacks, yet they find themselves in third place in the AL Central, 6.5 games behind first-place Detroit.
The Diamondbacks have succeeded this season with great pitching out of the bullpen, and excellent defense – a far different formula from teams like the starting pitching-heavy Cardinals, or the offense-heavy Red Sox. If they can sustain their decent hitting and starting pitching with the occasional boost from players like Paul Goldschmidt and Patrick Corbin, and continue to play top-notch defense and pitch well out of the bullpen, they just might be able to finagle a playoff berth away from their big-spending division rivals, the Dodgers and Giants.
[i] Note that McCarthy is now on the disabled list, and Tyler Skaggs took his spot in the rotation.