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September 6, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
Beating the Weak and Powerless
If the Diamondbacks hold on to win the NL West—an increasingly likely proposition after taking two of three from the second-place Giants in San Francisco over the weekend—their first two orders of business will be to a) thank the league's lousy teams for allowing the Snakes to dominate them at will and b) figure out a way to beat the good teams, which are the ones they'll face in the postseason. The playoffs are a crapshoot, or so claims the sabermetric aphorism (during the 1983 regular season, the Dodgers took 11 of 12 from the Phillies, who then took three of four from Los Angeles in the NLCS). Still, it is best to be prepared to beat the best.
Through September 4, Arizona leads the division by seven games with 22 remaining. Although the Diamondbacks have earned their success by playing better than everyone else in the division for an extended period of time—Jay Jaffe has extolled the team's considerable virtues—they also have taken advantage of weaker opponents in a way that the Giants have not.
The difference between the two frontrunners against sub-.500 teams couldn't be more striking:
Both pitch well against second-division clubs, but while the Giants' bats snooze, Arizona's come to life. Against sub-.500 teams, the Diamondbacks are hitting .255/.328/.431. San Francisco owns a more pedestrian .236/.301/.350 line. This is the difference between, to use a particularly cruel example, Aaron Rowand (career numbers, not the version the Giants will pay handsomely to do anything but play for them next year) and Adam Everett. When you hit like Adam Everett against lousy teams, your chances of reaching the postseason are not good, nor should they be.
If anything, the Giants are lucky to own a winning record against losing teams. Their stellar record in one-run games doubtlessly helps (although since starting the season 27-13 in such contests, they have gone 4-7 since), but there is another aphorism about beating the teams you're supposed to beat, and the Giants haven't been doing that.
And the Diamondbacks have been obliterating the weak. Their winning percentage against sub-.500 teams is almost identical to the Phillies' overall winning percentage (careful readers will note that this has disturbing implications for Arizona, but we'll get to that in a moment). Consider, for example, the Diamondbacks' and Giants' records against the five worst NL teams as of this writing:
These are small samples, but the pattern is damning. A team cannot be dominated by the weak and expect to thrive. Defending a World Series title is difficult. Doing so without reaching the playoffs is impossible, and that is where the Giants appear to be headed. When that happens, they will have no one but themselves to blame for squandering opportunities against theoretically inferior opponents. The path to the World Series may go through Philadelphia this year, but if you can't beat the worst teams in the league, you won't even have a chance to see that path.
The Diamondbacks have another problem, which I alluded to earlier. While they have been busy dismantling weak teams, they have struggled against the good ones. In taking two of three from the Giants this weekend, they improved their record against San Francisco to 6-9.
After Carlos Beltran finally arrived at the party on Friday and helped snap Arizona's nine-game winning streak, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson shut down the Giants on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, which is encouraging. However, San Francisco owns the majors’ most anemic offense (3.35 R/G), so don't get too excited.
Returning to the bigger picture, although the Diamondbacks have held their own against other (apparent) playoff teams, going a combined 9-9 against the Phillies, Brewers, and Braves, their overall record against teams with .500 or better records is substandard. Compare again with the Giants:
In the National League, only the Braves own a better winning percentage than the Giants against such teams. The Diamondbacks rank below everyone except the Padres, Cubs, Pirates, Rockies, Marlins, and Astros—not the best company to keep. Arizona and San Francisco enjoy roughly the same amount of offensive success against weak teams, but the Diamondbacks' pitching staff does an inferior job of run prevention.
In short, the Diamondbacks—on the strength of their offense—are beating up on weak teams. They are scuffling against the good ones, mainly on account of poor pitching. Arizona's ability to capitalize on the opportunities presented has served them well to this point; however, in the playoffs, where there are no weak teams, such ability is useless. If they are to survive beyond the NLDS, they will need to reinvent themselves somewhat and figure out how to beat the good teams. Given that pitching has been the culprit in these situations, it makes sense that Kevin Towers would go out and acquire guys like Jason Marquis (now injured) and Brad Ziegler to help.
Before we part ways, let us consider one final question: What difference does any of this make? I have been operating under the assumption that a team must handle strong teams in the regular season to succeed in the postseason, but is it right to do so? Have other teams enjoyed post-season success despite a poor showing against good teams from April through September?
I didn't conduct an exhaustive study, but I dug all the way back to... oh, last year. The 2011 Giants went 33-41 against teams with a record of .500 or better during the regular season, being outscored in the process, 275-271. However, like this year's Diamondbacks, they dominated weak teams, going 59-29 and outscoring them, 426-308. So perhaps the fact that Arizona has struggled against strong teams isn't as troublesome as it might first appear. Sure, if you're a fan, you'd prefer to see them take care of those teams right now. Then again, if the choice is between now and in the postseason, following the template laid by last year's Giants isn't the worst way to go. At the very least, it beats what this year's Giants are doing.