September 26, 2007
Ignoring Pythagoras in the Desert
Kirk Gibson knows something about what it takes to be a winner. After all, he hit two of the most dramatic post-season home runs of the 1980s. His blast into the upper deck of Tiger Stadium in Game Five of the 1984 World Series off of Goose Gossage sealed the Tigers' victory over the Padres, but he subsequently topped it with his legendary game-winning pinch-hit homer off of Dennis Eckersley in Game One of the 1988 World Series. So it's fitting that, as Arizona's bench coach, Gibson has come up with a motto for a team on the brink of being one of the most improbable ever to qualify for postseason play: "Anybody. Anytime."
"That sums us up perfectly," injured Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson said. "We don't have any superstars. We don't have anybody that's going to win the MVP this year. But we've got a lot of good players who have come up big at one time or another this season." Thus, the D'backs are in position to win the National League West with just five days left in the season, though they had their division lead over San Diego shaved down to two games last night; they lost 6-5 to the Pirates in Pittsburgh while the Padres rallied for a 6-4 win in San Francisco.
What makes the Diamondbacks' rise to the top of the division--and an NL-best 88-69 record--especially amazing is they have given up more runs than have scored, with a minus-15 run differential (695-710). "I know people have made a big deal about us being outscored," Hudson said. "Sometimes, in this game, though, things can't be explained. The only thing I can say it's just been a matter of our guys playing winning baseball and never giving up. We don't always win by a lot of runs but we seem to have one more run than the other team enough times when the game is over. I know that's not a very scientific explanation but that's just the way it has happened for us this year."
The Diamondbacks are 14th in the 16-team NL with an average of 4.42 runs scored a game, and an even worse 15th in the league in Equivalent Average. Reflecting that basic weakness relative to their competition, only two of their hitters are in the top 50 in the league in VORP: outfielder Eric Byrnes is 29th with a 37.1 mark, and Hudson 36th at 32.7. However, Hudson is out for the remainder of the regular season and postseason after having surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. In fact, rookie right-hander Micah Owings (12.7) has the team's seventh-highest VORP among the club's hitters despite being a pitcher; he's hitting .291/.310/.618 with four home runs in 59 plate appearances.
"It really has been a different contributor almost every night," Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. "One night it might be Tony Clark and Stephen Drew who get the big hits. The next night it might Conor Jackson and Chris Young. The night after that, it might be Mark Reynolds and Chris Snyder. It just seems like everyone has come up big at one time or another and we've gotten contributions across the board from a wide range of players. We brought Mark Reynolds up from Double-A and he has contributed. It's the same for Justin Upton, who started the year in Class A. It's just been an amazing thing to watch. No matter who we've put in the lineup, it just seems like they have come through."
The Diamondbacks' star this season has clearly been right-hander Brandon Webb, who ranks fifth in the NL with 6.7 SNLVAR. Webb won the NL Cy Young Award last year, and is a contender to win it again this season. He was asked to be the ace of the staff after the reimported Randy Johnson was lost for the season when he had surgery August 5 to remove a herniated disc from his back. Webb leads an otherwise ordinary rotation that includes left-hander Doug Davis (3.8 SNLVAR) and right-handers Livan Hernandez (3.2) and Owings (2.4).
Webb downplays his role as ace, since the Diamondbacks' pitching staff is fifth in the league in runs allowed (4.51 per game), and sixth in BP's runs-allowed metric, Fair Runs Allowed, at 4.59 FRA. "Randy's injury was big but I didn't feel any added pressure when he had surgery," Webb said. "Everyone in our rotation is a good pitcher and capable of winning every time they take the mound. The whole key to our success this season is we haven't had any stars. We've gotten contributions from everyone. That isn't true just for the guys in the lineup but the pitching staff, too. That's one of the great things about this team, one guy doesn't have carry any more of the load than anyone else." That certainly has held true in the bullpen, where the Diamondbacks have right-handed relievers who rank third through fifth in the NL in WXRL: Brandon Lyon (4.320), Tony Pena (4.192), and closer Jose Valverde (4.084).
The Diamondbacks should indeed be positioned to contend for the next few years with many key players younger than 30. "The experience that our young players have gotten this season by going through a pennant race is just so invaluable," Melvin said. "Nothing you ever do in baseball can simulate what it's like to play big games down the stretch in September. We'd like to think we're building a team that can win for the long haul but we're not good enough to be thinking ahead to next year or the year after right now. We just have to focus on these next five days. These guys have worked hard and stuck together all year. I'd really like to see them rewarded with a division title because they deserve it. These guys truly are the definition of team."