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The last time the Arizona Diamondbacks won this many games this early in a season, the team was in the midst of defending a world championship, powered by a group of talented veterans taking one of the their last shots at glory before parting ways. That Arizona team was a bit different from its modern-day descendants, but if you strip away the star power and hideous jerseys, the old-school Dbacks also had a lot in common with today’s version (to the surprise of many analysts, including yours truly). Is it possible the franchise is finally set up for its first truly sustained run of success since that championship era?
The 2001 Diamondbacks team remains the oldest one ever to win a World Series, and the follow-up edition was (unsurprisingly) even older. Mainly propelled by a stable of power arms — Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the rotation, plus Byung-Hyun Kim in the bullpen with a host of other deceptive relievers — Arizona ranked second in pitching wins above replacement1 (WAR) that year, second in strikeouts per nine innings and second in fewest walks per nine. Feeding opponents a healthy dose of nasty sliders all season long, the Dbacks allowed the league’s second-fewest park-adjusted earned runs, cruising to 98 wins and the NL West crown in the process.
This year’s version cuts a similar profile on the mound, albeit with more youth and much less star power. No. 1 starter Zack Greinke is by far Arizona’s most experienced and decorated pitcher; going into the season, he had over 40 more career WAR than anyone else on the roster. And Greinke has certainly been doing his best Big Unit impression in the early going — Johnson was the last qualified D-Back pitcher with a better K/BB ratio than Greinke’s current 6.0 mark. But the rest of the staff is pulling its weight as well. After adjusting for park effects, seven of Arizona’s top nine pitchers carries an ERA better than league average. As a result, Arizona ranks second in pitching WAR this season — just like it did back in 2002.
In just two months, the Dbacks have gone from merely hoping Greinke could bounce back from his disastrous 2016 season to counting up the pitching riches beyond their ace. “Pitching depth” is a nebulous thing to measure, but if we give more weight to the contributions of pitchers deeper into a team’s staff,2 the Dbacks have enjoyed the second-deepest well of pitching value in baseball this season, trailing only the division-rival Colorado Rockies.
So Arizona’s pitching is doing its best job to recall the glory days. And the team currently ranks eighth in position-player WAR, roughly where its championship precursor placed 16 years ago.3
But not everything is a carbon copy of the past. The 2017 Snakes have achieved their offensive success in a very different way than the Diamondbacks of yesteryear did. Those teams walked a lot, but they didn’t burn up the basepaths or mash opponents into submission with homers, no matter how many memories you harbor of Luis Gonzalez crushing fastballs deep into the Arizona night. This offense might be the opposite: It has more glaring weaknesses (with the league’s seventh-worst strikeout rate and its 10th-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio), but also a unique combination of strengths, the likes of which has seldom been seen in baseball history. Not only does Arizona rank second in the majors in Bill James’s power-speed number,4 but pro-rated over a full schedule, the Dbacks’ number would rank 31st-best since MLB’s expansion era began in 1961. They’re an all-or-nothing lineup in the mold of, say, Buck Showalter’s Orioles, but with the added twist of stolen bases and opportunistic baserunning.
The surprising catalyst for all this is 6-foot-3 first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.5 As the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg recently pointed out, Goldschmidt steals an incredible number of bases (65 in 77 attempts over the past three seasons) for a player so, well, slow. Instead of using pure speed, he’s been able to strike on the basepaths with a combination of smarts and sneaky lead-taking. And he’s not alone — a handful of Arizona’s regulars are positive baserunners (according to FanGraphs’ measurement, which includes steals, extra bases and double-play avoidance) despite dubious foot speed.6 Then, throw in some hitters who do have wheels to go with their pop — such as Chris Owings, A.J. Pollock and even Jake Lamb — and Arizona has an offense that can hurt you with its power and its speed, sort of like a lineup full of Junior Spiveys would have done a generation ago.
Of course, for a team coming off a 69-win season, the usual caveats apply to Arizona’s early record. Our Elo ratings, for instance, remain unconvinced that the Diamondbacks are much more than a .500 team that has won a few extra games to start the season, an assessment echoed by other forecasts. Despite the similar statistical profile so far, this year’s Dbacks are probably nowhere near as good as the early-2000s version was. But they’re much younger, playing a style that might be more entertaining (if not as effective).
It’s also worth noting that Arizona made its big splash the offseason before last, gearing up for a run just like the one they’re currently on, only to be wrecked by more injuries than almost any team in recent memory. Although the flurry of deals made by former GM Dave Stewart were roundly derided (and not without cause) it’s hard to deny that the Diamondbacks are now living out the future he envisioned — even if it came a year too late to save Stewart’s job.
In other words, there is real talent blooming in the desert. What remains to be seen is whether this is merely another one-year blip, like so many before in the franchise’s post-championship era, or the start of something more long-lasting.
Amid the fallout from Mike Trout’s injury Sunday (which will shelve the L.A. Angels star for 6 to 8 weeks), one of the least-pressing concerns was what it will potentially do to his place in the all-time WAR pantheon. But since that’s a topic I’ve covered ad nauseum here, let’s dive right into it.
According to Baseball-Reference’s version of the stat, Trout has never ended a full season without being the all-time WAR leader for a given age. (Let that sink in for a moment.)7 Before he got hurt, Trout already had 3.5 WAR this year, so he just needed to produce 3.7 over the remainder of the season to keep pace with Ty Cobb as the all-time leader through age 25.
Even a conservative estimate would have called for Trout to generate something like 5.5 WAR in the last four months of the season, which would have enabled him to clear Cobb with ease. However, losing half of that remaining time would put Trout’s G.O.A.T. trajectory in real jeopardy. He’d have to return from injury without a hitch (no guarantee) and play slightly better down the stretch than he’d done over the season’s first two months — when he posted new career highs in virtually every hitting category. That’s a tall order!
However, Trout could also come back in only five weeks if he follows the accelerated recovery path of teammate Andrelton Simmons, who suffered the same injury last season. If so, Trout would “only” need to play at an 8.3-full-season-WAR pace (which, comical as it sounds, is something he’s done in four of his five full MLB seasons) to catch up to Cobb.
That’s the best-case scenario; in reality, Trout will probably face a real struggle to keep his title as G.O.A.T. at every age. But there’s still a chance.
In the day-to-day grind of a baseball season, it can be tough sometimes to zoom out and see the bigger picture of where a team stands in the context of its own history. That’s where something like the FiveThirtyEight Elo ratings come in handy, since they try to estimate how well a team was playing going into (and coming out of) every game in franchise history. I tracked where each team’s current Elo8 ranks relative to past seasons9 for the team (measuring that using its percentile ranking) through the same number of games, as well as an Elo “milestone” — how deep in history we have to dig to find a season where it had a higher or lower Elo rating, depending on which number takes us further back in time:
|2||Dodgers||53||1571.1||98||Best since 1974|
|4||Indians||50||1548.0||91||Best since 1996|
|5||Cubs||51||1544.7||89||Worst since 2015|
|6||Red Sox||51||1537.9||78||Worst since 2015|
|7||Yankees||49||1531.7||40||Best since 2013|
|8||Blue Jays||52||1520.9||63||Worst since 2015|
|9||Rays||55||1515.2||68||Best since 2015|
|10||Rangers||53||1513.2||71||Worst since 2015|
|11||Diamondbacks||54||1512.1||68||Best since 2013|
|12||Mariners||53||1511.9||88||Worst since 2015|
|13||Rockies||54||1511.7||83||Best since 2010|
|14||Mets||50||1509.5||65||Worst since 2015|
|15||Cardinals||49||1505.7||39||Worst since 2008|
|16||Angels||55||1501.3||55||Best since 2015|
|17||Orioles||50||1498.2||59||Worst since 2011|
|18||Tigers||52||1496.3||30||Best since 2015|
|19||Giants||54||1494.2||16||Worst since 2009|
|20||Brewers||52||1492.7||52||Best since 2014|
|21||Pirates||53||1490.5||31||Worst since 2012|
|22||White Sox||51||1488.1||22||Worst since 2015|
|23||Marlins||50||1483.8||42||Worst since 2015|
|24||Twins||48||1480.4||34||Best since 2015|
|25||Athletics||51||1474.0||33||Worst since 1998|
|26||Reds||51||1472.6||12||Best since 2015|
|27||Royals||51||1467.2||10||Worst since 2007|
|28||Braves||50||1467.1||22||Best since 2015|
|29||Phillies||50||1442.7||12||Worst since 1962|
|30||Padres||54||1438.9||6||Worst since 2003|
Some teams — like the Astros and Nationals/Expos — are playing the best they ever have at the third-of-a-season mark. Others are in down cycles: amazingly, the Phillies haven’t had an Elo lower than their current rating through 54 games of a season since 1962!
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of platooning, using the natural benefit of facing an opposite-handed pitcher (or a same-handed batter) to help a team become greater than the sum of its parts. Granted, different teams are constructed to use it better than others, so it’s not always up to the manager to play for the platoon advantage. Nevertheless, here are the teams who’ve had the lefty-righty edge in the highest percentage of their plate appearances (both batting and pitching), according to Baseball-Reference.com:
|SHARE OF PLATE APPEARANCES WITH PLATOON ADVANTAGE*|