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Last month around this time, it was easy to dismiss the Diamondbacks. They were a couple of games over .500. They had played one of the hardest schedules in baseball, but they had scored about as many runs as they allowed. They won some close games, had some fun moments. They were a good story, not necessarily a good team.
We have all seen it before: A team plays unexpectedly well for a month, and fans get their hopes up only to have them crushed shortly thereafter when reality sets in. Heck, even the 2021 Diamondbacks team that lost 110 games went 14-12 in April.
Late April has turned into late May, and the Diamondbacks have now played 51 games, which is nearly a third of the season. They are 29-22, good enough for the third-best record in the National League and sole possession of the top spot in the NL Wild Card.
Despite a handful of gut-punch losses in recent weeks — and a particularly uninspiring loss to the Boston Red Sox on Friday — the 2023 season has been nothing but an unprecedented success so far for the Snakes. It is time to consider whether the Diamondbacks, a team that is currently on pace to win 92 games, are not just a fun story, but a force to be reckoned with.
In evaluating whether the D-backs are “for real,” we are neither asking whether they will be World Series favorites (a clear no) or whether they have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs (a clear yes). Rather, what we are asking is this: Are the Diamondbacks actually as good as their record indicates?
Reason No. 1, against: The Diamondbacks might have baseball’s luckiest offense
In a story about Geraldo Perdomo’s apparent breakout season, Baseball Prospectus author Patrick Dubuque wrote this as his preview blurb: “Sometimes you slug because you have pop, sometimes it’s because you’ve got luck.”
Frankly, that narrative could be applied to a number of Diamondbacks hitters, not just Perdomo. He is just the most extreme case.
According to Statcast, Perdomo has an expected slugging percentage of just .294. His actual slugging percentage is .514. That 220-point disparity is by far the largest in baseball among qualified hitters. By that metric — and several other Statcast metrics — Perdomo is the luckiest hitter in baseball.
Statcast’s expected stats are far from the be-all, end-all, however. They are relatively new to the sport, and it is unclear whether they have predictive value. For now, it’s best to rely on them to explain what happened in the past rather than what is likely to happen in the future.
That is still useful in a sense, though. In 2022, Perdomo had the lowest OPS of any major league hitter (minimum 500 plate appearances). Accordingly, projection systems were light on him entering the season. Although Perdomo has a .928 OPS, his Statcast metrics suggest that we should tap the breaks on adjusting his future projections.
Again, Perdomo is not the only D-backs hitter who appears to be over-performing. According to Statcast, Corbin Carroll, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Ketel Marte and Christian Walker have all outperformed their expected stats as well. The only hitters on the team who have meaningfully underperformed their expected stats are Alek Thomas and Jake McCarthy, each of whom wound up in Triple A.
Generally, it does not mean much if a team’s expected stats don’t align perfectly with its actual stats. In this case, however, those expected stats suggest that the D-backs have the luckiest offense in the sport. It would be naive to ignore that altogether.
Reason No. 1, in favor: Diamondbacks outfielders Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas poised to bounce back
Entering the season, Jake McCarthy and Alek Thomas were two of the biggest X-factors for the Diamondbacks. Although McCarthy was called up on Friday, it is difficult to imagine a worse outcome than both McCarthy and Thomas spending significant time in Triple-A to get their bats right.
In 123 plate appearances before being sent down, Thomas hit .195/.252/.327 with a middling 22 percent strikeout rate and a below-average 6.5 percent walk rate. The D-backs sent Thomas down with the intention of trying to help him improve against lefties, against whom he has gone just 1-for-36 with 14 strikeouts this season.
The D-backs had a shorter leash with McCarthy, who logged only 70 plate appearances before being demoted on April 25. In that span, McCarthy hit .143/.229/.238. In 105 plate appearances with Triple-A Reno, he hit .333/.419/.533, including a blistering 12-for-19 run with two homers over his past four games.
In some ways, it is remarkable that the D-backs are 29-22 despite getting very little production from two of their most promising young hitters. Should one or both find success in the majors at some point, it would add even more depth to an already deep lineup — and help stave off some of the regression that could be in store for other hitters.
It is not all that hard to envision a bounce-back for either of them. From July 11 through the end of last season, McCarthy hit .302/.361/.434 and went 22-for-23 in stolen bases. He was one of the most valuable outfielders in the sport.
Much like Perdomo, there were signs that McCarthy was over-performing late last year, but it is also abundantly clear that he underperformed early this year. McCarthy’s true talent level almost certainly lies in between. Even if he settles in as a roughly league-average hitter, that would be a significant boost for the D-backs.
Unlike McCarthy, it’s been a while since Thomas has had success in the majors as a hitter. After putting up roughly league average numbers over his first few months in the big leagues — something McCarthy did not do — Thomas has slashed just .186/.220/.264 in 259 plate appearances since Aug. 5 of last year.
Given his defensive prowess, the 23-year-old does not need to hit much in order to become a valuable asset in the majors. Thomas was once a highly-touted prospect, and it is not unreasonable to think that he could be a few tweaks away from becoming a vastly improved hitter.
Reason #2, against: Another problematic Diamondbacks bullpen
As we discussed on Thursday’s edition of the PHNX D-backs Podcast, the Diamondbacks bullpen is better in 2023, but it still has its warts.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of their bullpen stats in 2022 and 2023 (this year’s stats are current as of the start of play on Friday):
Looking only at ERA and WHIP, this year’s bullpen is nearly identical to last year’s. That is not a fair assessment, though. The league average ERA last year was 3.97 last year compared to 4.31 this year. Teams are scoring a lot more runs in 2023, and that means that a 4.40 ERA is actually only slightly below average. The bullpen is much improved from a year ago.
Even so, it is not great. Entering play on Friday, the D-backs’ bullpen ranked only 23rd in bullpen ERA, 23rd in WHIP, 23rd in FIP, 22nd in strikeout rate and 21st in walk rate. Suffice it to say that the D-backs’ bullpen is one of the 10 worst in the league.
Curiously, D-backs relievers have still managed to put up plus-0.6 win probability added this year, which ranks 14th in baseball. That suggests that they have given up a disproportionate number of runs in low leverage situations when game outcomes were less likely to be impacted.
Looking at the roster, that does make sense. High leverage relievers such as Andrew Chafin, Miguel Castro and Kyle Nelson have been quite good, while the up-and-down types such as Peter Solomon, Luis Frias and Anthony Misiewicz have gotten hit hard in games that were out of reach.
As we saw in Wednesday’s loss to the Phillies, though, the team’s best relievers will not always be available. In the long term, it is hard to believe that the D-backs’ lack of bullpen depth won’t catch up to them more than it has so far.
It is also worth noting that Castro, for as great as he has been, has never had a year as good as this one. Both his 2.42 ERA and 1.03 WHIP are career bests by wide margins. His career ERA and WHIP entering this season were 4.12 and 1.41, respectively.
At the heart of Castro’s improvements is a dramatically reduced walk rate of just nine percent, which is around the league average. Perhaps Castro has found a way to improve his command in a way that will be sustainable moving forward, but it is too early to buy in to a mid-twos ERA the rest of the way.
Reason #2, in favor: A high-ceiling offense
While there is no getting around the fact that D-backs hitters have outperformed their batted ball data, that does not necessarily mean that they are performing over and above what they are capable of.
For example, while Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had only a middling .743 OPS last year, his .930 OPS in 2023 is not all that much higher than the .869 and .882 marks he posted in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
In similar fashion, Ketel Marte has improved nicely on his .727 OPS from last year with an .800 mark this season, but that still closely aligns with his career norms. Christian Walker, meanwhile, has followed up an .804 OPS last year with a .788 mark so far this season.
Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno are two other key cogs in the D-backs’ lineup. Both got only a cup of coffee in the majors last year, but their numbers this year are not all that different from what they were last year. It is also not unreasonable to think that they could get even better. Carroll and Moreno were top-five prospects in the sport for a reason.
All this is to say: While the D-backs’ lineup may indeed be outperforming their batted ball data, most of the team’s key offensive contributors are performing within the confines of what their past performance and future projections would have us deem reasonable. This team can hit.
Reason #3, against: Volatility in Diamondbacks starting rotation
It is no secret that the Diamondbacks starting rotation has been wildly inconsistent outside of Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. In 118 total innings, Gallen and Kelly have combined for a 2.98 ERA. All other D-backs starters have combined for a 6.17 ERA in 143 innings.
In some ways, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Tommy Henry and Ryne Nelson have pitched better lately. Zach Davies is slated to start on Saturday after missing seven weeks with an oblique strain. Madison Bumgarner is out of the organization. With additional steps forward from the young arms, it is not all that hard to envision this rotation mustering above-average performance the rest of the way.
At the same time, there are many unknowns. Henry and Nelson, despite their recent success, remain unproven. Pfaadt struggled mightily in a short stint in the majors, and it is unclear how much he can be counted on the rest of the way. Davies offers a steady veteran presence, but even he has had his ups and downs, including a 5.78 ERA season as recently as 2021.
Things are not necessarily headed south in the rotation; we just do not know where they are headed. Outside of the top two starters, there are few assurances.
Reason #3, in favor: Zach Davies, Carson Kelly and others nearing return from injury
It is unrealistic to expect complete health for a team’s most important players throughout a season, and the D-backs have had relatively good luck in that regard this season. Still, getting Davies, Carson Kelly and Joe Mantiply back from injury in the near future should be a nice boost.
Kelly, who has reached the point of facing live pitching in extended spring training games, figures to step in for Jose Herrera as the D-backs’ second catcher alongside Gabriel Moreno. Herrera has taken a step forward offensively this year, but Kelly has a more reliable track record of hitting in the majors. Herrera has also graded out poorly in Statcast’s framing and blocking metrics. Kelly should be an improvement in those areas as well.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, the only clear in-house improvement the Diamondbacks have is Mantiply, who has not pitched since May 7 after tweaking his hamstring while warming up in the bullpen. Prior to the injury, Mantiply allowed only two runs on five hits in 7.2 innings with one walk and eight strikeouts. It looked like he was well on his way to joining Chafin, Castro and Nelson as a trusted late-inning reliever.
Mantiply threw a 22-pitch bullpen on Thursday, manager Torey Lovullo said, and it appears he is close to returning to the majors.
It is also worth mentioning Kyle Lewis, who has been sidelined since April 8 with an unspecified virus. Lewis is currently rehabbing in Triple-A Reno, and he has gone 2-for-13 with a homer in his first three games.
Entering the season, Lewis looked like a key part of the D-backs’ offensive attack against left-handed pitching. Although he went just 3-for-18 in the majors before the injury, Lewis is a former Rookie of the Year winner, and he represents another high-ceiling option in an already potent D-backs lineup.
Top photo: Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports