Somehow, some way, the Arizona Diamondbacks are sitting at the top of the National League West ahead of the star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers, hard-hitting Colorado Rockies and reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants. After finishing .500 last year and trading away franchise centerpiece Justin Upton before the season, the plucky Arizona Diamondbacks have come out of nowhere to stake their claim as their division’s top team. Chalk Arizona’s unlikely success up to grit, heart and tenacity if you want, but this is hardly a new development: The Snakes have been in first place everyday since May 17.
But how? For starters, the Arizona Diamondbacks have one of the better offenses in the National League, ranking second in doubles and third in walks and hits, and fifth in runs. They’ve managed to scrape together runs by hitting well with runners on base (.753 OPS with men on versus .689 OPS with the sacks empty), overcoming injuries to, and slumps by, most of their key position players: Miguel Montero hasn’t hit a lick, Aaron Hill missed 10 weeks, Jason Kubel‘s been a shadow of his former self, Martin Prado can’t catch a break (.258 BABiP) and Cody Ross has disappointed after signing a three-year, $26 million deal last winter.
So, where are the runs coming from? Let’s start with NL RBI leader and first time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt, who’s evolved into one of the league’s best first baseman. Goldy’s been a force in the heart of the Arizona Diamondbacks order and rates among the NL’s five most valuable players by WAR. The teammate he’s driven in most often is leadoff hitter Gerardo Parra. Perhaps the best defensive outfielder around, Parra leads the Senior Circuit in doubles and has done a great job setting the table for Goldschmidt. Then there’s 23-year-old shortstop Didi Gregorius, who’s providing above-average offense from a premium defensive position. Eric Chavez and Wil Nieves have been big coming off the bench, too.
But unlike most great teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks lack strong starting pitching. In fact, their rotation has been subpar, with a combined 26-30 record and 4.05 ERA despite remaining relatively healthy (minus Daniel Hudson) and receiving strong defense behind them. Sophomore Patrick Corbin, a Cy Young candidate, is the lone exception with his 10-1 record, 2.40 ERA and sub-one WHIP. He’s been the anchor of an otherwise mediocre staff. Ian Kennedy was supposed to be the ace but hasn’t rebounded to 2011 form. Instead of stepping up, Wade Miley has taken a massive step back after finishing second to Bryce Harper in last year’s NL Rookie of the Year voting. Former Oakland A’s Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy haven’t pitched nearly as well as they did for Billy Beane‘s teams.
The bullpen, on the other hand, is one of baseball’s best with its 21-12 record and 3.36 ERA. Brad Ziegler, Matt Reynolds and Will Harris have all been tremendous. Josh Collmenter has flourished in the pen after converting from a starter into a full-time reliever. Heath Bell did an admirable job as closer while J.J. Putz was on the mend, rebounding from his disastrous season with the Miami Marlins last year. With so many plus relievers, it’s no wonder the D-Backs are 19-12 in one-run games.
A few months ago, nobody thought the Arizona Diamondbacks would be where they are now. Their strong start hasn’t been a first-half mirage, but it’s tough to see them holding up over the summer without adequate starting pitching, especially since Corbin can’t keep carrying the rotation for much longer. It will help when hitters like Prado, Montero and Kubel start producing like they can, but Arizona will be hard-pressed to win the division without acquiring a proven frontline starter (Cliff Lee, perhaps?) at the trading deadline.