Most Wild Card teams have gone through their fair share of ups and downs this season, and that is certainly true for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Arizona was leading the National League West by four games on June 17. By July 8, they had tasted the share of the division lead for the last time and have since fallen to 13.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers with less than two weeks to play.
From a 5-20 record coming out of the All-Star break to the exceptional seasons of players like Zac Gallen and Corbin Carroll, the Diamondbacks must keep up their recent momentum to look like a threat entering the playoffs.
The Diamondbacks’ Blueprint for Success
Arizona has an enticing roster with athletic youngsters, a sprinkling of great pitching, and just enough power to hit their way to some wins. It hasn’t looked as clean in recent months. They had a top-10 offense with a 107 wRC+ when they held that four-game division lead on July 17.
Since the start of August, they’ve dropped to the 25th-ranked offense with a teamwide wRC+ of 89. That’s, uh, not good. But look at that! The Cincinnati Reds (89 wRC+) and San Francisco Giants (91 wRC+) are struggling just as much. If your offense can be that poor for over a month and a half and still have a shot at the playoffs, there must be some belief that the Diamondbacks can find some reflection of their early season form. Because they sure won’t go far in the playoffs with this level of production.
The tale of two seasons has been a fascinating dynamic for Arizona. Corbin Carroll and Ketel Marte were excellent from the start of the year through the end of July. Christian Walker and Carroll had already launched over twenty home runs. Geraldo Perdomo was well above average and looked to have made massive strides over his rookie season.
Since the start of August, Carroll and Walker have been only been slightly better than league average. Marte has struggled and Perdomo’s offensive production has tanked.
Tommy Pham‘s addition at the trade deadline has been one of the biggest positives for Arizona during this recent slump. Pham has a .256/.310/.463 slash line with Arizona for a .773 OPS, but he has been even better in recent weeks with a .868 OPS in his last 15 games.
Two in-house developments have been the other game-changers for the Diamondbacks. Gabriel Moreno has been the team’s best hitter since August 1, but he has only appeared in 27 games in that span. He has displayed an excellent plate approach, cutting his strikeout rate and increasing his hard-hit percentage from 39.3% to 48.6%. The overall adjustment in his plate discipline and consistent power is greatly encouraging.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has also seen his season turnaround in recent weeks. Since August 1, he is hitting .305 while leading the team with nine home runs in that time. Only Walker has been barreling the ball more often.
Every team will see their players go hot or cold at different times but the Diamondbacks need to see some more consistent production from their best players at the same time. They have continued to use their athleticism to their advantage, ranking fourth in steals in that span, despite struggling to get runners on base. They can still be a threat in the playoffs if they find the rhythm that had them looking like a contender earlier in the season.
Zac Gallen is pretty good. Merrill Kelly is having his own great season. After that?
The Diamondbacks will need more than just those two to go deep in the playoffs. It will be a struggle just to get there with this current pitching staff.
Ryne Nelson is third on the team in innings pitched, despite a stint in Triple-A, but his results haven’t improved much. His most recent start, a crucial 6-2 win over the Chicago Cubs, was a grueling, 3 1/3 innings affair. He struggled to generate whiffs or put away hitters. He had three walks in the game while barely throwing more than half of his pitches for strikes. In three starts since returning from Triple-A, he has a 6.08 ERA and his walk rate has increased.
Brandon Pfaadt is another young pitcher looking to build on his raw talent, but struggling to find great results. Since August 1, he has a respectable 4.07 ERA, but that doesn’t instill confidence to hand him a playoff start. There might be reason for more optimism if we get very granular. In his most recent start, once more against the Cubs, Pfaadt went 5 1/3 shutout innings with six strikeouts and a lone walk.
The reason this start sticks out is his pitch mix. He threw 71% fastballs and 25% sliders, virtually abandoning his changeup and curveball. His slider is an impressive pitch, so banking on a two-pitch mix might be one way to help Pfaadt work through more consistent starts. It was just one game, but it could be an important factor to watch down the stretch.
The Diamondbacks’ pitching situation will be curious to follow once the playoffs roll around. Gallen, Kelly, then what? Could you stack pitchers like Pfaadt and Nelson? Try to roll out a bullpen game? Pfaadt and Nelson have plenty of potential, but it will take some more tweaking before they appear to be playoff-caliber pitchers.
With only eleven games left, the Diamondbacks are fresh off a three-game sweep over their direct Wild Card competitors in the Chicago Cubs. They took three out of four games against the Cubs two series ago, as well. That will be a massive boost for the Diamondbacks as they have, at least temporarily, jumped to the second Wild Card spot despite losing three of four to the New York Mets in between series against the Cubs.
Arizona has struggled to consistently receive great pitching or great hitting simultaneously, but their recent displays haven’t been without hope. They outscored the Cubs 31-21 across those seven games, winning six.
The Diamondbacks have a -26 run differential on the season and a 37-45 record against winning teams. It will take more than just one or two players finding their stride for the Diamondbacks to find the form they need to win in the playoffs, but the talent is there.