Snakes On A (Higher) Plane

They shocked the 100-game winning Dodgers in a Division Series, just like the Padres.  But they weren’t built on expensive free agents.

They are playing the potent Philadelphia Phillies for the National League Championship, in a series they have only seen once since their storybook 2001 season.  But they’re not made up primarily of grizzled (and, yes, expensive) veterans and don’t quite have the kind of home field advantage that the current zealots at Citizens’ Bank Park offer the Phils.   Their current home, now called Chase Field, which debuted with them, has aged miserably and is already being targeted for replacement.

They’re in their 25th season, much like the Tampa Bay Rays, but have only one playoff series victory beyond 2001 to show for their efforts.  They may have been the youngest pro sports team to ever win a world’s championship of consequence, achieving that goal in year 4, but they’ve tasted scant little success since.

And a mere two years ago, they lost 111 games.

So how unlikely is it that this team is now playing for a World Series berth?  According to ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle, pretty damn so:

The D-backs’ résumé, for an LCS team, is wild: They won 84 games — 10 more than they did a season ago and 32 more than in 2021. They were outscored by 15 runs this season. They were below the big-league average in both OPS+ and ERA+.

Counting this season, there have been 216 teams to reach the LCS round since it was established in 1969. We’re using the measure of wins per 162 games so that we can prorate the win totals for teams that played fewer games than that during a season. Arizona’s 84 wins this season slots it into a three-way tie for 211th, along with the 2008 Dodgers and the 1984 Royals.

As mentioned, the Diamondbacks were outscored by 15 runs during the 2023 regular season. Convert that differential into an expected winning percentage and apply that to a 162-game standard, and you end up with 79.5 expected wins.  Only two teams during the LCS era have done worse.

(But t)his is really what we mean when we talk about “where” the Diamondbacks came from. For the purpose of this analysis, what we’re calling foundation wins is simply the team’s total wins per 162 games over the two seasons prior to their LCS appearance. No team has earned an LCS slot with a lower foundation total than the 2023 Diamondbacks.

What the Diamondbacks have is solid young talent cresting well ahead of schedule, especially Rookie of the Year candidate Corbin Carroll and September callup Jordan Lawlar.  Some savvy trade deadline acquisitions, especially Mets reject Tommy Pham, who has stablized their DH role, and Paul Sewald (once a Met himself), who gave them an actual closer.  And pitching–well, credit the accelerated development of ace Zac Gallen and the renaissance of another veteran among babes, Merritt Kelly, to the brains of this man, as the ARIZONA REPUBLIC’s Theo Mackie chronicled:

Brent Strom allowed his retirement to last all of one week. On the fourth day, he was at a wedding outside of Houston when Torey Lovullo called. Strom didn’t want to talk yet, choosing to savor what would be his first and only taste of life after baseball. By the seventh day, he was fully engaged in Zoom calls with Diamondbacks staffers, from Lovullo and General Manager Mike Hazen down to team trainers.

Coaches, of course, do not have box scores or baseball cards. There is no perfect way to quantify Strom’s impact. Perhaps the Diamondbacks would be in Philadelphia this week without him.

Consider, though, the trajectory of their top two starting pitchers. In 2021, Zac Gallen had a 4.30 ERA. Over the past two years, that number is 3.04. For Merrill Kelly, the drop is 4.44 to 3.33.

Oh, yeah.  In the 70s, Brent Strom was a Mets minor leaguer who fizzled in his brief stint in New York.

So it’s hard not to root for this team, even if they may indeed be playing with house money at this point.  They’re young, aggressive, cocky and dangerous.  And with the stability of veteran leadership sprinkled in, they’re likely to be a factor for quite a while, perhaps long enough to do it in a new ballpark, or at least bring out more people from the blazing Phoenix sun to enjoy them in the current one.

These snakes aren’t full of venom.  More like piss and vigor.  They did fall behind big and early last night, but managed to close what was a 5-0 gap to the eventual 5-3 loss that now sees them down a game.  Bear in mind the Phillies didn’t win their own division, not last year, either.

So yes, the Phils have their own unlikely story.  But with 12 members of their roster 30 or older, the Phils’ window to break their own schneid of a mere 15 years is narrow.  The D-Backs’ window?  As wide as a Scottsdale boulevard .

It’s hard not to wrap yourselves around this kind of a team.  Kinda like a snake.



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