Wild West: Early season woes in the Ravine and desert dominance

By some combination of stubbornness, intrigue, and luck, I dropped in on the Diamondbacks’ best season start in franchise history. Spring training rumblings convinced me to buy into the NL West, and my focus immediately went to the 93-win team overshadowed by its LA rival. So far, the D-backs’ start—and the division—has been fascinating.

In 2017, Arizona went 11-8 against Los Angeles. Their final two series against the Dodgers in the season? Sweep and sweep. Their first series against LA in 2018? Sweep. They took two of three with Kershaw stopping the streak in the final game of the second series on April 15. If the Dodgers are the standard in the West, the D-backs are doing their best to emulate them.

The only team I’ve watched as frequently as I’ve watched the Cardinals this season (see: every day) is the Diamondbacks, and thank goodness because it means I can write at least half this post without feeling like an idiot. The D-backs have been scoring plenty of runs early on (77 to be exact, fourth in the NL), but the interesting thing about this team is its pitching. As a team, they’re in the top 5 in MLB when it comes to ERA and FIP (don’t throw tomatoes at me, please). They’re also in that top 5 in WAR, attesting to their pitchers’ value. You can thank the bullpen in particular, which is sporting the third-best ERA in MLB. Perhaps it’s their changing philosophy; closers hold no greater value than other relievers, and there’s a certain flexibility in their pen that may give their best relievers—Bradley, Hirano, and Boxberger—greater longevity.

As for their starters, there have been some promising looks early on. Patrick Corbin is one to watch. I swear I’ve mentioned his not one but two sliders to nearly everyone I talk to (they’re filthy, check ’em out). His most notable start was against the Dodgers on April 4. He pitched 7.1 scoreless innings, surrendered a hit and a walk, and struck out 12. Twelve. It was the slider(s), man. Zack Greinke has had a rough go of things early on, but his movement is still deceptive despite his fading velocity. His xFIP looks great (2.63), though his ERA (5.29) and FIP (4.00) leave much to be desired. The aforementioned movement makes him fun to watch, and I expect his numbers to start looking better. Another notable starter is Zack Godley, who has had solid outings save for, uh, Sunday’s game (paging Godley’s command, please report back). Anyway, here’s a summary of how things have gone so far courtesy of Baseball-Reference:

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 8.15.45 PM

Robbie Ray has struggled with command due to some mechanics issues, and even more concerning to many is his decreased velocity. Jeff Wiser of The Athletic* points out that this could hurt his entire repertoire; further, he’s been more reliant on breaking balls, and those have gotten him in trouble with the walks. It’s likely we’ll see more tinkering with mechanics, and eyes should remain on his velo as the season progresses.

In general, the Diamondbacks’ rotation poses some questions, even more so at the moment with Taijuan Walker on the DL (right elbow inflammation). Still, the bullpen looks to pick up the slack where the rotation falls short. All in all, between the pitching and the lineup, the D-backs are remarkably solid.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers are off to their worst start since 2009 at 5-9. While putting stock in early numbers might be for suckers, it’s troubling for the defending pennant champs. After their April 15 win, their run differential was -8, good for 18th in MLB. Game by game, Baseball-Reference’s margin of victory graphic provides a visual:

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 3.42.27 PM

They beat the Diamondbacks 7-2 on Sunday thanks in part to Zack Godley’s inability to locate pitches and their patience at the plate. Doubling down, Kershaw stifled the D-backs’ potent offense. Interestingly, most of their wins have been substantial. Besides a 2-1 victory over San Francisco on April 8, their other four wins have involved a run differential of four or better. Their offense has been on and off against Arizona. They were shut out on April 4 and faced large deficits in a couple other games but have otherwise shown out even in their losses. On a macro level, their hitting seems fine. In fact, their lineup can be downright scary, and Justin Turner isn’t even back yet.

Rather, what’s notable about their first 14 games is the number of runs they’ve given up—62, with 58 of them earned. This is good for eighth and ninth in the National League, respectively. By comparison, the current division leader—Arizona—is good for second in the NL with 51 runs allowed (48 earned). There are some points of concern in the rotation. Ground balls seem to be hurting Alex Wood’s ERA (5.09), but his FIP and xFIP are both excellent at 2.09 and 2.73 respectively. By these measures, he’s prone to some bad luck with balls finding gaps, and I’d expect his numbers to balance out over time. On the other hand, things are bleak for 38-year-old Rich Hill in the early going. His 4.92 FIP, 4.04 xFIP, and a low ground ball rate mean that fly ball numbers—and by extension home run numbers—will be higher. It’s looking to be another season of decline for the aging veteran. Hyun-Jin Ryu had a rocky start against Arizona on April 2, going 3.2 innings with five hits, three earned runs, and five walks. His following start against Oakland resulted in six scoreless innings in which he surrendered just one hit and one walk. These are tiny sample sizes and different teams, of course, so I’ll leave it at this: he’s sporting a 4.26 xFIP. He may outperform that number, but it’s notable since xFIP is a useful tool for determining what a future ERA may look like. Command could be a struggle for Ryu.

Don’t ask me about the bullpen. I don’t know. Are you okay, Kenley Jansen?

Anyway, I’d expect the Dodgers to heat up any day. I mean, they’re the freakin’ Dodgers, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that these fourteen games mean they’re going to suck all season. Until they start winning though, I’m going to enjoy watching my adopted NL West team quietly sit atop the division.

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*Go subscribe to The Athletic. Thank you.

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