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Series Preview: The Diamondbacks have secretly been good for most of the season

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This series probably decides the season for both teams. Unless it doesn’t.

Washington Nationals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Diamondbacks traded away pitching icon Zack Greinke at the deadline but added Mike Leake. In the offseason, they traded away franchise face Paul Goldschmidt but found Christian Walker. Last year, they lost Jake Lamb to injury but traded for Eduardo Escobar. This year, despite just a 61-60 record with 41 games remaining, they’ve outscored their opponents by 74 runs and have a Pythagorean record of 67-54.

No, a theoretical record isn’t the same as the actual mark, and for all their runs scored versus runs allowed, they’ve not done it in the permutation that would’ve netted them the most possible wins; and, no, Mike Leake (1.0 fWAR) is not Zack Greinke (3.9). But, Arizona’s offensive prowess stands out. They’re 4th in the National League in runs scored (8th in MLB), with Walker (1.8 fWAR) being an upgrade over Goldschmidt (1.7) and Escobar (3.1) more than capably replacing Lamb (0.6).

They’re also the best defensive team in baseball, if you accept FanGraphs Defensive Runs Above average figure. At +64.3 runs, it means that their defensive has won them the equivalent of six games. For context, the Giants have a +42.4, suggesting they’ve won four more games than the base 48 of a replacement player-only quality team. The Orioles’ -59.9 means they’ve lost six games because of their defense.

The biggest reason why tanking and being “conservative” with baseball’s vast wealth frustrates some people (myself included) is because it can work. Teams can still succeed by trying in less obvious ways and seeking out cheaper options. The gamble teams make is always that fans will prefer to watch a team that wins and the players doing the winning don’t matter nearly as much as the winning itself.

But for the second straight season, the Diamondbacks are threatening to finish right around .500. Last year, they, like the Giants, were done in by two disastrous 8-19 months: May and September. That was with Greinke and Goldschmidt on the roster (Lamb was on the IL). So far, they’ve been able to avoid an 8-19 month, but how are they going to get over this hump of mediocrity, especially without an ace?

Well, uh, I’ve already mentioned the answer: hitting and defense. Their team wOBA of .327 is middling, but they’re also a +11.7 runs in Baserunning, #1 in the National League and just behind the Rangers for #2 in baseball. That means they have exemplary baserunning skills and they make it tough for other lineups to generate non-home run offense. On that note, they’re #6 in the NL in HR/9 (1.30), which is better than the Giants (1.39) despite pitching in a hitter-friendly yard.

So, why is this series just as crucial to Arizona’s playoff chances as it is the Giants’? Won’t all the underlying analytics eventually prove out by way of keeping them in the race until the very, very end of the season? That’s a possibility, sure, but even the analytics have to give way to the number of games remaining. 22 of their remaining 41 come against the NL West.

Here’s how they’ve done against the NL West this year:

LAD | 5-10 (4 remaining) | 58 RS / 91 RA (-33)
SDP | 3-7 (9 remaining) | 43 RS / 40 RA (+3)
COL | 7-9 (3 remaining) | 94 RS / 86 RA (+8)
SFG | 7-6 (6 remaining) | 76 RS / 59 RA (+17)

Remember: Arizona swept the Giants in San Francisco back in May by outscoring them in a three-game series, 34-8. They then went on a five-game losing streak. They’re 11-10 over their last 21 games and there’s not really much of a pattern: 2-1 against Baltimore, 1-3 in Miami, 1-1 at Yankee Stadium, 2-1 against the Nats, 2-1 against the Phillies, 1-2 at Dodger Stadium, 2-1 at Coors.

The Giants beat up on Philadelphia, but Arizona handled them and outscored Washington 25-15 in their three-game series. They’re 27-28 at home with 26 to go. These next four will be crucial for the rest of their season.

As for the Giants, they’ve been here before. I maintain that the greatest four-game series of the modern Giants era — or, at the very least, of the Bonds era — was this July series back in 2001 played in Arizona. The Giants didn’t make the postseason that year, so the sweep and playoff race was for naught, but there wasn’t a second Wild Card then, and it wasn’t Bruce Bochy’s final year as manager. I’m certain the Giants’ road success to this point (31-28) has been more the result of luck than skill and now without a competent rotation behind Bumgarner and Samardzija, it’s certain that luck is out long gone, especially when you consider that they won the two series they’ve already played in Arizona this year.

Pitcher to watch

The thrill of the trade deadline — That’s who Pomeranz and Black brought back?? Sam Dyson for three prospects! Mark Melancon for a roster spot! Uhh... Joe McCarthy? Scooter Genett? — ended for me as soon as I read that Arizona had traded for Mike Leake.

The dude the Giants’ pinned their faint 2015 playoff hopes on in the face of a collapsed starting rotation is still out there chucking sinkers, cutters, and changeups and that slightly above average high-spin curveball, but he never really amounted to much beyond what we saw in his nine starts in 2015. Sure, he pitched a shutout for the Giants and nearly threw a no-hitter last month, but he’s pitched for five teams over the last five seasons and has a 97 ERA+ in 146 starts.

But you just know he’s going to torment the Giants. Unless! They’ve figured out how to do what the rest of the league is doing and crush sinkers. Then all they’ll have to do is watch out for his slider and curveball, two pitches that makeup two-thirds of his whiffs.

Hitter to watch

Josh Rojas came over from the Greinke trade and the former Astros farmhand has been plugged straight into the lineup. He’s a left-handed hitting infielder/outfielder. Says MLB.com:

Rojas has made consistent contact from the left side of the plate since turning pro but is doing more damage in 2019. He’s showing an ability to drive the ball for the power to the opposite field that he didn’t display in the past.

Prediction

The Giants will not sweep this series, even though they need to.