As the Arizona Diamondbacks proved last year, you can’t win a division in April. They finished 20-8 after the first month of the season with a league best +56 run differential. They had a 5.5 game lead over the second place Dodgers and looked like the best team in baseball. Their young players were hitting, their starters were dominating, and their bullpen was keeping leads safe.
It would be the only month of the year where everything clicked, as they finished 82-80 and watched the Dodgers surge past them to take the NL West. The D’Backs were the best team in April, but it wasn’t enough to get them to the playoffs. There are just too many variables for a team to lock up a division in April.
A team can certainly lose a division in April, though. The “it’s still early” mantra doesn’t hold if you dig yourself a hole too large to overcome in five months. The 2009 Diamondbacks are pretty close to proving that.
They currently sit at 7-11, 5.5 games behind the first place Dodgers. They could take comfort in the fact that the Dodgers were able to overcome an equal hole last year, but the circumstances of their positions are not the same. The Dodgers played well last April, posting a +30 run differential that showed they were better than their 14-13 record in the first month of the year. The D’Backs have posted a -25 run differential, which suggests that they have earned their .389 winning percentage.
Adding injury to insult, the D’Backs are going to be without Brandon Webb for at least the next six weeks. His original diagnosis was “no problem”, which was then adjusted to “he’ll miss a start”, and now has become “won’t throw for three weeks at a minimum”. At this point, assuming that Webb will be able to return in June and pitch at ace-type levels is not a very good bet.
Webb is clearly Arizona’s best player, and subtracting him for six weeks and then projecting some level of reduced performance for the rest of the season necessitates that we change how well we expect Arizona to play over the remainder of the season. Before the season started, CHONE had Arizona as a 79 win team. Given their 7-11 start, we’d expect them to finish with 77 wins if CHONE’s opinion of their roster hadn’t changed at all from Opening Day.
It has, however, changed, thanks to Webb’s injury. Replacing one of the best pitchers in baseball with Yusmeiro Petit for even just six weeks will cost Arizona at least one win, and Webb’s diminished projection could cost them another in the second half of the season. So, an updated CHONE projection accounting for Webb’s injury would have the D’Backs finishing with about 75 wins.
CHONE didn’t like the Dodgers all that much before the season started, projecting them to finish with 82 wins. However, their strong start adds three wins to that projection, and even if we assume they will immediately regress to Opening Day CHONE expectations, they’d finish with 85 wins.
Arizona isn’t trying to make up a 5.5 game gap – they’re trying to make up a 10 game gap. They weren’t as good as the Dodgers before the season started when Webb was healthy, and they certainly aren’t as good now without him. When you add in the 5.5 game hole they’ve already dug themselves, and it’s extremely unlikely that the D’Backs will win the NL West this year.
They couldn’t win the division with quality play last April, but they very well could have lost it with their struggles this April.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.