How the D-backs’ Season Fell Apart

On Sunday, the Rockies shut out the Diamondbacks 2-0, thus completing a three-game sweep in Arizona that put the home team out of its misery as far as the 2018 season is concerned. The Diamondbacks spent 125 days with at least a share of first place in the NL West this year, more than any other team, and when they weren’t in first they were at least in Wild Card contention. And then the calendar flipped to September, and they made like Wile E. Coyote:

From August 31 to September 23, the Diamondbacks lost 17 out of 22 games — that’s a half-game worse than the Orioles, who have already lost 111 games overall — producing a playoff odds graph that, as I suggested last week, looks more like the sharp spires of Utah’s Bryce Canyon than the signature expanses of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. (As a Utah native who has never hiked the latter, I may be biased here.)

Anyway, ouch. The collapse has to rate as one of the more gruesome in recent history, though it isn’t as though the team frittered away a seemingly insurmountable lead or was a powerhouse to begin with. The Diamondbacks’ largest lead in the NL West was six games, and that was as of May 1, when they had just beaten the Dodgers for the second straight night to open a four-game series and climbed to an NL-best 21-8. They have the NL’s fifth-worst record since then, despite outscoring the opposition:

NL Teams Through May 1 and Since
Tm W-L W% Run Dif pythW% W-L W% Run Dif pythW%
Dodgers 12-17 .414 8 .528 75-52 .591 165 .637
Cubs 16-11 .593 34 .631 75-53 .586 82 .567
Brewers 18-13 .581 7 .527 71-54 .568 62 .551
Rockies 16-15 .516 -23 .419 69-55 .556 24 .519
Braves 17-11 .607 39 .631 71-57 .555 62 .551
Cardinals 16-12 .571 26 .602 71-57 .555 61 .548
Nationals 14-16 .467 12 .542 64-62 .508 67 .555
Phillies 16-13 .552 12 .544 62-64 .492 -28 .477
Pirates 17-13 .567 12 .539 61-63 .492 -21 .482
Reds 7-23 .233 -44 .364 59-68 .465 -71 .445
D-backs 21-8 .724 43 .667 58-69 .457 4 .503
Giants 15-15 .500 -19 .426 57-69 .452 -51 .454
Mets 17-10 .630 13 .548 56-73 .434 -41 .466
Padres 11-20 .355 -35 .387 51-74 .408 -121 .397
Marlins 11-18 .379 -46 .331 51-75 .405 -164 .367
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Through games of September 23.

That May 1 win was just one of eight the Diamondbacks notched that month en route to an 8-19 record. They rebounded to go 19-9 in June, but spent the next two months meandering around .500, going 13-13 in July and 14-12 in August. Even so, they were in either first or second place in the NL West for all but one day of that two-month span of mediocrity.

Interestingly enough, on August 28, colleague Craig Edwards foreshadowed the Diamondbacks’ September woes, noting that they possessed the hardest schedule of any team over the remainder of the season, opponents with a combined projected winning percentage of .535. Aside from five games against the lowly Padres (51-83 at that juncture) and a pair remaining against the still-mediocre Giants (67-67), they had series against the division-leading Astros (81-51), Braves (74-57), and Cubs (78-53) — as well as two series apiece against both the Dodgers (71-61) and Rockies (72-60).

Even when you mentally cross off the Diamondbacks’ unplayed games (three against the Padres and two against the Dodgers, who came from behind to beat them on Monday night), that’s a daunting gauntlet to run. In a scrum of eight contenders fighting for five spots, it had the potential to be decisive. Whereas, at that point, Arizona’s raw projection to finish with 88.9 wins placed them second in the NL and an eyelash ahead of the Dodgers (88.7) in the division, Craig illustrated that factoring in the schedule lowered their projection to 87.9 wins, enough to drop them to sixth in the league, with an October free of playoff games.

As you already know, it didn’t go well from almost precisely that point. Not only have they failed to win back-to-back games at any point since August 29-30, they’ve racked up two separate four-game losing streaks and two three-gamers along the way.

So, what happened? In part, their bullpen turned into an arson unit. Mostly, though, the D-backs stopped hitting. Mind you, they weren’t exactly a juggernaut in the first place, batting .239/.315/.403 through August 30, numbers that ranked 26th, 20th, and 21st, respectively, among MLB teams. It’s fair to suggest that the impact of the Chase Field humidor — which, in its first season, has turned the team’s home from a very hitter-friendly one, featuring the hardest-hit balls in the majors, into one that is much closer to neutral (see Jeff Sullivan’s deep dive) — leads to underrating them in a park-neutral context; as it was, their 87 wRC+ for the period ranked 24th. On the other hand, it’s not the humidor that caused them to hit .210/.278/.360 (64 wRC+) over their next 22 games, numbers that rank 30th, 29th, 28th, and 29th, respectively.

Among the Diamondbacks’ regulars in that latter span, only one produced a wRC+ above 85, namely Paul Goldschmidt, who entered September as an MVP candidate and has done nothing to cost himself the award other than suddenly find himself in the company of misery:

Diamondbacks’ Regulars Since August 31
Paul Goldschmidt 84 10.7% 22.6% .311 .386 .568 143
Ketel Marte 59 6.8% 20.3% .231 .293 .423 85
David Peralta 77 7.8% 16.9% .257 .312 .386 83
Eduardo Escobar 87 8.0% 18.4% .231 .287 .385 74
Daniel Descalso 51 11.8% 27.5% .182 .280 .386 69
A.J. Pollock 83 6.0% 21.7% .216 .277 .378 69
Nick Ahmed 78 7.7% 14.1% .197 .256 .310 42
Steven Souza Jr. 60 16.7% 35.0% .102 .267 .143 21
Jon Jay 49 4.1% 24.5% .191 .224 .255 21
Jeff Mathis 37 8.1% 48.6% .118 .189 .235 8
Through games of September 23.

Yes, we’re all shocked about Mathis bringing up the rear. Note that, besides Goldschmidt — who overcame a rocky beginning to his season — just one regular managed a .300 on-base percentage and just one produced a .400 slugging percentage within this admittedly small but also very important sample. All of which only partly explains why manager Torey Lovullo benched several regulars on September 19 against the Cubs, namely Escobar, Goldschmidt, Peralta, and Pollock, in an attempt to jump-start the offense while saying, “I just felt like right now, on this day, this was our best opportunity to go out and score some runs. It doesn’t mean that these players are getting benched or that I’m mad at them or anything like that. I just felt like the group that I chose to play today is going to give us a chance to win this game.”

With a lineup featuring Patrick Kivlehan, Chris Owings, Ildemaro Vargas, and Christian Walker instead of the aforementioned quartet, the gambit worked for a night, as Owings, Walker, and Mathis (!) all homered en route to a 9-0 victory; it was Mathis’s first round-tripper of 2018. Alas, those nine runs matched the team’s total scored in the six games on either side of that outburst, making for a pretty weak final stand. Overall, their production dropped from 4.43 runs per game through August 30 to 3.41 after.

On the other side of the ball, Arizona went from yielding 3.78 runs per game to 5.18, which is no good if you’re trying to compete for something other than the top pick in the draft.

Diamondbacks’ Pitching Since August 31
Through 8/30 3.77 (8th) 3.74 (8th) 3.09 (2nd) 4.01 (16h)
Since 8/31 4.46 (20th) 4.33 (19th) 6.07 (29th) 4.46 (19th)
Dif +0.69 +0.59 +2.98 +0.45
Through games of September 23. Number in parentheses is rank among all 30 teams.

The starters took a hit, sure, but the bullpen’s ERA nearly doubled. I’d suggest that the toxicity of the fumes from the team’s vaunted bullpen cart finally got to them, but we all know that thing is powered electrically. Note that the bullpen was dramatically outperforming its peripherals over the first five months of the season, but that it was undone by a BABIP that spiked from .266 to .358 while the unit’s walk and homer rates both edged up slightly.

Individually, we’re talking about tiny samples of fewer than 10 innings across the board, so it’s important not to get too wrapped up in any individual performance, but it bears noting that of the team’s seven relievers with a leverage index of at least 1.0 for the period, four of them — namely closer Brad Boxberger (14.54 ERA), setup men Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin (both 9.00 ERAs) and righty Jake Diekman (15.19 ERA) — were lit up like pinball machine, even if their varying FIPs suggest the outcomes weren’t entirely within their hands. Among the starters, Zack Greinke (4.64 ERA, 4.61 FIP) and Zack Godley (7.64 ERA, 5.65 FIP) have been the least effective since August 31, though losing Clay Buchholz (2.01 ERA, 3.46 FIP) to a bout of elbow stiffness didn’t help matters.

Again, not all of that increase in runs allowed is on the pitchers. The staff actually did a a bit better at preventing hard contact over the past few weeks than they had before, with a hard-hit rate that dropped from an MLB-high 41.2% to 39.0% (fifth-highest). Via Statcast:

Diamondbacks’ Pitching via Statcast
Period Exit Velo Launch Angle wOBA xwOBA
Through 8/30 88.6 9.4 .297 .328
Since 8/31 87.5 7.8 .335 .327
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Through games of September 23.

That’s a 38-point spike in wOBA against a one-point drop in xwOBA, which implies a fair bit of regression on the defensive side after the point where Sullivan highlighted the team’s strong but largely unheralded defense.

Anyway, one year after winning 93 games and taking the Wild Card route into the Division Series — the team’s only time above 81 wins and only trip to the playoffs since 2011 — the Diamondbacks are on the outside looking in again. There’s talk of dismantling the squad. The Diamondbacks, rightly or wrongly, complain about payroll with some frequency, and the impact of Greinke’s contract, which has three years and $104.5 million remaining on it, is considerable, for sure. Pollock and Patrick Corbin will be free agents this winter, and Goldschmidt after 2019. The minor-league system was recently ranked 27th by Baseball America. To these eyes, there’s still a lot of talent here, enough to contend if they can figure out how to upgrade beyond a few glove men who can’t hit, but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a challenge.

For the better part of five months, the Diamondbacks were up to that challenge this year, but for a little over three weeks, they weren’t, and it spelled their end. That’s baseball.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

Arizona never recovered from those 3 gut shots they took in Los Angeles August 31-September 2. Entering that they were up 2 on the Dodgers with 28 games to go.

They’ve gone 5-18 in these last 23 games, with a crazy 7 losses in 1 run games.

also for Goldschmidt for September not hurting himself- he’s only got a 124 wRC+ in September, that’s #24 in NL. he maybe didn’t lose it himself, but he sure didn’t go out and win it either.

david k
5 years ago
Reply to  stever20

Yes, that was tough, since they led late (I think 7th inning or later) in EVERY ONE of those 4 games, yet lost 3 of them. It was that combo of lack of hitting and not-so-great bullpen that was their undoing.

But the signs were there even before that series. They lost 2-of-3 from a very mediocre Giants team right before the Dodger series, and before that they lost 2 of 3 to a reeling Mariners team, at home.

I thought that they were going to look at the 2-5 record against the Mets, at a time the Mets were falling apart, as the games they would have regretted the most, but now that turned out to be just a drop in the bucket (besides, the Dodgers went something like 1-6 against the Reds, so sometimes those things happen)

5 years ago
Reply to  david k

yep. If I have to track down one game it was the one on August 31. Greinke goes thru 7 innings- having given up a HR to Kiki Hernandez in the 7th to tie it up 2-2. Greinke due up 3rd that inning and spot comes up with 1 on and 1 out. They have him sacrifice Marte to 2nd and then they don’t score. They have Greinke come out to pitch in the 8th- and 1st pitch of the 8th, Justin Turner hits homer to give Dodgers the lead they never relinquish.