On Tuesday night Arizona lost 14-5 to Florida in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. After one of the many pitching changes D'backs manager Bob Melvin had to make, a Marlins TV announcer said, "Melvin hasn't had many nights like this."
Uh, yes he has.
More than two-thirds of the way into the season, the biggest conundrum in baseball has to be the Diamondbacks and how they have managed to lead the National League in wins despite getting taken to the woodshed on a regular basis. Tuesday's rout was just the latest example. On Aug. 2 they lost to the Padres 11-0, and a couple of days before that they gave up two touchdowns in a shutout loss to the Braves.
The blowouts have become so common -- Arizona has allowed double-digit runs in losses 13 times this season -- that the D'backs, despite being 14 games over .500, have been outscored by a healthy margin (30 runs). Going strictly by run differential (or Pythagorean record), the D'backs should have a 57-63 record. Instead, they are 67-53 and sitting in the catbird's seat in the NL West.
That means Arizona is playing 10 games above its run differential, which is unusual but not unheard of (the 2004 Yankees played 12 games above their run differential). The only other team close to the D'backs in this regard is Seattle, another Cinderella contender, which is plus-6. (The Mariners' unlikely success was covered ably recently by Fungoes writer Cliff Corcoran.)
The point of looking at Pythag records isn't necessarily to rule on a team being a fluke or a legit contender. It's more of a model that can serve to tell you some things about a team. For example, one of the tenets of Pythag theory is that the truly good teams win close games and blowouts. They have enough talent to simply overpower teams sometimes. Here are the records of the six current division leaders in one-run games and blowouts (5-plus runs):
Boston Red Sox
One-Run Games: 18-17, .514
Blowout (5+ runs): 25-13, .658
One-Run Games: 20-15, .571
Blowout (5+ runs): 17-15, .531
Los Angeles Angels
One-Run Games: 16-12, .571
Blowout (5+ runs): 19-13, .594
New York Mets
One-Run Games: 16-8, .667
Blowout (5+ runs): 23-12, .657
One-Run Games: 19-14, .576
Blowout (5+ runs): 15-15, .500
One-Run Games: 26-16, .619
Blowout (5+ runs): 12-22, .353
The D'backs are the only division leader with a losing record in blowout games. (Milwaukee, which also has been outscored on the season, 573 to 568, has broken even in blowouts.) That goes a long way toward explaining the disparity. Here are five other factors to consider:
1) The D'backs have an outstanding back end of the bullpen. When they do have a lead, they rarely give it up. Jose Valverde (155 ERA+), Tony Pena (192 ERA+), Brandon Lyon (164 ERA+), Doug Slaten (194 ERA+) and Juan Cruz (146 ERA+) have been outstanding. (ERA+ is an index whereby 100 is the average; anything above is good and below is bad; provided by baseball-reference.com.) The Mariners are similarly stout in the bullpen with J.J. Putz and his crew of setup men.
2) The other guys in the 'pen, the mopup relievers, are awful. Here's a rule of thumb for D'backs fans: If Dustin Nippert comes into a game, Melvin is waving the white flag. This means that once teams take a comfy lead on Arizona, they can easily pile on more runs.
3) The D'backs are 7-3 in "walkoff games," including three straight walkoff wins from July 26 to 28. Whether this is "magic" or "scrappiness" or just plain luck, it's definitely a factor in the D'backs' success in one-run games.
4) Livan Hernandez. When he's bad, he's really bad. Of those aforementioned 13 games in which the D'backs have allowed more than double-digit runs, Hernandez was the starter in five. His overall numbers aren't terrible (4.85 ERA, 95 ERA+), but when he's not on his game, he gets shelled.
5. Defense and the little things. Arizona plays pretty good defense -- it is tied for fifth in the NL with a .701 defensive efficiency (turning balls in play into outs). The D'backs also lead the major leagues in sac flies with 48, which is a telling stat: Oftentimes sac flies are not a good thing because you give up an out for a run and it depresses your ability to have a big inning, but in a close game a sac fly can make all the difference. Covering a lot of ground on defense and hitting situationally are two things that come in handy in close games.
Run differential is a useful tool, but it starts to lose its predictive value the further you progress into the season. At this point, more than 110 games in, it's safe to say the D'backs are for real. They are what they are -- a decent team that is suited to winning close games but doesn't have the talent to overpower anyone. Where they go from here will depend more on what they get from phenom Justin Upton and whether they can find a fifth starter not named Byung-Hyun Kim than it will on luck or magic or smoke and mirrors.