Postseason D-Backs: What makes the Snakes rattle?

By every measure, the most surprising contestant in the 2011 postseason is the Arizona Diamondbacks. Dead last in the NL West in 2010 at 65-97, this was a team that nobody who knows anything predicted to be playing October baseball in 2011.

This shows what we who know anything know.

The surprise should humble prognosticators, and it should also cause post-season Arizona opponents to take this ball club very seriously. The D-backs have spent the entire season being underestimated and overcoming long odds. A team squaring off against these Snakes would be well advised to stop underestimating, and start figuring that the odds might not be so long. And this acknowledgment of new reality—new “facts on the ground”—might be especially prudent in the postseason tournament.

Obviously sheer talent is paramount, but talent aside, history has demonstrated that there is a type of team, a roster formula, that’s optimized in the postseason. Given the circumstances dictated by the high proportion of off-days as well as pitcher-friendly October weather/visibility conditions, the postseason-”tuned” ball club relies upon one or two up-front stud starting pitchers (because starting pitching depth doesn’t matter) as well as home run power throughout the lineup (because rallies with multiple hits strung together will be hard to come by).

As were the 2010 World Series-winning San Francisco Giants, the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks are—yes, you guessed it—just that type of team.

Who are these guys?

The out-of-nowhere path to the postseason taken by the Diamondbacks means that many of their key performers may be less than familiar to the national audience. Starting right at the top: their aforementioned two up-front stud starting pitchers, right-handers Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson (26 years old and 24 years old, respectively), both blossomed into stardom just this year. Fans who haven’t yet seen these two should know that what’s most impressive about both isn’t overwhelming stuff so much as terrific control and command of excellent stuff. They’ve spent 2011 looking like poised veteran aces accustomed to prevailing in big games.

As for the sources of Arizona home runs, they’re plentiful and legitimate even though they may not be household names. Beginning with the most obscure: 23-year-old rookie first baseman Paul Goldschmidt made his big league debut on Aug. 1, after laying waste to three minor league levels to the tune of .317/.407/.620 in 315 games. He stands six-foot-three, weighs 245 pounds, and displays bone-crushing power to all fields.

Probably more familiar are 27-year-old center fielder Chris Young, a brilliant defender who strikes out abundantly and struggles to hit for average, but when he does make contact it is mega-decibel, and 27-year-old catcher Miguel Montero, who has steadily matured into an outstanding all-around hitter.

Undoubtedly the best-known D-back is the best D-back: 23-year-old right fielder Justin Upton, already twice an All-Star. He’s still an error-prone right fielder, but most every other element of Upton’s game has developed into elite status. He presents the complete power-and-speed package, and projects as one of the game’s dynamic superstars for many seasons to come.

Something borrowed

Two additional keys to the Arizona offense aren’t so young. 30-year-old Ryan Roberts, a knockabout fringe player with his third organization, stepped forward this year and grabbed the first-string third base job by producing solid extra-base power. 29-year-old second baseman Aaron Hill was acquired in a late August trade and has proceeded to hit robustly well down the stretch. Hill’s career is so riddled with inconsistency that it’s difficult to know just how good a hitter he really is, but one thing for certain is that when Hill has been good, he’s been very, very good.

Among the many weaknesses plaguing the 2010 Diamondbacks, the most severe was the bullpen. General manager Kevin Towers did a splendid job of patching that hole by cobbling together a crew of mostly no-names. The closer, imported this year as a free agent, is 34-year-old journeyman J.J. Putz, who’s nothing special but has calmly gotten the job done with relentless strike-throwing. Overall the Arizona ‘pen isn’t a strength, but no longer is it a problem.

Vulnerabilities

This is far from a perfect team, of course. The left field platoon of left-handed-batting 24-year-old Gerardo Parra and, well, whatever right-handed batter might be around, can most politely be described as “adequate.” And at shortstop, with the loss of standout regular Stephen Drew to a broken ankle in July, manager Kirk Gibson has been forced to improvise by alternating veteran handymen Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald, an arrangement that can most politely be described as “makeshift.”

The skipper

Due credit for the sudden blooming in the Sonoran Desert must be granted to that Gibson guy. At the age of 54, this is his first full season as a manager (at any level, majors or minors), and no matter why it took so long for him to land a managerial gig, Gibson has to be the strong favorite for 2011 Manager of the Year.

The precise measurement of the impact of a field manager is a vexing issue (though no one has done a better job of tackling it than THT’s own Chris Jaffe). Yours truly is of the school of thought holding that while the technical aspects of baseball managing (lineup selection, bunt-or-steal, pitching changes and so on) are tricky enough, at the big league level there’s probably not much distinguishing one manager from the next in that department (especially with active input from the bench coach and the pitching coach).

Instead, it’s the “soft” aspects of managing—handling the front office and the media, and most crucially, fostering an atmosphere of confident focus among the players—that present the deeper challenge, and where genuine managerial skill is tested. As in any other realm of organized behavior (business, education, the military, whatever), managing in baseball is mostly about being a communicator, and especially a leader, bringing out the best in others.

If there’s one thing that strikes the observer about Kirk Gibson, it’s the way he seems to command respect. This guy comes across as an old-fashioned, no-nonsense leader of men.

Depending on how deeply into the post-season tournament the Diamondbacks push this year, the “Platoon Sergeant” Gibson angle could become one of the national media’s favorites. It may well become (oh, let’s face it, it almost certainly will become) laid on a bit too thickly by those who make a living by laying things on a bit too thickly.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be something to it. The single commonality held by all these disparate Arizona players suddenly achieving personal-best performance in 2011 is their manager in 2011. Already it’s been quite a story, and it has the chance to soon become a much greater one.

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