I can’t say I go into the match-up between the Diamondbacks and the Cubs brimming with desert confidence; but that’s exactly the way things have been this entire season. After all, this is a team which was dead-last in the majors for batting average (.250), had only one pitcher reach fifteen wins, and was outscored by twenty runs. By just about every statistical measure, we suck, and deserve to get swept away by the Cubs, whose payroll is almost twice that of the Diamondbacks.
Frankly, such a result wouldn’t surprise me. But, then again, neither would any other result, since this outfit has shown themselves capable of confounding any prediction, almost as a point of honor. Just when things look bleak, they win eight in a row. Just when things look unstoppable, they’ll drop a series to the Pirates, looking more like the 2004 version of the team, which lost 111 games, than the 2007 side, who posted the best record in the National League. As a result, I don’t have any expectations for this series. “Anybody, anytime” is the chosen team slogan, but I venture to suggest that “Que sera, sera” is equally appropriate. That said, you don’t reach ninety wins by “luck”, much as some disciples of run differential might wish that to be true. Here are the key factors for Arizona, if they are to progress further.
1. Brandon Webb is the best pitcher in the NL playoffs. The reigning Cy Young winner has, if anything, improved since last season, shaving nine points off both his ERA and opponent’s batting average. That included a scoreless streak of 42 innings, the longest in the majors since Orel Hershiser in 1988. He won’t repeat as Cy Young winner, because of the phenomenal season enjoyed by Jake Peavy, but the Padres will be enjoying the post-season on TBS. The Cubs could face Webb twice in a short series, so either need to beat him, or everyone else in the Dbacks rotation.
2. A bullpen that doesn’t surrender leads. This season, the Diamondbacks are 57-10 when leading after only four innings. That’s not actually all that much better a winning percentage than the Cubs (63-12), but the kicker is in the one-run games. There, Arizona excel, with a record of 32-20, compared to Chicago’s 23-22. That’s in part because Bob Melvin has four rock-solid relievers in Juan Cruz, Tony Peña, Brandon Lyon and Jose Valverde, who have combined for 284.2 innings at an ERA of 2.94. They’ve been given the bulk of high-leverage innings this year, and have responded magnificently. Measured by ERA+, all four make the top 20 NL relievers with more than 60 innings pitched.
3. Aggression—but not psychopathically so—on the base-paths. The top three base-thieves from the Arizona postseason roster, Eric Byrnes, Chris Young and Stephen Drew, are a combined 86-13 in stolen-bases. Byrnes, in particular, has become a real threat, taking 50 bags, more than double his total in 2006, and his wheels will be up when he gets on base. The team has also become adept at taking extra bases, such as going from first to third on singles. While it’s difficult to measure such things, they tied with the Mets for the NL lead in sacrifice flies (21 more than the Cubs, who ranked 15th).
4. The Arizona offense: not as bad as advertised. Much has been made of the fact that the Dbacks scored fewer runs than they conceded, and looking at the raw figures suggests they are going to struggle to score runs. However, the pitching in the NL West was simply phenomenal this season. Here are the ERA+ figures for, first Arizona’s division opponents, and then the Cubs':
Now, the pitching staffs here work out about even (AZ 114, CHC 113). The difference is, for the Dbacks, facing good pitching will be business as usual, while the Cubs hitters have feasted on divisional opponents who are, at best, mediocre. In six games between the sides, Chicago only scored a total of 19 runs, while Arizona won four but scored one run less. This looks likely to be a tight series, decided by pitching.
It’s also worth noting, Arizona hit better as the year went on. In the last month of the season, their OPS was up to .811, a vast improvement on the overall figure of .734. August and September were the Dbacks most productive spell for run-scoring: in the final month, they scored 5.35 runs per game, while the Cubs fell just short of five in that area. This is entirely in line with what you would expect from a young team, still gaining experience at the major-league level – especially one with a couple of players who were pulled from Double-A. This year’s playoffs are a bonus for an organization many feel will be better in years to come.
5. And the rest. Particularly in a short series like this, things could turn on a myriad of factors. Chris Snyder, who threw out more base-stealers than any NL catcher save Russell Martin. Arizona’s pinch-hitters, with the most homers in the majors, and an OPS 114 points better than the Cubs’, The D-backs 27-17 record vs. lefty starters, whom they face in games two and three. Might the atmosphere at Chase Field turn into Wrigley Southwest? (From the series earlier this year, if AZ strike early, the Cubs fans will fall silent) And what role will that elusive, much-maligned quality, “clubhouse chemistry” play in things?
It promises to be a very interesting few days.
References & Resources
Disagree? Here’s why Tim Dierkes thinks the Cubs will win.