MLB Today: Kudos to Kirk Gibson
Kirk Gibson pointed the way to the Diamondbacks’ division title.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Perhaps we did see this coming but just didn’t realize it at the time.
Last August, we noted how the Diamondbacks – mired in a simply awful season – started to turn things on a bit. Okay, so they didn’t carry that strong finish into September/October, but manager Kirk Gibson’s crew provided a glimpse into the fact that they were a team on the rise.
But the turnaround this season has been mindblowing as the D-Backs did the rare worst to first swing in the NL West, taking home the division crown with relative ease over last year’s World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. After back-to-back 90-loss seasons, the comeback kids won 94 games and wrapped up the NL West a couple of weeks ago — their first division title since 2007. And they just missed out on gaining home field advantage in the opening round.
How did they do it?
Well, this is a team that didn’t really dominate in any one facet of the game. Arizona’s never-say-die attitude helped it come from behind to win 48 times including the recent dramatic win over the Dodgers when it became just the second time in MLB history to fall behind by five or more runs in extra innings and come back to win the game. The D-Backs were also the toughest team in the majors to shut out, but calling their offense great wouldn’t be at all accurate.
Okay, so they were one of the highest scoring teams in the majors, but relied heavily on extra-base hits to get there (they led the majors with 501 extra-base hits while tying for 18th in team BA – it was the combo of power and decent patience that made Arizona a top 10 offense). Of course, the BA was dragged down by all the strikeouts – and that was without Mark Reynolds.
What also helped was the team speed, as the D-Backs ranked seventh in the bigs in steals, although it didn’t help as much as you’d think as they got caught way too often, so their success rate was poor.
Of course, it takes some luck and some surprises to win. Little things, like Ryan Roberts showing surprising extra-base pop and driving in 65 runs; Justin Upton staying healthy enough to enjoy his best season; Gerardo Parra swiping 15 bases and getting just once as he enjoyed his best season; Chris Young showing more patience then ever before and actually making strides in his strike zone judgment; Wille Bloomqvuist swiping 20 bases (although what he was doing getting 350 at-bats remains a head scratcher); Aaron Hill completely turning his season around after a deadline deal brought him over from Toronto and he hit .315 down the stretch for the D-Backs; Lyle Overbay getting picked off the scrap head and remembering that he used to be an on-base machine. 40-year-old backup catcher Henry Blanco smacking eight homers in 100 at-bats.
On the pitching side, the club was middle of the pack, both with its rotation and bullpen. J.J. Putz turned out to be one of the best signings of the season, as he returned to closing with great ease, racking up a career-best 45 saves as part of Arizona’s major league leading total of 58.
The rest of the staff’s numbers were mostly middling, although the D-Backs had among the finest control in the majors, to help offset one of the lowest strikeout totals. Arizona hurlers also combined for the fewest stolen bases allowed in the bigs.
Improbable win after improbable win added up as the D-Backs completed an improbable turnaround with a patchwork pitching staff. Ian Kennedy massively improved his control en route to a share of the NL lead with 21 wins – not bad for a dude that had never even reached double digits in wins before; rookie Josh Collmenter, who had an ERA that scraped six at Triple-A last season, came out of nowhere to win 10 games; Daniel Hudson got off to a crappy start, and struggled in July, but was dynamite the rest of the season; Joe Saunders actually gave up less hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2008 as he revitalized his flagging career; and the D-Backs managed to survive a revolving door of No. 5 starters.
Sure, there’s a lot of talk that the Snakes are just happy to make the playoffs and will go quietly into the night, especially after dropping the opener of their NLDS series to Milwaukee. But do not write off Arizona – Gibson is as competitive and driven as they come, and he’s infused that trait into this team. He also knows a thing or two about dramatic playoff moments. I’m not suggesting the D-Backs are poised to pull off an upset, but this series is far from a slam dunk and it wouldn’t shock me at all if they push it to the limit or even pull it off.