With nearly 20 percent of the baseball season in the books, the Arizona Diamondbacks entered Monday’s play above .500 and only 1.5 games behind of the final National League Wild Card spot. Coming off a 110-loss season, the success of the team in the early going has been one of the big surprises in Major League Baseball so far.
A lot will happen in the ensuing five months that will show whether or not the Arizona Diamondbacks are contenders but, for now, let’s take a look at what has made them a pleasant surprise to start 2022.
After starting the season 3-8, the Arizona Diamondbacks have been excellent over the last three weeks, going 12-6 and moving one game over .500.
Pitching has been their key to success and rates fifth in MLB with a 122 ERA+ but they have struggled to hit and have the sixth-worst offense based on OPS+. Traditional fielding metrics like fielding percentage have Arizona at the bottom of the league, but advanced stats like Outs Above Average have them in the top five.
The Diamondbacks’ pitching staff has been very good in the early going, amassing a 3.33 ERA and allowing only 20 home runs, both rating in the top 10 in MLB. Really though, it’s been starting pitching that has excelled while relief pitching has been below average. Starters have an incredible 2.21 ERA, second to only the Los Angeles Dodgers, while relievers have produced a 4.71 ERA, the fourth-worst in baseball.
The warning signs that Arizona’s pitching staff has been fairly lucky are there. They have struck out less than seven batters per nine innings, easily the lowest mark in baseball, and advanced metrics like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all have Arizona pitching at about half a run better per game than expected. Over a full season, that gap tends to diminish and some of Arizona’s run-prevention luck could change soon.
As the season is played, many of the questions surrounding Arizona’s early season pitching success will be fleshed out. Will they continue to have the lowest HR/FB rate in the league and be one of the best teams to limit hard contact? Will the low strikeout rate catch up to them? Will a good starting pitching staff begin to pitch further into games or will they continue to average less than five innings per start?
The Mendoza Line represents hitting futility and is often associated with a hitter with a .200 average. Arizona has somehow put together a winning record despite having a .193 batting average this season, the worst in baseball. Amazingly, no player with more than eight plate appearances has a batting average higher than .250. While their average has been awful, they are excellent at taking walks (10.5% BB%) and have hit for power, resulting in an OPS+ of 86 that rates only sixth-worst in baseball.
The good news for the Diamondbacks is that no team in MLB history has hit below .200 for an entire season. No team has even hit below .220 in a full season since the 1972 Texas Rangers accomplished the feat in their first season in existence (previously the Washington Senators). While offense league-wide has been low this season, unless the Diamondbacks are a truly historically bad offense, they will get better. And if they manage to keep their home run and walk rates relatively the same while getting a few more singles to drop in, they could go from a bad to average offense pretty quickly.
As the pitching staff has been the beneficiary of good luck, metrics show that the offense has been fairly unlucky to start the season. Arizona has the worst batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of any team in baseball and by a wide margin. While the league average is .282, the Diamondbacks have a .232 BABIP. The next worst team has a .249 BABIP and the third-worst team, Oakland, is at .260. Oakland, at 28th in the league, is closer to the 13th best team in BABIP, Miami, than they are to Arizona. Chances are Arizona will see that number rise and, even if they aren’t a great offense, they will likely end up being better than the early season numbers have shown.
The data suggests that the most likely scenario for the Diamondbacks as the year progresses is that the offense will improve and the pitching will be a little less lucky. Arizona has held its own in the best division in baseball so far, winning half their games and taking two of three against the Dodgers. There’s a lot of baseball left and any injuries could really test their depth but there’s also a scenario where Daulton Varsho, Pavin Smith, and Alek Thomas have breakout campaigns, Ketel Marte returns to his All-Star form, the starters maintain their dominance, and experienced bullpen arms like Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy shore up the relief core and close out a lot of tight games.
In any case, Arizona is a far better team than the group that went 52-110 last season and will likely be in contention for a playoff spot through the summer.
Note: All numbers were entering play on Monday.