What's up with the suddenly down Diamondbacks?
It's hard to come up with a team that has looked as good and as bad, in one schizophrenic half of a season, as the Arizona Diamondbacks. In mid-May, the D'backs were the darlings of the NL, and looked like a sure bet to cruise to their second straight NL West title. On May 18, they soared to 12 games over .500, pushed their record to an MLB-best 28-16 and opened a 5 1/2 game lead in the division. The website coolstandings.com put the team's chances at making the postseason at better than 80 percent.
Now look at them. After Wednesday's loss to Boston, the Diamondbacks are in the midst of a stunning 12-23 nosedive (only the Astros have fewer wins in that time) that has dropped their record to 40-39, their NL West lead to 3 games, and their chances of making the post-season, says. Coolstandings.com, to less than 52 percent.
Where once the D'backs seemed to have all the answers, now they only have questions. Is this a really good team or a really bad one? Are these talented, young players just going through growing pains, or are these just not very talented players? Perhaps most importantly, can this wildly inconsistent team -- one-time world beaters, now just plain beaten up by the world -- get back up?
"A bad stretch of 4-5 weeks is concerning," admits Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes. "But I don't think it has shaken our belief in this group. We feel like this group can win."
There's no sugarcoating it: Either that start was a mirage or this is. And after nearly six weeks of dismal hitting, spotty fielding and losses piling up higher than Camelback Mountain, it's looking more and more like we have the real Diamondbacks right here, right now.
"This team, through the highs and the lows, is still kind of young," says Byrnes. Youth is always Topic A with the Diamondbacks, and it may well be the reason for their slide. The average age of the roster is just shy of 30, which makes Arizona one of the five greenest teams in baseball, and that's with 44-year-old lefty Randy Johnson skewing the math.
Right fielder Justin Upton is just 20, centerfielder Chris Young and third baseman Mark Reynolds are 24, and shortstop Stephen Drew is 25.
With all that peach fuzz comes some inconsistency. Still, no one would have figured a wild ride like this one. In the first month of the season, the Diamondbacks hit .268 with a .345 on-base percentage and a .468 slugging percentage. That dropped to .244/.328/.402 in May. And, so far in June, it's a pathetic .217 average -- only Cincinnati is worse -- with a .287 OBP and .348 slugging. Those last two numbers are the worst in the league. Either league.
Inconsistency is one thing. But this is more than that. This is a full-out collapse.
D'backs hitting coach Rick Schu, sounding a little tired and maybe a little confounded in the middle of another dismal road trip, is willing to take a stab at what no one around this Arizona team has been able to figure out. He still believes in his guys -- that's kind of a job requirement -- and expects them to be a lot better in the second half than they have been in the first. That's how it worked last year, when the young Diamondbacks thumbed their noses at the statistical odds and surprised just about everyone in winning the National League West despite being outscored for the year.
"Ability-wise, they have all the tools. It's just a matter of them doing it," he said Wednesday evening before his guys put up just three hits and no runs in a loss to the Red Sox.
"I think our guys are being a little gun-shy," offers Schu. "Last year, we were playing a little more with that reckless abandon. That was the biggest thing we did in the second half last year. Controlling the zone, working the counts a lot deeper, getting in the bullpen earlier."
If the Diamondbacks are gun-shy, they certainly have a funny way of showing it. They often look over-aggressive at the plate (they are third in the NL in strikeouts, after Wednesday's 10-whiff lack of performance against the Red Sox), and that's been a big contributor to their slump. Upton, Young, Drew and catcher Chris Snyder all have had terrible Junes. Nobody has been more disappointing than Upton, who is hitting just .118, with a miserable .235 slugging percentage, this month.
It has been so rough for Upton for so long -- before Wednesday, in the 52 games since April 24, he is hitting just .176, with 70 strikeouts -- that the Diamondbacks have kicked around the idea of sending him down to the minors. For right now, though, he's staying put. "We've all talked about it," Byrnes says. "It's not something we're really inclined to do. Justin, again, kind of mirrors our team. He had an unbelievable April. He's 20. He has a lot of upside. We believe in him and believe that he can persevere through it."
Schu has worked with Upton on some tweaks to his swing -- at times, he was getting his hands "buried" so he couldn't take a straight path to the ball with his hands -- but, for the most part, his problems are the same as many of the other players. And it's more mind than mechanics.
"It's not so much working on their swings," Schu says. "It's working on their heads."
Last year, the Diamondbacks' lineup improved across the board in the second half, though Arizona still ended up with the worst batting average (.250) and the worst on-base percentage (.321) of any team in the NL. The '07 Diamondbacks won a league-high 90 games thanks to a good pitching staff, a good defense and some aggressive baserunning. They also had a fair share of luck -- something that the statisticians were quick to point out -- going 32-20 in one-run games and breezing into the postseason despite allowing more runs than they scored.
Last year's success, coupled with the breakout April, probably contributed to all the hysteria over the '08 Diamondbacks. This year's team still has better-than-average pitching (its 3.94 ERA is fifth in the NL). But their luck has left them (the D'backs are just 11-10 in one-run games), the defense isn't quite as good and the lineup may be worse.
Even in the woeful NL West, that spells big-time trouble. Every team in the division has a better record than Arizona since those high-flying late-May days. (Only the Giants, at 17-16, have managed to eke out a winning record.)
There's time to right the season. Last year's D'backs went 43-29 in the second half. And you might argue that the '07 group was less talented than this one, given the added maturity of the young players and what is widely believed to be a better pitching staff.
Still, with every passing week, with every sweep on the road (that's happened four times already), with every strikeout and sinking batting average, the questions get louder and louder. In the end, the Diamondbacks are the only ones that can answer them.