Ladies and germs, presenting for your entertainment and approval ... the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks!
After losing 92 games in 2009 and 97 in 2010 and doing nothing over the winter to (obviously) improve the team in some meaningful way, the Diamondbacks were roundly considered a good bet for last place in 2011. At best, they might challenge the Padres for fourth place. Yes, there was some loose talk about Kirk Gibson improving the club's chemistry ... but Gibson took over as manager in the middle of last season, and the Diamondbacks played little better for him than they'd played for A.J. Hinch.
Yet here the D'backs are, in first place and with the best run differential in the National League West.
Broadly speaking, they've done it by going from mediocre to good offensively, and terrible to mediocre defensively (including pitching). That is simplistic, because the Diamondbacks' ballpark significantly favors hitters, so the hitting's never as good as it looks, the pitching never as bad.
Let's first look at the hitters, though. Since last season, the Diamondbacks have installed Juan Miranda at first base and Ryan Roberts at third, and both have been excellent. Those two replaced Adam LaRoche and Mark Reynolds, both of whom were adequate, at best. So that's two significant upgrades.
On the pitching side, Arizona's only effective starters have been Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Which isn't all that different from last season, after Hudson came over in a trade with the White Sox. So nothing particularly new there. Rookie tomahawker Josh Collmenter has been good, but he's started only four games so can't really be used to explain the turnaround.
Here's a thing, though: the bullpen. Last year the Arizona bullpen racked up a 5.74 ERA, the absolute worst in the majors by a LOT (the Cubs were second-worse, at 4.72). This year Arizona's relievers have a 3.27 ERA, sixth best in the National League. The Diamondbacks' top five relievers have combined for a 1.90 ERA in 95 innings, allowing only five home runs.
What's more spectacular than the numbers, I think, are the identities of these five relievers. The Diamondbacks' closer isn't exactly a Mystery Man: J.J. Putz was one of the game's best closers in 2006 and '7 before dropping from the radar in '08 and '9. He did pitch well for the White Sox in a setup role last season, and leaving aside his 1.57 ERA with the Diamondbacks he's not pitching any better this season.
The other guys, though? Raise your hand if you could have offered one solid fact, before the season, about more than one of the following pitchers:
Granted, defining characteristics of non-closing relief pitchers have long been a weak area for me. But these guys? Demel reminds me of a power tool, and when Hernandez pitched for the Orioles I thought he might have a pretty solid future as a starter. But otherwise I've got nothing. For all I know, Paterson's got three ears and his best pitch is a screwball-knuckle-changeup.*
* If you're actually interested, Paterson doesn't throw hard. At all. He throws mostly fastballs and sliders, but his fastball averages just 85 miles an hour, which explains why the rookie is already a LOOGY.
So are the Diamondbacks really this good, or close to this good?
I don't see a great deal of evidence that argues yea or nay. I don't think Juan Miranda's quite this good, and I'm sure that Ryan Roberts isn't.
My head's telling me the Diamondbacks just aren't a first-place team. But my same head told me they'd be out of contention by Memorial Day, so why should I listen to my head?
For the moment, I think I'm just going to get on the ride and see where it goes. Because it might be a pretty good one.