Before the season started, prognosticators both amateur and professional had a pretty good handle on the NL West. Put the Giants or Rockies at the top, and maybe allow for the Padres or Dodgers to sneak in near the top of the division. The Rockies/Giants debate was pretty spirited, though the Padres, who were so, so close to winning last year, could rightfully complain that they were being overlooked, as could the Dodgers, who entered the season with five good-to-great starting pitchers.
Then there were the Diamondbacks, who spent the previous two seasons in the corner, eating paste while the rest of the division were making delightful art projects. They weren't an afterthought in the NL West prediction game; they were the lone absolute. They were like the most obvious answer of a crossword puzzle. " ____ Eastwood (actor/director)." You'd put them in their proper place and then get to the real thinking.
Now it's almost September, and the Diamondbacks are threatening to run away with the NL West. Every season has a surprise team, but it's fairly common for a team to build a surprise season on the backs of unexpected flukes -- unheralded rookies who surprise, and wily veterans who inexplicably put up career-best numbers. The Diamondbacks don't fit neatly into that category, though. So how did everyone miss on the first-place Diamondbacks?
Underrating the bullpen by default
The 2010 Diamondbacks bullpen was probably the worst bullpen of the decade, and it's on the short list of the worst bullpens of all-time. This had to do with not having good relievers. Call me crazy. Of the 16 pitchers used only in relief, only two had an ERA below 4.00: D.J. Carrasco and Mike Hampton, who combined for 27 innings.
But it was also an unlucky bullpen -- it's pretty rare for every single pitcher who files through the bullpen to have that bad of a season in a small sample. By doing nothing, the Diamondbacks were going to have a better bullpen. No one can be that bad. But the Diamondbacks also actively improved the bullpen, signing J.J. Putz, snagging Joe Paterson from the Giants in the Rule 5 draft, and trading for David Hernandez.
Underrating the two pitchers atop their rotation
The Diamondbacks turned Max Scherzer into Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy through two separate trades -- a neat little accounting trick that turned one good young pitcher into two. Both Hudson and Kennedy pitched well last season, featuring excellent command and strikeout stuff. They were still mostly unknowns, but they comprised a heckuva start to a rotation.
Underrating the up-the-middle core
The Diamondbacks entered the season with a catcher, shortstop, second baseman, and center fielder who finished 2010 with an OPS over 100. That's exceptionally hard to do. Even though Stephen Drew was injured and Kelly Johnson was awful this year, that doesn't change that it looked like the Diamondbacks had found the hard-to-find pieces of a team first. They should have received more credit for that.
Assuming tha Justin Upton was going to be just a pleasantly productive player
He was 22 last season, and he had a very nice season (.273/.356/.442, OPS+ 110). Guys who are 22 are usually just out of college, or clawing through the minors. When a player like Upton does well in the majors at that age, sometimes it's easy to forget that they could break out and go nuts. Upton broke out and went nuts, improving his power numbers and building on the scary promise of his 2009 season.
Every team that's doing well is getting help from unexpected sources. That's why they're doing well. Jacoby Ellsbury is having the season of his life, and Bartolo Colon gave his body to medical science and came out good on the other side. There's no shame in admitting that teams can enjoy the efforts of players who weren't supposed to contribute.
Ryan Roberts turned from a non-descript utility man into a above-average starter at the age of 30. And Josh Collmenter has a career walks-per-nine-innings ratio of 3.1 in the minors, and it was even worse last year in AAA (4.0). This season, he has the sixth-best walk rate among starting pitchers. Can't predict which player will make that sort of improvement even if you get 1,000 guesses. Sometimes it just clicks. That moved him from a pitcher who couldn't crack the top-30 prospect list of his team to a guy who will likely start a playoff game this year.
The Diamondbacks shouldn't have been favorites this year, necessarily, but they shouldn't have been ignored, either. They had more things going for them than the average cellar-dweller, and they've turned all of it into a contender a lot quicker than anyone expected. It seems like the Justin Upton trade frenzy was just yesterday.