As June is about to bloom, the two best teams in baseball hail from the National League West and neither wears Dodger Blue or Giant Orange. How and why it happened in Phoenix and Denver.
The pre-season narratives on the Diamondbacks and Rockies practically write themselves: Just cut-and-paste last year’s fourth/fifth-place predictions, sprinkle in something about the franchise striving to get to the 80-win mark and then push a few familiar names out there:
“Quirky pitching superstar Zack Greinke, entering the autumn of his sometimes-brilliant career, may have some young, developing arms to join him in the clubhouse but they, like their predecessors, will predictably wither in the desert heat come August,” for the Diamondbacks.
And in Colorado, “A talented quartet of arms under 25 will soon meet a fate similar to that of their predecessors Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa, Denny Neagle, Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton and Brian Fuentes. Their careers stifled and ultimately shortened by the thin air and the long ball. Like a messy three-week-old relationship that started with a right swipe, it will be a race to see whether Colorado moves on from them or they move on from Colorado first.”
We get comfortable in the stories we tell ourselves.
Especially when the games start after 10 p.m. East Coast.
Some truths are just that, repetition of what we think we know. When something happens, small changes to suggest seismic shifts, we rarely take notice… Until that shift becomes reality.
It is not unusual to go unnoticed in a division dominated by the payroll- and expectation-heavy Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of four straight NL West titles and six of the last ten, yet somehow unable to convert in the postseason. During the last decade, the Dodgers’ chief rivals from San Francisco managed a quartet of playoff appearances, twice as a division winner and twice as a Wild Card, and managed to overflow their bayside trophy case with a trio of World Series trophies for the effort.
In the meantime, for the majority of this century thus far, the bottom 3/5ths of the division languished in the land of second-tier market baseball purgatory dealing with front office upheaval, half-empty stadiums and their highest-touted prospects either fizzling or finding success elsewhere.
With few exceptions—Arizona’s unlikely championship in the fall of 2001 vs. a Yankees Core Four squad in full and a city in mourning—the barnacles at the bottom of what is consistently touted as the weakest if not most overlooked division in baseball represents a constant rebuilding project. Hope doesn’t spring eternal as much as it’s the only thing left for the NL West bottom feeders’ marketing departments; well, that and a Paul Goldschmidt X-Wing Fighter Pilot Bobblehead.
This season may change all that.
Streaking Arizona (31-20) seems to have found that strange alchemy of young pitching anchored by an unpredictable veteran and deft home-grown position players coming into their prime garnished with journeymen veterans who come from winning pedigrees.
Take, for example, the Diamondback’s Wednesday win over the Brewers. It started out with Gregor Blanco’s (owner of three rings as a Giant) first inning leadoff home run, followed by third-year shortstop Chris Owings (.320/.352/.491) homer in the second and then impressive manufactured runs from the rest of the lineup. This all in support of third-year starter Robbie Ray (4-3/3.45) who pitched seven shutout innings giving the D-backs their ninth win in 10 games.
Ray, it should be noted, lowered his road ERA to 0.81 in 33 1/3 innings. Only Minnesota’s Ervin Santana (0.31) and Atlanta’s Julio Teheran (0.71) are better on unfamiliar turf this season.
Thirty-one wins and they’re in second.
Who’s in first? Colorado.
Thank the best centerfielder in the game, Charlie Blackmon, (.323/.358/.602) who also plays the position with a Jordanesque first step and the closing quicks not seen in the division since (and yes, this is true) Willie Mays. On Tuesday, Blackmon powered the Rockies to an 8-2 win over the Phillies with a pair of homers against starter Zach Eflin along with a trio of run-saving plays in the outfield. He routinely provides support to young starters Antonio Senzatela (22), German Marquez (22), Kyle Freeland (24) and elder statesman Tyler Anderson and Tyler Chatwood (both 27) who work fast and eat innings en route to the bullpen that is equally efficient yet sprinkled with veterans like Mike Dunn, Jake McGee and Chris Rusin.
Beyond Blackmon, third baseman and Newport Beach product, 24-year-old Nolan Arenado (.293/.349/.574) is the team’s MVP and—grab your stylus—his planking bobblehead drops Aug. 15. Some of the Rockies’ other effective grinders at the dish include DJ LeMahieu (28), Ian Desmond (31), Carlos Gonzalez (31) and Trevor Story (24). Those four have been off to slow starts and yet the team at 32-19 is tops in the National League and holds the second-best record in baseball.
The Rockies’ pitching staff plus Arenado, Storey and LeMahieu came up together basically from Single A ball on, much in the same way the aforementioned Core Four Yanks did, the Posey-Bumgarner (plus Crawford, Belt, Panik) Giants (Rookie Ball on) as did and the reigning champion Cubs (though admittedly, many of the Cubs’ current roster, Kris Bryant notwithstanding, were acquired between 2011 and 2014 through free agency/trades and galvanized their bonds as learn-on-the-job/rushed-to-the-Bigs Major Leaguers.)
All the aforementioned champion teams reached their zenith in their third through fifth years together in The Show and there is significance in that window. Lorne Michaels once said he prefers SNL casts happen in waves. The first couple years are rough, but they eventually sync up and find their rhythm—as a unit.
Think: the immortal original cast and on: Belushi/Aykroyd/Rander/Curtain/Chase/Murray/Henry then early ‘90s standouts Hartman/Myers/Carvey/Sandler/Farley/McDonald/Spade/Rock, then the ‘00s Ferrell/Shannon/Gasteyer/Morgan/Fallon, followed closely by Rudolph/Wiig/Fey/Armisen/Poehler/Samberg/Hader and onto today’s regulars Jost/Strong/Bayer/Moynihan/Che/Thompson/McKinnon …raking in the show’s best ratings in 23 years.
What do the best casts in baseball and sketch comedy have in common? They came up together and they suck as a unit in relative anonymity. Nobody expects much or pays much attention as they hit rough patches, together. They continue to hone their collective voice and then…something clicks, together. Or to quote Michaels from his podcast with Marc Maron in 2015, “It takes awhile for greats to become greats and nobody does it alone. Also, every [cast] has their moment. So it’s a matter of building and getting them ready for that. It usually takes three seasons before you start to see voices emerge.”
By the numbers, Arizona is averaging 5.02 runs per game, ranking 8th in MLB, while Colorado has averaged 5.13 runs per game, ranking 4th. Both play in hitter-friendly parks and possess superstars with sluggish jersey sales who seem to thrive out of the limelight. Four-time All Star Goldschmidt (.324/.451./.595) is putting together yet another case for NL MVP, this time minus the comfort and specter of relative anonymity. In Mile High country, Arenado, on any given night, states his case as the best player in baseball
If there is a time-tested drawback to the Rockies, it is the pitching staff’s performance in the unfriendly confines of Coors Field. They currently rank 14th in the majors in runs allowed—a problem that could ironically manifest should they end up with home field advantage in the playoffs.
Arizona allows only 3.91 runs per game—third in the majors. Fresh-again Greinke anchors a staff with the innings devouring talent of Randell Delgado (27), Patrick Corbin (27), Shelby Miller (26) and bullpen reclamation project Archie Bradley (24), who is quickly becoming the face of the most shut-down relief squad in baseball. Opposing hitters are 0-10 in scoring position this season against the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma native.
The thesis here is the Rockies and the Diamondbacks have flipped the script on one of the game’s most underrated, yet dominant divisions over the last decade (true) because they’re both young teams entering their prime years together (also true.)
But in 2017, who is the contender and who is the pretender in the West?
I give this year’s edge to the Rockies. They’ve known each other longer, have slightly more dynamic, more upside talent and, most importantly, they hold the ultimate wildcard in the form of an intimate, thin-aired ballpark. The stadium is a franchise-defining albatross that this year’s version appears to be able to use to their advantage—possibly becoming the first team in Colorado baseball history to do so.
And isn’t that, after all, why we watch? To see a group of strangers come together as one and do something that’s never been done?