Friday, December 9, 2022

Four reasons why Diamondbacks deserve your attention in September, including Zac Gallen’s scoreless streak

The hottest team in the National League is not the juggernaut Dodgers or the defending World Series champion Braves. No, it is the sub-.500 Arizona Diamondbacks. Arizona is 9-2 in its last 11 games, and that includes sweeping three games from the White Sox, taking two of three from the Phillies, three of four from the Brewers, and so far one of one from the Padres. That’s nine wins in 11 games against four clubs playing with urgency and for postseason berths.

“I think it’s been a challenging test and I think we’re passing. We’re doing a good job,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said during the Brewers series. “We’re a good baseball team. When we do the things the way we know how to do them, and we keep pressing on each and every day, we’re a good baseball team. And that’s starting to come together for us, but it’s a process. That process for young players takes a little time. That process for players that are coming together for the first time at the big-league level takes a little bit of time. And I think our guys are very engaged and excited. And we’re fighting against really good baseball teams.”

The 9-2 stretch has improved Arizona to only 65-69 on the season, and it remains well out of the wild-card race. The D-Backs are a different team now though. They’ve called up several notable prospects in recent weeks and they have a few young big leaguers beginning to come into their own as well. Making a run to a wild-card spot is unlikely and, realistically, challenging the Dodgers for the NL West title next season is unlikely too, but the D-Backs are starting to become interesting.

Here are four reasons why the D-Backs deserve your attention as the 2022 MLB regular season winds down.

1. Gallen’s scoreless streak

Very quietly D-Backs ace Zac Gallen ran his scoreless streak to 41 1/3 consecutive innings with a seven-inning effort against the Brewers this past weekend. He last allowed a run on Aug. 2 and has tied a major league record by throwing six or more scoreless innings in six straight starts. Don Drysdale (1968), Orel Hershiser (1988) and Zack Greinke (2015) are the only others to do it.

Here are the longest scoreless streaks in baseball history:

  1. Orel Hershiser, 1988 Dodgers: 59 innings
  2. Don Drysdale, 1968 Dodgers: 58 innings
  3. Bob Gibson, 1968 Cardinals: 47 innings
  4. Zack Greinke, 2015 Dodgers: 45 2/3 innings
  5. Carl Hubbell, 1933 Giants: 45 1/3 innings
  6. Sal Maglie, 1950 Giants: 45 innings
  7. Brandon Webb, 2007 Diamondbacks: 42 innings
  8. Zac Gallen, 2022 Diamondbacks: 41 1/3 innings and counting 

“Well, at this point now, I’m right there, so I might as well try and see what the deal is,” Gallen said jokingly about chasing Webb’s franchise record scoreless streak. “I mean, I think I’m only an inning away, so I might as well just try. My job is to go out there and throw up zeros, so it kind of falls into the line of doing my job.”

Acquired from the Miami Marlins straight up for Jazz Chisholm at the 2019 trade deadline — talk about a win-win trade, eh? — the 27-year-old Gallen owns a 3.12 ERA in nearly 400 innings with Arizona. Adjusted for ballpark and MLB’s offensive environment, Gallen has been 37 percent better than league average with the D-Backs. If he’s not a bona fide ace, he’s very close to one.

Gallen’s next start is currently scheduled for this Sunday (Sept. 11). He’ll face the Rockies at Coors Field, which will put the scoreless streak to the test. That said, there’s also a chance Gallen leaves that game with the third-longest scoreless streak in baseball history. That would be quite the accomplishment.

(It should be noted Gallen threw seven scoreless innings at Coors Field on Aug. 13, in the second start of his active streak of six consecutive scoreless starts).

2. The kids are arriving

Last week Arizona called up outfielder Corbin Carroll, arguably the best prospect in baseball. He is only 5 for 25 (.200) through six games, but Carroll is not the first top prospect to have a slow first week in the big leagues nor will he be the last. By all accounts the kid has the tools to be a star, with a power/speed skill set that invokes prime Grady Sizemore.

On Monday the D-Backs summoned righty Ryne Nelson, their No. 8 prospect according to MLB.com, and fired seven scoreless innings against the Padres in his big league debut. Nelson is the first pitcher to throw seven scoreless innings in his MLB debut since Logan Allen did it with San Diego in 2019, and the first to do it with zero walks since Pirates righty Nick Kingham in 2018.

“Just the build-up and stuff like that, but once we got out there and threw the first strike, it all went away and I just played the game I’ve been playing forever,” Nelson said about the nerves during his debut. “… It kind of just makes you realize where you are and makes you feel good. You’ve worked really hard to be able to face guys like [Manny Machado and Juan Soto].”

In addition to the prospects making their MLB debuts this season, the D-Backs have also received strong work from 26-year-old sometimes catcher/sometimes outfielder Daulton Varsho (89 games in the outfield and 31 at catcher), and 25-year-old outfielder Jake McCarthy. Third baseman Emmanuel Rivera, 26, has an .847 OPS since coming over from the Royals in a minor trade.

Arizona has more talent on the way, too. The farm system, which is headlined by outfielder Druw Jones (No. 2 pick in 2022 draft) and shortstop Jordan Lawlar (No. 6 pick in 2021 draft), is ranked as one of the five best in baseball by both Baseball America and MLB.com. Carroll and Nelson are up now. Soon other talented kids will join them as the D-Backs take steps toward contention.

3. Walker’s sneaky great season

First baseman Christian Walker, a waiver claim from the Orioles way back in February 2017, is enjoying a uniquely excellent season. The .235 batting average is an eyesore, there’s no denying that, but Walker has also slugged 31 home runs while both drawing walks (11.5 percent of plate appearances) and striking out (18.6 percent) at better-than-average rates. The MLB averages are 8.2 percent walks and 22.3 percent strikeouts. Walker’s not the typical low average/high strikeout slugger.

Also, Walker is the best defensive first baseman in baseball. The various defensive stats believe so, anyway. Check it out:

No first baseman has posted 15 defensive runs saved since Mark Teixeira in 2012, and Walker’s 13 outs above average are the second most for a first baseman since Statcast began publishing the data in 2016. The only first baseman better than Walker this year is Walker himself — he had 15 outs above average in 2019.

Defensive stats can be fickle, particularly at first base because so much of the position’s defensive responsibility involves hands and footwork around the bag rather than range, but they all agree Walker is not just the best defensive first baseman in the game, he’s the best defensive first baseman in the game by a mile. The numbers say no one is close.

Elite first base defense is one of those things you don’t really appreciate it until you have it, and Walker provides it for the D-Backs. He also provides power and on-base ability, with offensive production that is 26 percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark and MLB’s offensive environment. Turning a waiver claim into a 4 WAR player is a nifty move. Nicely done, D-Backs.

4. They can play spoiler

The D-Backs may not go to the postseason themselves, but they can make life miserable for teams still in the race. I refer you back to their last two weeks: Arizona’s 9-2 stretch has come against the White Sox, Phillies, Brewers, and Padres. The D-Backs have 28 games remaining this season. Here’s the breakdown:

  • vs. Dodgers: 8
  • vs. Giants: 6
  • vs. Padres: 6
  • vs. Rockies: 3
  • vs. Brewers: 3
  • vs. Astros: 2

The Astros and Dodgers are in no danger of missing the postseason, but the Brewers and Padres certainly are, and whatever small chance the Giants have at the postseason will require beating Arizona. The D-Backs have a chance to be a real headache in the wild-card race down the stretch, and given the way they’ve played the last few weeks, I’d rather not have to go through them to get to October.

“We have goals and things we want to accomplish before this season is over,” Lovullo said over the weekend. “I love it that we’re playing games that are meaningful late in the season. Who knows — they might be meaningful for us.”  

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