Monday, September 12, 2011

Arizona Wins the West

For all intents and purposes, the NL West race is over. Improbably, the Diamondbacks sit at the top of the division, a year after finishing dead last in the division and 27 games out of the playoff picture. Back in June, I said that I expected the D’Backs to stay in the race, but at that time it was still the Giants’ race to lose. Fortunately for Arizona, that’s what they did, as the champs are just 37-41 since that post, while the Diamondbacks are an incredible 48-30.

As with most teams, this turnaround can’t be attributed to a single player. Justin Upton is in the thick of the MVP race, and Miguel Montero has been one of the top catchers in the NL. The historically bad bullpen of 2010 has been reworked and currently sits at sixth in the NL in WAR, thanks to a combination of free agent signings (J.J. Putz), trades (David Hernandez), and essentially every other way a team could go about an overhaul, including adding impressive Rule V draft pick Joe Paterson. However, the team’s rotation has led the way, and after finishing 12th in NL starter WAR last season, the Diamondbacks’ rotation has risen to sixth with the 2011 regular season nearly complete.

Specifically, three of Arizona’s starters deserve credit for stepping their games up. Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy have continued their development and cemented themselves as true staff aces, while rookie Josh Collmenter’s deceptive delivery and impressive control have allowed him to provide a solid third option on the mound.

Hudson, 24, flashed his impressive skills last season on the way to a 3.64 SIERA and 2.3 WAR in 14 starts for the White Sox and Diamondbacks. Hudson moved to Arizona just before the trade deadline in exchange for Edwin Jackson in a deal orchestrated by interim GM Jerry Dipoto. Hudson’s absurd 1.69 ERA was fueled by incredible (and unsustainable) underlying numbers, especially his .216 BABIP against and 91.5% strand rate. However, 2011’s 3.41 ERA is essentially luck-neutral, as Hudson’s 3.56 SIERA shows that he’s for real. His strikeout rate has fallen by nearly a batter per game, but this dip has been offset by large improvements in both his walk rate and groundball rate. After a slight drop in his velocity last season, Hudson is once again averaging 93 MPH on his fastball, and has increased his velocity on the rest of his arsenal as well. Whether this is due to improved strength, conditioning, mechanics, or some other factor is unclear. Whatever the case may be, Hudson’s stuff is getting better, and his improved walk rate suggests he’s also learning the art of pitching. At only 24, Hudson has a lot of career in front of him. If he can continue this career trajectory, it’ll spell trouble for the rest of the NL West.

Sharing ace duties with Hudson, Ian Kennedy has reinvented himself in the desert. Kennedy’s 2.4 WAR in 32 starts last year wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was certainly a step forward from his early career struggles. As a top prospect in the Yankees’ organization, Kennedy was under the microscope, and may have had trouble handling the pressure. Though 2010 was a success as Kennedy’s first full season in the starting rotation, it was only an appetizer for what he has provided the Snakes this season. No matter the metric, Kennedy looks like a true ace this year. Like Hudson, Kennedy has done a better job of limiting his walks and inducing grounders, but unlike Hudson, it hasn’t been at the expense of his strikeouts, as he’s up to nearly eight K’s per nine innings. From his 3.34 SIERA to his 19-4 record, the old-school and new-school numbers are in complete agreement on Kennedy’s dominance this season.

Though both Kennedy and Hudson’s seasons are a positive development for Arizona, neither is a complete surprise, as both have shown impressive potential at various points earlier in their respective careers. More surprising is the success of soft-tossing rookie Josh Collmenter. Collmenter’s fastball is averaging 87.4 MPH, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch harder than 90 all season. Nonetheless, Collmenter has thrown the pitch nearly 70% of the time to great effect, as his deceptive mechanics make his fastball-changeup combo much more effective than his pedestrian velocity would suggest they should be. Though he won’t blow any of his pitches by hitters (7.9% swinging strike rate, below league average), he has found ways to be effective without pure stuff. With crafty pitching and consistent command, Collmenter has been a solid addition to the back of the team’s rotation, putting up a 3.55 FIP and 3.94 SIERA. Behind the team’s two young aces, he’s done exactly what the team has asked of him, and as a result the rookie might very well get a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of making an October start.

We can’t point to any one reason for the Diamondbacks’ worst-to-first turnaround, as they’ve made huge strides on both sides of the ball and from the top to the bottom of the roster. However, their rotation seems to be leading the way, as Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have been a dominant tandem at the top of the rotation and Collmenter has filled in admirably behind them. More help is on the way, as the word on the street is that third overall pick in the 2011 draft Trevor Bauer and top prospect Jarrod Parker will get called up for a taste of the pennant chase sooner rather than later. If both are ready to join the D’Backs rotation full-time in 2012, Arizona’s starting staff will be a force to be reckoned with. However, thanks to Kennedy and Hudson, Arizona is still focused on 2011, where their young aces will lead them into the playoffs as they hope to catch some October magic.

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