10 April 2008

Of Charlatans and Schu

In blinding contrast to last year, it's now easy to see how the Diamondbacks win - just from the numbers. Score twice as many runs as your opponents, lead the league in Runs, Homers, Total Bases and OPS. And throw in a 2.59 team ERA. Barely a week into this season, Arizona has opened up a 2.5 game lead (MLB's largest), and mild mannered hitting coach Rick Schu is scheduled to appear on Oprah.

Well, no. Not really. But maybe Schu should. Five of the longest 11 homers hit this April have come from one dugout - and it aint the Tigers'. A remarkable concentration considering thirty clubs - and that the five flies were swatted by four batsmen: Chris Short Young, Eric Byrnes, Luke Skybopper, and Up, Up and Away. One is tempted to spout the spiel of charlatans overseeing a seance:

"There's a power here!"
Yet like a seance, none of this is really on solid ground. The wins, the underlying run differential. The [giggle] 306 homer pace. It's all immense fun while it lasts, but like an orgasm, crashing down sooner than we wish.
The question is, "How far down?"

The bats still appear unusually vulnerable to good pitching (the Cueto one hitter) and unsettling skids of not reaching base. The good, indeed great news, is that several young batters (many of whom also have trouble reaching) are poised to demolish some 07 numbers. Justin Upton (in 34 AB) already has more dingers than he did last year (140 AB). Chris Young has as many walks (8) as on June 20th, 2007. Nobody exemplifies this Jekyll & Hyde hitting better than Young and Mark Reynolds, each of whom can carry the team one day and look like a Double AA hitter (which they both recently were) the rest of the week. In short, bad qualities (ie strikeouts)abound, but are increasingly compensated for by ascending, broad based good stuff (homers, some more walks, deeper counts ).

It's up in the air as to how inconsistency will impact team fortune. In a larger sense, it merely reflects the nature of hitting a baseball. Most of the time, you don't. You just need to hit it enough - as a team - to win. Wednesday was a good example. Chris Young struck out three times. Mark Reynolds went 0-4. Bob Melvin sat two regulars (Drew & Snyder) in a day game after a night contest. The understudies still managed four runs against Kuroda, who appeared to mix it up and knows how to pitch. How'd they do it? Well, besides another dynamite start from Micah Owings and adequate relief, Augie Ojeda, the 5'6" utility man nobody wanted, rapped three hits and played flawless shortstop. Eric Byrnes, a latecomer to April's party, had three hits as well.

Anybody, anytime.

I opened claiming you can tell how well the Diamondbacks have played just from the numbers. Another way is by watching other teams. Not just the Reds, Rockies and Dodgers, the latter two not yet in gear - expect Arizona to confront better pitching and play as the season progresses. But I also watched a Pirate / Cubs game, and using the Dbacks as my frame of reference, was appalled by the broadly odious play at Wrigley - on both sides. Amateurishly wild pitching, selfish batters making unproductive outs, poor fielding. Similar abominations tainted a recent Tigers/ White Sox tilt, as well as last night's drubbing of the Phillies at Shea.

All teams make miscues, including Arizona (Reynolds errors, Upton overthrow), but Dback mistakes seem dwarfed by things done right. Not just big things like three run homers and Brandon Webb, but little things like situational pinch hitting and pitchers who can hit. The rotation's back end working deep into games and relievers who throw strikes. Three athletic outfielders methodically cutting off gaps and preventing extra bases. One best appreciates Arizona's subtle execution watching lack of same across the diamond. It may be too early to separate charlatans from the truly ascendant, but for Diamondback fans watching the first half dozen of 22 consecutive games against the NL West, it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit.

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