Timing is everything for D-backs' bats
Arizona's offense has defied statistics to reach postseason
PHOENIX -- The Arizona club that will take the field in Wednesday's National League Division Series represents a sabermetrics nightmare: the numbers just don't add up.Having allowed 20 more runs than they've scored, the D-backs should be on the outside looking in on the playoff race with a 79-83 final record, according to a formula that estimates winning percentages based on run differentials. Instead, Arizona won 90 games and earned the National League's best record behind an offense that ranks 26th in runs (4.40 per game), 24th in OPS (.734) and 29th in batting average (.250). The D-backs field a lineup without any .300 hitters, with one player who's hit more than 21 home runs and with an RBI leader who drove in 83 runs. How can an offense so bad statistically belong to the NL's top regular-season team? The easy answer for D-backs manager Bob Melvin involves the timing of his club's hits for a team that relies on players throughout its roster. "A lot of times we won't put a lot of pressure on ourselves because of the fact that we do feel like we have some weapons all the way through the lineup," Melvin said. "So I think timing, more than anything, has been on our side offensively. Although the numbers wouldn't suggest we're too terribly potent in the long run ... but from game to game, I think we pose some challenges every day." With a club that lacks a true superstar offensively -- its offensive leader, Eric Byrnes, was nearly out of baseball two years ago -- the team knew coming into the season that it would need contributions throughout its lineup. Not only has that happened, but Melvin has shuffled his lineup all season, and more often than not "the mad scientist" manager has pushed the right buttons. "He knows this team, no doubt," Chris Young said. "He moved us around a lot, but at the same time he kept us comfortable with where we were." At no time could the offense's contributions from across the lineup be seen more than during an eight-game winning streak in July that propelled Arizona from third place into first place in the NL West. During the run, Byrnes, Tony Clark and Conor Jackson smacked walk-off hits, leading Clark to dub the team's "Anyone, anytime" slogan, explaining that any player could contribute at any particular time. "It gives us a sense of team that maybe other teams don't have, not necessarily teams in the playoffs, but teams in general," Clark said. "We've got guys coming to the ballpark that aren't in the starting lineup that are thinking to themselves, 'It may come down to me by the end of the night,' and a lot of times it has."
Clark pointed to the Sept. 10 game at San Francisco, when Jeff Salazar needed to be removed from the starting lineup because his ankle could not handle playing the outfield. Instead of receiving a day off, Salazar ended up smoking one of the biggest homers of the season, a go-ahead, three-run shot with two outs in the ninth."It's one thing to talk about it: 'Come on guys, let's all pull the same direction and see what we can do,'" Clark said. "It's something else to buy into it, believe it and then watch it play out." Arizona's aggression on the basepaths, emphasized since Spring Training by bench coach Kirk Gibson, has also put the D-backs in position to score extra runs. That includes running out every ground ball, taking the extra base and stealing bases, a category in which Arizona ranked fifth in the NL with 109 swipes. The baserunning exploits start with Byrnes, who stole a team-high 50 bases and stretched a single into a double and a double into a triple on a number of occasions. "We're going to go out there, and we're going to play the game the right way, and I think that's very rare in today's game with Major League Baseball players," Byrnes said. "I don't think you're ever going to find a team that runs balls out the way we do, that gives you the effort night in and night out that this team does." At the plate, Melvin has called Young the poster child for the success of Arizona's offense. The center fielder hit .237 with a .295 on-base percentage and only drove in 68 runs off a team-high 32 homers. But time and time again, Young came up in a clutch situation and knocked out a game-winning homer, as he did three times in a two-week stretch in June or drilled a ball down the line for a three-run double like he did against the Padres and Jake Peavy in a pivotal game on Sept. 5. "He can go 0-for-3 and strike out three times and hit a two-run homer to win the game for you," Melvin said on Aug. 7. "It's timing more than anything else, and he's come up big for us timing-wise any number of times this year. He's been kind of what this team's all about." When the D-backs open up their playoff series with the Cubs on Wednesday, it's easy to question how a team with such a poor offense on paper has played so well for six months of the baseball season. A sign often displayed around Chase Field the past month represents D-backs fans' response to statisticians: Don't try to explain it, just enjoy it. "We find ways to create runs when we need them, and that's probably the best attribute of this team, definitely the best attribute of this offense," Byrnes said. "The fact that we've been outscored, the fact that we're next to last in the [Major Leagues] in batting, I don't think anyone in here really cares because it seems like we've gotten runs when we need them."
Michael Schwartz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.