After 13 games, the 2023 Diamondbacks are doing about as well as anyone could hope.
Despite having played the hardest schedule in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference, the Diamondbacks stand atop the NL West with an 8-5 record. They are also one of three teams in baseball that has yet to lose a series, joining the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees.
But in the same way that last year’s 5-8 start did not necessarily signal another 110-loss season, this year’s 8-5 start should be met with a similar degree of prudence. We have not even played 10 percent of the regular season. Heck, the World Series champion Houston Astros are 6-7.
The 2022 Diamondbacks — who finished 74-88 and 13 games out of the playoffs — had several non-overlapping 13-game stretches last year in which they went 8-5 or better. Even bad teams go 8-5 every now and then.
But even so, common sense tells us that teams that go 8-5 to start the season are good more often that not, and it is worth taking a deeper dive at what has led to their success so far. To that end, here are eight storylines that helped the D-backs go 8-5.
Even after trading Daulton Varsho, the team’s best defensive player last year, the Diamondbacks still looked like one of the better defensive teams in baseball coming into 2023. Entering their series against the Miami Marlins, they lead the league with seven outs above average and rank third with nine defensive runs saved.
What is particularly interesting is which players have contributed most to those metrics. One of them is Josh Rojas, who, after being benched for defensive sloppiness late last year, is currently tied for the league lead with three outs above average.
“It’s documented,” D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said. “He lost playing time last year, and I told him it was unacceptable and we got to tighten that up or else. I think he took that personal, and I like that. He wants to challenge himself to be better, and he’s doing it the right way.
“The pace in which he’s picking up a ground ball, the pace at which his feet are moving, in combination with what his his upper half is doing, is all connected. Last year, you can look back at some of the video. It was a very disconnected form while picking up the ball. But, this year, it’s all together and he’s driving throws across the diamond.”
As far as defensive runs saved is concerned, the D-backs’ team leader is actually not Rojas. That honor belongs to catcher Gabriel Moreno. The majority of Moreno’s defensive value can be traced back to the fact that opposing base runners are just 1-for-5 in stolen base attempts with him behind the dish.
2. Base running
It always seemed obvious that the Diamondbacks were going to run wild in 2023 under the new pitch clock rules, and that is exactly what has happened so far.
Entering Friday, the D-backs have 17 stolen bases, which is tied for the second most in baseball. They have also only been caught once.
During their series in San Diego, the D-backs even pulled off a double steal that involved Josh Rojas stealing home.
This isn’t all about base stealing, though. It’s also about putting pressure on the defense out of the batter’s box. The D-backs have forced several defensive miscues in the early going because of their speed.
None have been more crucial than this ninth-inning bunt by Jake McCarthy, which helped the D-backs take a 2-1 lead in their series finale against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Geraldo Perdomo laid down a similar bunt in San Diego two days later, which tied a game that the D-backs ultimately went on to win.
3. Geraldo Perdomo’s clutch hitting
Perdomo hasn’t just been laying down bunts in big situations. He has also been raking. With runners in scoring position, Perdomo is 4-for-7 in 2023 with a homer, two doubles and seven RBI.
Perdomo has a history of excelling in big moments. Last year, despite hitting just .195/.285/.262 for the season overall, Perdomo slashed an impressive .283/.376/.404 with runners in scoring position.
“He’s got a fearless personality,” Lovullo said. “He wants to get his name in the newspaper. I guarantee it. That’s what every kid wants, and he pays attention to a lot of stuff that’s really important to him getting better every single day, and I think he just steps up there in the most critical moment without fear. He wants to go and execute.”
While Perdomo has undoubtedly been the D-backs’ most clutch hitter in 2023, a number of others have come through in big moments as well. As a team, the D-backs are hitting .300/.341/.464 with runners in scoring position.
4. Drey Jameson
Drey Jameson has pitched in four games in 2023, and the D-backs have won all of them.
The D-backs’ flamethrower made his first appearance of the season on March 31 at Dodger Stadium. The D-backs needed some length after Merrill Kelly got knocked out in the fourth inning. Jameson allowed just one run in four innings of work, helping the D-backs to a tight 2-1 victory and notching his first win of the season.
Jameson’s second appearance came four days later against the San Diego Padres, as the D-backs mounted a late-game comeback to turn a 5-1 deficit into an 8-5 lead. Jameson entered the game in the eighth and got the final six outs of the game, earning his first career save.
Three days later, Jameson got another win, tossing 2 1/3 scoreless innings against the Dodgers on back of a rough outing from starter Madison Bumgarner.
Now, Jameson is back in the starting rotation, and he made a good first impression in that role on Wednesday. In four innings, Jameson did not allow a run and struck out four on 56 pitches. The D-backs went on to beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 7-3.
The D-backs have won eight games in 2023, and Jameson’s fingerprints were all over half of them.
5. Andrew Chafin
Speaking of pitchers who have come through in big moments, left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin is also off to an impressive start in 2023. In six appearances, Chafin has tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He has seven strikeouts, and he has allowed only one hit.
The key to success for Chafin, as always, is his slider, which has had a ridiculous 70.6 percent whiff rate to start the season. Chafin also showed off some impressive defense in his most recent outing on Wednesday.
The D-backs have won all but one of the games in which Chafin has appeared this year. Lovullo has not been shy about using him in high-leverage situations, as four of Chafin’s six appearances have included all or part of the ninth inning. The south paw already has two saves, one hold and a win this season.
6. The third base platoon
We already talked about Rojas’ defense, but we have yet to talk about his offense, which has been nothing short of spectacular in 2023. Entering play on Friday, Rojas is slashing .412/.447/.559 with five doubles and two stolen bases.
Rojas isn’t going to hit .412 all year — his .500 BABIP is far from sustainable — but he is on a remarkable run with a trio of three-hit games in his last five games played.
Rojas’ platoon partner at third base, Evan Longoria, is also off to an impressive start. In seven games, Longoria is slashing .333/.391/.714 with two homers and two doubles.
The second of those homers was a game-tying solo shot against Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning on April 7. Rookie Corbin Carroll followed Longoria’s homer with a dinger of his own, and the D-backs went on to win the game, 6-3.
On the whole, the D-backs have gotten a combined 1.044 OPS at third base, which is the highest mark in baseball.
7. Putting the ball in play
Through 13 games, the Diamondbacks have a team strikeout rate of just 18.7 percent, which is second lowest in the league. For reference, the D-backs’ strikeout rate last year was 22.2 percent.
Frankly, the D-backs probably won’t out-homer their opponents much in 2023 — they currently rank 26th with 11 homers on the year — so putting the ball in play is important, particularly with how much speed is in their lineup.
The D-backs’ low strikeout rate contributes to a larger narrative that the Diamondbacks are relatively old school compared to other teams around the league. They bunt, they steal bases, they play defense. They put the bat in the ball, and they run like heck to beat out infield grounders. All those things add up to a team that is pretty fun to watch.
Statcast’s expected stats should always be taken with a grain of salt — especially after 13 games — but suffice it to say that Statcast metrics are not yet convinced that the Diamondbacks are as good as their 8-5 record would indicate.
As a team, D-backs position players have a .320 weighted on-base average (wOBA) in 2023 compared to an expected wOBA (or xwOBA) of .306. In other words, the D-backs have outperformed their expected wOBA by 14 points, which is tied for the fourth-largest margin in baseball.
The story is similar for the D-backs’ pitching staff. Opposing hitters have a .344 wOBA against D-backs pitchers, but based on quality of contact, Statcast expects opposing hitters to have a wOBA of .365. That means that D-backs pitchers have outperformed Statcast’s expectation by 21 points, which is the sixth-largest margin in baseball.
Put those stats together, and one could reasonably make the case that the Diamondbacks are, to date, the luckiest team in baseball in terms of batted ball outcomes. They’ve had more than their fair share of soft liners drop in, and their opponents have had the exact opposite experience.
Granted, Statcast’s expected stats are not equally accurate for all types of players. Speedy position players, of which the D-backs have many, tend to outperform their expected stats on offense, and pitchers with good defense behind them tend to outperform their expected stats, too. There is good reason to believe that the D-backs can sustainably outperform those metrics, but not by the margin that they have so far.
Even so, no Statcast metric will ever subtract from the D-backs’ current win total, nor does any of this mean that the D-backs cannot or will not be a very good team in 2023. Again, they have had the hardest schedule in the game so far. One could argue that going 6-7 would have been a good start. Instead, the D-backs have banked eight wins against three very good teams.
What these Statcast metrics do mean is that the D-backs still have a lot to prove. And, frankly, the same could be said for every other team in the league right now. We still have 149 games left to play. Whatever happens, early indications are that the D-backs will be very fun to watch.
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Top photo: Joe Rondone/The Republic