The playoff picture is pretty well solidified at this point, with the matchups and home field advantages nearly all confirmed. One of the surprises of 2017 has been the Diamondbacks ascension as one of the better teams in the National League.
The DBacks will finish with a better record than the Cubs and only slightly behind the Nationals, who play half their schedule against the four dumpster fires that represent their competition in the NL East. With the Dodgers absurdly good first 4.5 months of the year, Arizona could not compete for the NL West pennant.
Regardless, Arizona got the next best thing, securing a home game in a winner-take-all showdown against division rival Colorado. Despite the Rockies sub-.500 record since July 1st (they are 38-39 entering Friday’s game) and an up-and-down September, Colorado still managed to hang onto the second wild card spot.
The Diamondbacks will be favored in this game, though only slightly, and they have a former Cy Young winner taking the hill next Wednesday evening. After Zack Greinke’s turbulent first year in the desert, it looked like the DBacks possibly made a mistake, and did not get themselves a ‘true ace’ after all. Over the course of fewer than 160 innings in 2016, Greinke finished the year with an ERA of 4.37, with a near matching FIP and SIERA all over 4.10. He basically was a league-average starter on a $205 million contract. This year however, Greinke looks like his former self, which is good news for the DBacks, who will be relying on Greinke to get them to the NLDS.
Without exception, it has been shown repeatedly that pitchers fare worse the more they churn through an order. The ‘times through the order’ penalty is a real thing and one that can be measured. So where does this leave manager Torey Lovullo as he thinks about how he uses Greinke to take on a Rockies lineup?
The good news is that Colorado’s lineup has not been nearly as potent as one might think, despite playing in the thin Colorado air. The Rockies so far have hit fewer than 190 home runs, putting them 21st in the league, tied with the Padres. The Padres! Overall, Colorado hitters have combined for an 86 wRC+, ahead only three other NL teams: the Padres, Pirates, and Giants; three teams whose seasons ended weeks, if not months ago.
With all of this in mind, the Diamondbacks best bet is to try to leverage what they can out of Greinke before handing the ball to their middle relievers. Five or even six innings out of Greinke would be ideal, at which point, they can call on Archie Bradley.
The biggest risk with sending their ace out to face the lineup multiple times is the longball. Even third time through the order, this season Greinke is allowing a man to reach base fewer than 30 percent of the time. The big risk however, is his propensity to give up home runs his second and third time he faces a batter.
Zack Greinke TTO
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With this in mind, this will all depend on the Diamondbacks bats. If Arizona has a lead of two or more runs, it is worth relying on Greinke so that their best reliever can bridge the gap to as late in the game as possible. If they are trailing or the game is tied, the risk is greater.
The secret weapon in Arizona’s bullpen is the aforementioned Bradley (who Devan Fink identfied earlier on in the season as a potential ‘relief ace’). Over the course of over 70 relief innings, he has struck out more than a batter an inning, walked only 20 people, and has allowed only three home runs. With a near 50 percent ground ball rate, he can quickly put out a fire by either inducing an inning ending ground out, or by striking a key batter out.
If the Diamondbacks can get five or six innings out of Greinke, that probably means he’s churned the lineup two times with perhaps a third time against the top, including likely leadoff and number-two hitters Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu.
While Blackmon is a decent home run threat, LeMahieu is not. In either case having Bradley waiting in the wings to face the heart of the order, namely Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado, and Trevor Story, would likely yield the best results. The thing is, the Diamondbacks best chance to win this game is getting as many of the 27 outs out of Greinke and Bradley as possible.
While Bradley could easily pitch two innings, and possibly even start the eighthh, the next set of middle relieves are not exactly inspiring. Between Jimmie Sherfy, Anthony Banda, and Jake Barrett, you would think Arizona could muster three outs, but that only gets them to an inconsistent and volatile closer for the ninth.
Ah the ninth inning. We all know what will happen in the ninth inning. Fernando Rodney will happen in the ninth inning. If I’m an Arizona fan, I wouldn’t breathe easy with Rodney on the mound unless the lead was more than five runs. This is one of those games where it is literally the case that the Rockies will be in this until the last out is recorded.
I can scream from the rooftops that this is a risky proposition, that Rodney has no business being in a high-leverage situation with the season on the line, but let’s be honest, it’s going to happen. Rodney is as much part of this team as anyone, and he’s had his good moments and bad moments. He’s volatile, he’s exciting, and he could cost the DBacks a chance at the NLDS.
We might as well enjoy the Dbacks success, but it’s just one more reason they should use their ace and their best reliever to get as many outs as possible before the Fernando Rodney experiment again rears its head.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano