The 5: Key players for D-backs’ last month of playoff race

Aug 23, 2018, 1:13 PM | Updated: 4:11 pm
(AP photos)...
(AP photos)
(AP photos)

The Arizona Diamondbacks are in the middle of a bonkers National League playoff race.

While they lead the NL West, they entered Wednesday only 1.5 games ahead of the Colorado Rockies, and the slumping Los Angeles Dodgers still loom at 4.5 games back.

Even worse, though, is a jam-packed Wild Card chase. The St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Rockies are all within two games of each other, a race the D-backs could find themselves in sooner than they’d like to think.

With a race this close, the performance of one player alone could swing the D-backs’ chances of playoff baseball.

Here is a look at who those five players could be.

5. Eduardo Escobar

Through 21 games as a D-back, Escobar is quietly hitting a team-high .308 with six doubles, three home runs and 12 RBI.

With Paul Goldschmidt on fire (more on that later) and David Peralta in the middle of a career year, all the D-backs need is some sporadic support around those two in the lineup to have an efficient offense.

Escobar appears to be the best hitter outside of those two stars, and he can either hit second in front of the two to reach base or fifth to drive them in. That’s what makes him so valuable.

The efficiency of the offense, in fact, is hitting its stride already in the time they’ve acquired Escobar.

In Arizona’s last 30 games, they are tied for first across all of baseball in batting average, first in on-base percentage, tied for sixth in slugging percentage and fourth in OPS. A whole lot of that has to do with the play of Peralta and Goldschmidt, but hitters like Escobar, Daniel Descalso, Steven Souza Jr. and Nick Ahmed have supplemented them too.

Consistency through the batting order has plagued the D-backs all year, but if Escobar and the supporting cast can maintain their play from the past month, it could be what pushes the offense over the edge to a real threat.

4. Archie Bradley

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

We can’t list the entire bullpen here, so let’s go with Bradley, who was one of the best relievers in baseball last year but is going through quite the struggle in the past month.

Prior to his six-run outburst on July 20 against the Colorado Rockies, Bradley had a superb 1.97 ERA. From that game to now, marking down his last 13 outings, Bradley has a 7.71 ERA.

In a quick sidestep, on the season, Arizona ranks second in all of baseball in reliever ERA at 3.12. Since July 20, however, they are 17th in bullpen ERA at 4.28.

Let’s go back to that Archie meltdown against the Rockies.

In all the games prior, the five key pieces of the D-backs bullpen all had an ERA below 3.07: Brad Boxberger (3.06), Bradley (1.97), Andrew Chafin (1.59), Yoshihisa Hirano (2.20) and T.J. McFarland (1.81) posted strong numbers.

Now looking at the ERAs since the July 20 matchup to Aug. 23 over the past month-plus, only Hirano (2.02) has improved his ERA and McFarland (2.45) has remained at a similar level. Boxberger (4.32), Bradley (7.71) and Chafin (4.50) have all declined while new additions Matt Andriese (4.09), Jake Diekman (4.15) and Brad Zielger (6.14) have all failed to make up for the downtick.

Hirano continues to be wonderful and McFarland is reliable in his situational appearances, but Arizona needs that bullpen to bring back the confidence it gave off for most of the season.

Taking a glance at that group, it’s reasonable to suggest Bradley is the best candidate to bounce back to that stellar form, making him an X-factor for the last month of the season.

3. A.J. Pollock

When the D-backs acquired Zack Greinke before the 2016 season, they had what no other team had.

With Paul Goldschmidt being Paul Goldschmidt, Pollock coming off a breakout year and Greinke being Greinke, the D-backs had three players that ranked in the top-10 across MLB in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). No other team had more than one.

You know the story. Pollock missed almost all of 2016 due to an injury then had more injuries and was “meh” when he played in 2017.

Fast forward to this year and Pollock has been solid, hitting .281 with 16 home runs and 50 RBI.

That, however, is padded by a tremendous April in which Pollock looked like a sure-fire All-Star. He’s only batting .246 in August and was at a good .286 in July.

The good news is that David Peralta has replaced Pollock as the second-best bat in the D-backs lineup. Arizona doesn’t need Pollock to be the player he was in 2015 that received MVP votes and also won a Gold Glove.

To continue off the point made on Escobar, Pollock was not included in that group of supplementary players to Paul Goldschmidt and Peralta because Pollock has had a pedestrian last month at the plate.

A monster September for Pollock, however, could be what pushes the D-backs to one of the best offenses in the majors.

2. Robbie Ray

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

To continue our theme of players who could recapture their past high level of play to push the D-backs over the edge to a division title and one of the best positional groups in the game, it’s time to talk about Ray.

As previous discussions have covered, Ray’s statistics point toward a pitcher that had a suggested regression coming.

With that being said, a 4.91 ERA is beyond expected regression and a pitcher the D-backs should not be able to trust in a postseason atmosphere.

Ray’s chance at an elite 2018 are gone, but because of the way Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin and Clay Buchholz are pitching, they aren’t asking for too much out of Ray.

Get that ERA in Ray’s last remaining starts closer to 3.00 than 4.50 and Arizona suddenly has one of the best rotations in baseball.

Is that too big of an ask? It doesn’t feel like it, but with the bullpen falling apart and the offense’s ups and downs, Ray stabilizing the starting rotation’s back-end would be enough for October baseball.

1. Paul Goldschmidt

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Do you know how good Goldschmidt has been since June 1?

Yeah, you might be aware he’s been great, but Goldy is arguably playing the best baseball of his career the past two and a half months.

Since June 1, Goldschmidt is hitting an insane .360, the second-best mark in baseball for players with at least 100 plate appearances.

He has 100 hits, 10 more than any other batter and there are only 15 total that have at least 80. Somehow, Goldschmidt is only fifth in RBI with 54, which should tell you something about the offense in front of him. The power is there too, with his 22 home runs trailing only Khris Davis’ 25 in Oakland and Matt Carpenter’s 27 (?!) for the Cardinals since that date.

We all remember last September.

It looked like “the year” for Goldschmidt to finally win the MVP award, as long as he posted a strong conclusion.

That conclusion was a stinker. He hit .175 and essentially handed the award to Giancarlo Stanton.

For the rest of this season, there are two sides to the coin.

Goldschmidt is hitting well enough right now to carry the D-backs’ offense on his back to a postseason appearance, even with the challenging schedule.

He’s also hitting so well that, by default, Arizona is overly relying on his production. Even if it’s not a big-time slump and Goldschmidt is just “OK” in September, the D-backs’ offense has proven this year they can be wildly inconsistent.

That could change, but the variation in those two outcomes is so massive that Goldschmidt has to be No. 1 on this list.

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

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The 5: Key players for D-backs’ last month of playoff race