Despite the disappointment surrounding the 2012 season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, there have been several reasons for optimism about the team heading into the future. The debuts of guys like Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer give fans hope that the team’s pitching staff will be in good hands and fans have also seen the emergence of a couple of offensive dynamos in Jason Kubel and Aaron Hill. Factor in the Rookie of the Year-caliber season turned in by Wade Miley and it’s easy to wonder how exactly this team is eight and a half games out of first place.
Perhaps their biggest strength this year, however, has been their bullpen. Yesterday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers was a sterling example of that strength in action. After Trevor Cahill left the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, Arizona’s six relievers combined to give up two hits, struck out eight Dodger hitters and walked three to keep their hopes alive. When Kubel homered in the top of the 11th, JJ Putz shut the door for his 28th save of the season to give Arizona the 4-3 victory.
The innings that these guys pitched were not easy breezy pressure-free frames, either. The game was tied after Mike Zagurski allowed a bloop single after Cahill’s departure and it remained so until Kubel went deep. That ability to respond under pressure has been a fixture of this relief corps for the entire season, and as the bullpen is currently constructed, it should continue to be a strong suit of the team for years to come.
It was alluded to during the team’s broadcast yesterday, and it was an apt point by Luis Gonzalez, who is sitting in for Mark Grace in the booth, when he said that GM Kevin Towers deliberately constructed his bullpen so that teams were getting “different looks” in each inning. More so than just assembling a group of righties and lefties to ensure proper matchups, Towers has brought in guys who throw from different arm angles, as Bryan Shaw does, and also guys who can either locate with precision or blow the ball past guys.
This mix of power, precision and movement has got to wreak hell on a team’s confidence when getting into Arizona’s bullpen, and that is truly a rare commodity in today’s game. When just about every other team in baseball was trying to improve their bullpen construction at the trade deadline, the Diamondbacks were in the enviable position of sitting pretty in that department. They even added an additional piece for insurance purposes when they acquired Matt Lindstrom from the Baltimore Orioles in the Joe Saunders trade.
A quick rundown of who is surging right now is likely to enhance that jealousy. Brad Ziegler has been a pleasant surprise in the pen this year, inducing 14 double plays to lead MLB relievers in that category. That kind of success is a direct result of his ability to keep the ball on the ground, with 119 of the 158 balls put in play against him this season being grounders. He has also kept the opposition off the scoreboard effectively, giving up zero runs in 13 of his past 14 appearances.
Another guy who has been solid since his call-up in August is Brad Bergesen, who picked up the victory against the Dodgers last night with two innings of solid work. He struck out three batters and walked two, and with an ERA of 2.50 and a WHIP of 1.17, he is just another example of the pixie dust that Towers and manager Kirk Gibson have been given to get their bullpen to succeed.
David Hernandez, long rumored to be the closer of the future for the Diamondbacks, has had a blockbuster year as well. Signed to a fresh extension during the offseason that will keep him in the desert through at least the conclusion of 2014, Hernandez has responded by posting a sparkling WHIP of 1.00, an ERA of 2.17 and an insane K/9 ratio of 13.18, striking out 85 batters in 58 innings of work. He would be the closer on most teams in baseball, but there’s some guy who just so happens to stand in his way.
The aforementioned Putz is having a good year of his own, with 28 saves, a WHIP of 1.01 and an ERA of 2.76. What is even more impressive has been his performance since he struggled early in the year. Since he blew the save in a game on May 22, he has given up only two earned runs in the ensuing two and a half months, and that was in only one hiccup in June. He didn’t give up a single run in July or August and has gone 25 straight appearances without giving one up either.
Now, there are rumors circulating that the Diamondbacks are going to pick up the $6.5 million on Putz’s contract for next season. In a day and age when guys like Heath Bell and Jonathan Papelbon are rewriting the books on how much to pay closers (and guys like Jonathan Broxton and Bell showing how impermanent the closer’s role is on any given team), this deal has to seem like a bargain to Towers and company, and it honestly wouldn’t surprise anyone if they do just that.
With so many quality arms coming into games late for the Diamondbacks, it’s a real shame that they won’t be a playoff club this year. With all of their new young arms in the rotation, and the very real possibility of a resurgence from Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson in the coming years, you could be looking at the backbone of a long-term contender in the National League if Arizona can continue to churn out bullpen talent like they have the past two seasons.