You probably know how the offseason went for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In one of the biggest trades of Major League Baseball’s winter months, franchise centerfold Paul Goldschmidt was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals for prospects, while two cornerstones of the club, Patrick Corbin (Washington Nationals) and A.J. Pollock (Los Angeles Dodgers), each went elsewhere in free agency, pushing an otherwise talented team to the brink of an imminent rebuild.
Rumors of a Zack Greinke trade dominated the headlines after an offseason spent unloading superstars, and in addition, pitcher Taijuan Walker and outfielder Steven Souza Jr. were shut down for the entirety of the 2019 campaign, while the Diamondbacks remaining high-caliber players like Eduardo Escobar and Robbie Ray tried to focus on the task at hand.
Quietly, amid a hectic offseason, former National League Manager of the Year Torey Lovullo was given a two-year contract extension for his efforts over the past two years, as the D-Backs went 175-149 — posting consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2002-03 — with a postseason appearance in 2017.
And the notion of Lovullo being the right man for the job has only been reinforced during Arizona’s surprising stretch of excellence in the early parts of 2019. In the process, the skipper is showing his worth to the team and the organization.
The Diamondbacks, in spite of a roster void of the talent it possessed over the past two seasons, are off to a 20-15 start and sit just one game back of the Los Angeles Dodgers — who have taken the last six National League West titles — for first in a pretty competitive division. Lovullo, a former Quad-A utilityman, understands the importance of getting value anywhere he can, and has done yeoman’s work in extracting prime performance out of the most unlikely of sources.
While Greinke (1.8) and Escobar (1.1), two established stars, lead the club in Baseball-Reference WAR, the D-Backs sport a supporting cast full of relatively unrecognizable role players. Pitchers Luke Weaver (3-1, 3.29 ERA) and Merrill Kelly (3-2, 3.60 ERA before his Monday night start against the Tampa Bay Rays) have been impact players since cracking the roster out of spring training; Christian Walker (.306, seven home runs, 16 RBIs) has been an important part of an electric offense since taking over at a first base position vacated by Goldschmidt; Greg Holland (0.75 ERA, eight saves) looks like the Holland of old so far this season.
It takes a special manager to pull together a group of unheralded players and see instant success. Lovullo’s squad has been an offensive powerhouse, with Walker, Escobar, and Ketel Marte leading a batting order that went into Monday night first in the majors in hits (326) and doubles (85), second in batting average (.267), fourth in OPS (.803) and runs batted in (179), and seventh in home runs (52).
Their pitching has also been solid, with Greinke, their ace who is pitching at a Cy Young Award level, leading the way. The Diamondbacks are in the top half of MLB in opponent batting average, ERA, quality starts, and win percentage from their starters, with the aforementioned Greinke at the forefront with a 5-1 record, 3.42 ERA, 50 strikeouts and only eight walks, and a 132 OPS+. (Our Dustin Osborne wrote up on the emerging Weaver.)
Now, Arizona will need to prove that they can keep up this surprisingly good start throughout a long summer grind. Nobody will argue that the Diamondbacks are the most talented team in the NL West, with the Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, and young San Diego Padres edging them out in that regard. But they have a certain chemistry together, and that all starts with the guy who makes the lineup card (Lovullo).
They have a high-octane offense, reliable pitching in both their rotation and bullpen, and some unsung young talent, but all of that is measurable and easy to project. One thing that cannot be measured by any fancy Statcast number or Baseball Savant tool is what a manager does for a club like this one, and I truly believe that the confidence exhumed by the 47-year-old skipper and the trust he builds with his players, youthful ones and veterans alike, is unlike that of other managers in MLB.
The Diamondbacks could fall apart as the summer months begin, or they could carry early-season momentum all the way to October with a Wild Card spot in a stacked NL playoff race, mostly due to an immeasurable confidence and swagger instilled in the clubhouse by their savvy manager. The thought of the latter even happening on a team that lost perhaps its three best players in the offseason is indicative of the great job Torey Lovullo is doing with an outmanned team.