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No secret formula to D-backs' success
Don’t get caught up in paralysis by analysis while trying to figure out the sudden rise of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West.
The Diamondbacks did not stumble upon a secret formula.
Longtime baseball executive Dan O’Brien Sr. often said the biggest challenge facing new executives and owners was "it takes them a few years to realize that round is still the best shape for a wheel."
Kevin Towers, who took over as the Diamondbacks' general manager last September, learned during his days in San Diego how to build a contending team. Towers can appreciate how statistical reports can provide supplemental information for decision making, but he’s not wedded to the point of overlooking the human factor that is a part of performance.
And though Arizona manager Kirk Gibson is filing out lineup cards for the first time on a non-interim basis, he brings with him a pedigree as one of the most hard-nosed competitors to have played in the big leagues. Gibson understands that mental commitment is as critical as physical ability.
Now, the season is only about a third of the way over, so it’s far too early to declare as cured everything that ailed the Diamondbacks under the control-freak mentality of the previous administration. That, of course, included a general manager who micromanaged to the point of overseeing lineups and who bought into the silly idea it was no different for a pitcher to get the 27th out of a game than any of the 26 others.
There is, however, hope again in Arizona.
The Diamondbacks did, after all, wake up on Memorial Day a half-game ahead of San Francisco in the NL West, the first time they had been in first place since September 2008. Big deal? Well, this is a team coming off back-to-back last-place finishes, having lost 92 games in 2009 and 97 games in 2010.
And it’s not like this team is feeding off the emotions of jumping to a fast start this season. These Diamondbacks had every reason to doubt themselves as recently as two weeks ago, but Gibson, supported by an All-Star-caliber coaching staff that includes the likes of Alan Trammell, Don Baylor and Matt Williams, wouldn’t allow it.
So a team that two weeks ago was stumbling along with a 17-23 record, nestled into that familiar last-place spot in the NL West, went on a streak in which it has won 14 of its past 16 games, including a just-completed 6-1 trip in which it took three of four in Colorado and then swept a three-game series in Houston.
The keys to their success?
Well, there is Gibson, of course, but don’t overlook that part of Gibson’s strength is that he has the support of Towers. This isn’t like Bob Melvin, who managed Arizona to the NL West title in 2007.
In trying to ensure the development of Justin Upton, called up while he was still a teenager, Melvin felt at one point that Upton would benefit from being sent to the minor leagues to remind him that the effort he was giving wasn’t good enough for a big league player. The previous administration looked at Melvin like he had a third eye and expressed concern that such a move might hurt Upton’s feelings.
With Towers and Gibson, the focus is on healing what ails the franchise they inherited, not trying to coddle individuals.
"Gibby and the coaching staff have done a great job of mentoring," Towers said. "They are teaching (the players) how to win. They have changed the culture. It’s old school."
Gibson makes it sound simple.
"The message that was sent to the clubhouse when we started spring training is that we will compete each and every inning, every at-bat, every pitch," he said. "Even when we are down, we are not going to give in. A sign of good teams is that they don't ever give in and lay down. So far, so good, but we've got a long way to go. It is not about a good couple weeks or month or half a season. It’s about sustaining the approach."
And it’s about getting the people who fit.
That’s where Towers has a magical touch.
Towers has been on the job only since the last week of September, but his imprint is on this team. Of the 25 players on Arizona’s active roster, 12 were acquired since Towers came on the job.
A former pitcher, Towers believes a key to competing is making sure the manager has the late-inning arms to not let games slip away. And nothing underscores Towers’ ability to evaluate talent than the Arizona bullpen. A year ago, the 'pen had 24 blown saves and 5.74 ERA.
This year’s version has been among the most consistent in baseball.
It is built around:
- Closer J.J. Putz, an offseason free-agent signee who is 16-for-16 in save opportunities and has a 1.57 ERA.
- Right-handed setup man David Hernandez, who came from Baltimore in the trade of strikeout-prone, defensively challenged third baseman Mark Reynolds, and has a 1.85 ERA.
- And left-handed specialist Joe Paterson, a $50,000 winter draft pick from San Francisco, who has an 0.77 ERA.
With bullpen depth, it should be no surprise that Arizona is 13-7 in one-run decisions and has been able to stay in games well enough to enjoy seven victories in its final at-bat.
"I don’t know if there was a lot of respect (for the Diamondbacks) the last couple of years, but we’ve gained respect this year," said Towers.
It is, after all, hard to ignore a team that is sitting in first place in the NL West, becoming the target that the rest of the division is now aiming for.
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