- With two of the top offenses in baseball, the Rockies and Diamondbacks square off in an unpredictable NL Wild Card Game.
For the Diamondbacks and Rockies, the NL wild-card game is the end of a long drought. Arizona hasn’t been to the postseason since it won the NL West in 2011 and fell to the Brewers in the Division Series. It’s been even longer since we saw Colorado play into October: The Rockies’ last playoff appearance came as the wild card in 2009, when they lost to the Phillies in the first round. After several years wandering in the desert, both teams have finally returned to the promised land, but only one of these division rivals will move on to face the Dodgers in the NLDS. And while this matchup isn’t a lopsided one on paper—Arizona took the season series, 11–8—it still favors the D-Backs.
Wednesday night’s pitching matchup at Chase Field in Phoenix pits former NL Cy Young Zack Greinke and former first-round pick Jon Gray against each other. There’s no questioning Greinke’s credentials or pedigree (he’s made nine career postseason starts), but while Gray is a newcomer to the pressures of the playoffs, he’s no pushover.
Let’s start with Greinke, who looked like his old self this year after a brutal introduction to Arizona. The 33-year-old righty finished the year with a 3.20 ERA in 202 1/3 innings and a team-high 6.3 Wins Above Replacement, good for eighth in the NL. Greinke’s strikeout, walk and home-run rates all improved after taking big hits in his first season with the Diamondbacks, and his strikeout percentage of 26.8 was his highest since 2011. It’s enough to make even one of the game’s more idiosyncratic players want to celebrate.
It’s not hard to see where Greinke’s 2017 success came from: He gave up less contact and got more swings and misses. Most of those whiffs came on Greinke’s breaking and offspeed stuff, with his slider as his two-strike finisher against both lefties and righties. But he’s not the kind of pitcher to blow you away, averaging just 91 mph with his four-seamer, and batters didn’t have a terribly hard time squaring it up, hitting .292 with a .495 slugging percentage against it.
The big thing to watch for with Greinke will be the long ball. Even in this bounce-back year, he still gave up 25 dingers, and Chase Field is one of the most homer-happy parks in baseball (even moreso than Coors Field), though Greinke pitched better at home than away. And no team hit more homers off Greinke this year than the Rockies, who tagged him for six in 34 1/3 innings, though three of those came in one game in late April.
Opposite Greinke will be Gray, a pup at 25 with just 319 career innings to his name. Limited to 20 starts this season by a stress fracture in his left foot, Gray enters into the wild-card game on a roll, with a 2.44 ERA and 66 strikeouts over 66 1/3 innings since the beginning of August. Boasting a power fastball (he averages 96 mph with his four-seamer) and a wipeout slider, what Gray lacks in experience he makes up for in pure, raw stuff.
The question with Gray will be whether he can be efficient. The righty has gotten past the sixth inning only four times in 20 turns and is averaging 5.5 innings per start, and while this new era of playoff baseball doesn’t ask for starters to churn out complete games, the Rockies’ shaky middle relief options make it that much more important for Gray to get those crucial sixth- and seventh-inning outs, if possible.
Unsurprisingly for two teams that call Chase Field and Coors Field home, both lineups can hit. Both Arizona and Colorado were top 10 in on-base percentage and weighted on-base average, though the Rockies didn’t get in on this year’s home run bonanza, finishing 21st in the league with 192 total—104 of which came from three players.
The thump in Arizona’s lineup is concentrated in the middle, with the trio of Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb and J.D. Martinez ready to give Gray chest pains. Goldschmidt is the perpetual MVP candidate and steady as a metronome. His 140 OPS+ this year was better than all but 22 other qualified hitters, but was his fourth-lowest mark in that category since 2013. The 26-year-old Lamb, meanwhile, proved last year’s breakout was no fluke, clubbing 30 home runs and notably improving his plate discipline and contact rates.
Then there’s Martinez, who came over from the Tigers at the trade deadline and promptly laid waste to the Senior Circuit. In 62 games with Arizona, the 30-year-old rightfielder hit an astonishing .302/.366/.741 with 29 home runs, including the first four-homer game in Diamondbacks franchise history. There’s on fire, and then there’s whatever Martinez is—a star going supernova, maybe.
Around those three, though, there hasn’t been much else for the Diamondbacks to crow about. The fourth-most productive player in the regular lineup has been veteran catcher Chris Iannetta. Centerfielder A.J. Pollock and leftfielder David Peralta struggled through inconsistent years, and the middle infield combo of Ketel Marte and Brandon Drury is a glove-first pairing. Goldschmidt, Lamb and Martinez are going to have to do the heavy lifting against Gray.
Likewise, the Rockies’ hopes rest on Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado. The two are the thunder and lightning in Colorado’s lineup—Blackmon atop it, hitting .331/.399/.601 with 37 home runs, and Arenado in the middle, with a .309/.373/.586 line and 37 homers of his own. But the Rockies had a hard time complementing that awesome duo, aside from July addition Jonathan Lucroy, who hit .310/.429/.437 after coming over from Texas.
Carlos Gonzalez fought through one of the worst years of his career, posting an 87 OPS+ and 14 homers despite avoiding his perennial injury issues. Trevor Story wasn’t able to build on his sterling yet short rookie campaign; his 24 homers can’t mask a .308 OBP or team-high 191 strikeouts. Veteran first baseman Mark Reynolds reached the 30-homer plateau for the first time since 2011 but didn’t offer much else, as his 105 OPS+ suggests, and DJ LeMahieu’s .310 batting average failed to cover up a puny .409 slugging percentage.
Then there’s the matter of how those bats will fare away from Coors Field. Every Rockies hitter had dramatic home/road splits in 2017: Arenado’s OPS fell nearly 200 points outside of Coors; Blackmon’s plunged by almost 500 points, from a superhuman 1.239 to a more pedestrian .784; Reynolds went from MVP caliber (.978) to replacement level (.703). Chase Field is still plenty friendly to offense, but leaving the confines of Blake Street puts a serious damper on the Rockies’ offense.
This is where Arizona may have the biggest advantage, thanks to the presence of Archie Bradley in the middle and late innings. The 25-year-old righty has followed the Andrew Miller path to Postseason Relief Superiority to a tee: a former top prospect, he struggled as a starter, was converted to the bullpen and immediately flourished, striking out 79 and posting a 1.73 ERA over 73 innings. Most important, though, was Bradley’s ability to pitch multiple innings. Manager Torey Lovullo used Bradley mostly as a setup man and fill-in closer as the season went on, but he recorded three or more outs in 20 of his 63 appearances. He should be the first man out of the bullpen, no matter when Greinke leaves.
Aside from Bradley, the Diamondbacks’ relief corps is solid if unspectacular. Closing duties belong to Fernando Rodney, who will either breeze through the ninth inning or lob a live grenade onto the mound. The veteran’s monthly splits are an exercise in baseball schizophrenia: His 12.60 ERA in April gave way to 18 2/3 scoreless frames across May and June, followed by a 4.05 ERA and 12 walks over his final 26 2/3 innings. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s as to which version of Rodney shows up in the ninth if Arizona has a lead.
Should Lovullo need more setup help beyond Bradley, the best bets are righties David Hernandez and J.J. Hoover and lefty Andrew Chafin. Hernandez came over late in July from the Angels and was no great shakes (a 4.82 ERA in 18 innings), though Lovullo seems to trust him anyway. Hoover struck out 54 in 41 1/3 innings but also walked 26. Chafin is the situational lefty whose only job will be to face Blackmon, should things come to that.
As for the Rockies, they made arguably the savviest bullpen addition of the offseason in Greg Holland, who was snagged for a mere $6 million (plus a player option) and went on to save 41 games with 70 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings. That line, though, hides a brutal second half, in which he was tagged for a 6.38 ERA and saw his velocity drop nearly a mile per hour. Holland was better in September, giving up three runs in 9 2/3 innings and striking out 12, but he’s not nearly as automatic as he was before the All-Star break.
Complementing Holland will be Jake McGee as the team’s top southpaw and soft-tossing veteran (and Greinke hater) Pat Neshek from the right side. McGee found his fastball once again after a rough 2016 in Colorado, pumping in his four-seamer at 94.9 mph on average and upping his strikeout rate by two batters per nine. Interestingly enough, he has reverse splits both on his career and this season. Neshek is the virtual opposite of McGee, slinging his cheese at just over 90 mph from a herky-jerky sidearm motion. He thrives on deception, with his unusual delivery making his fastball play up and giving his slider extra bite.
The biggest issue for the Rockies, relief-wise, is that no one in their bullpen is a good bet to provide length should Gray leave early, ala Bradley for Arizona. Six innings out of Gray is practically a must; Colorado won’t want to go anywhere near the likes of Scott Oberg or Adam Ottavino in a must-win game.
The Rockies are only slight underdogs, but their path to success is a little harder to see than Arizona’s, particularly with the Diamondbacks’ advantages in relief and in getting to host the game (they went 52–29 at Chase Field, a .642 winning percentage, as opposed to 41–40 on the road). The bet here is that the Diamondbacks will move on to face the Dodgers in another NL West showdown.