AS WEEKS go, it was a pretty good one for 23-year-old pitcher Max Scherzer. On April 26, as a member of the Tucson Sidewinders (the Diamondbacks' Triple A affiliate), Scherzer was preparing to perform one of the mundane duties required of a minor league starter on an off day—in this case, charting the pitches of a teammate—when a trainer tapped him on the shoulder and told him to see manager Bill Plummer. "I thought I was going to have some other duty, maybe manning the radar gun or something," says Scherzer, who entered Plummer's office with the blank chart in one hand and a cup of sunflower seeds in the other. "But he says, 'Congratulations. You're going to the big leagues.'"
The next day, Scherzer boarded a Southwest flight at 6:55 a.m. from Tucson to join the Diamondbacks in San Diego. On Tuesday, back in Arizona, he made his debut in long relief—and it was memorable. Armed with a 98-mph four-seam fastball, a two-seamer that touches 94, a sharp slider and an effective changeup, each delivered from a tricky three-quarters angle, Scherzer flummoxed all 13 Houston Astros he faced, striking out seven and allowing only one ball to leave the infield. It was the longest perfect performance by any pitcher making his major league debut out of the bullpen in more than 50 years. The following morning, as he was arranging his new locker in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse, Scherzer received another tap on the shoulder. "Max," said D-Backs manager Bob Melvin as soon as Scherzer entered his office, "we're going to start you on Monday."
In four starts with Tucson, Scherzer had a 1.17 ERA and an astounding 38:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but general manager Josh Byrnes says he only called him up to help out his tired staff, which had pitched in 23 games in 25 days prior to Scherzer's promotion and was without fourth starter Doug Davis, who is being treated for thyroid cancer. One rival NL West executive, however, has another theory. "Maybe," says the exec, "they're trying to bury all of us early."
WHILE BYRNES would never admit to such a goal—"That's not the expectation. We're just trying to play as well as we can," he says diplomatically—the young and supremely gifted Scherzer, the 11th pick in the 2006 draft, should fit right in on a largely young and supremely gifted team. Through Sunday the Diamondbacks had the best record in the big leagues, at 21--10, and their four-game lead over the streaking Dodgers in the NL West was the largest of any first-place team in the majors. Offensively, they ranked second in runs scored (179) and first in slugging percentage (.460), and their pitchers were first in batting average against (.221).
May 11, 2008
Even more impressive is that Arizona is producing those numbers while fielding a roster that for the most part barely remembers Ronald Reagan's presidency. Six of the team's eight every-day position players were born after 1980, and three of the five starters—including Dan Haren, 27, who went 4--1 with a 3.12 ERA in his first month in Arizona after being acquired from Oakland over the winter—are children of the '80s. That youth is partly a financial necessity. It is also partly the result of an outstanding scouting department and farm system, and a willingness to fast-track its most promising assets.
While other clubs often wait until the success of their prospects seems a sure thing before they'll promote them to the majors, the Diamondbacks have no qualms about throwing theirs into the big league waters at the first sign of readiness, even if the players might struggle at first. "We're not afraid to push," says Melvin, "as long as we feel that the player can handle some failure."
In 2005 the club promoted first baseman Conor Jackson, at the age of 23; in '06 shortstop Stephen Drew and centerfielder Chris Young were called up at 23 and 22, respectively; and, last season, third baseman Mark Reynolds, who was then 22, and rightfielder Justin Upton, who was 19, got the call. While all of those players played prominent roles in the Diamondbacks' 90--72 record and improbable run to the '07 National League Championship Series, statisticians pointed to the team's negative run differential—they scored 712 runs and allowed 732—and theorized that Arizona's success owed largely to luck.
Melvin and Byrnes thought otherwise. "Last year the criticism of us was: They don't score enough runs," says Melvin. "Are they going to score enough runs this year? Do they need to go out and get a big bat? We thought each one of our guys was going to get incrementally better, as young as they are and as high ceilings as they have."
Young believes that the experience he got last year was invaluable. "I think you learn more in one year in the big leagues than you do in four years in the minor leagues," he says. "In the minors, you look at the big leagues and think, Those guys are superhuman. When you get here for a year, by no means is it easy, but you understand that you have the ability to compete, and you learn what adjustments you have to make."
This season the members of the Diamondbacks' youthful offensive nucleus are playing with a maturity that belies their years. The leadoff-hitting Young, who slugged 32 homers and stole 27 bases but had an atrocious .295 on-base percentage in '07, has demonstrated a dramatically improved batting eye: He's on pace to draw 100 walks, after totalling 43 last season. Jackson and Reynolds both rank in the top seven in the league in RBIs. Drew is on pace to hit 47 doubles. And Upton, who was the draft's first overall pick three years ago and at 20 is the youngest player in the majors, is hitting .342. "A lot of them are off to hot starts," says leftfielder Eric Byrnes, "but I don't think this is an aberration. I think this is the type of team that we are."
Where the Diamondbacks do show their age, though, is in the clubhouse before games. Upton and Young bump along to YouTube hip-hop videos they watch on a Mac laptop; ace Brandon Webb and reliever Brandon Medders strum acoustic guitar duets as their teammates engage in a game they've christened Frisbee baseball, in which one player flings an Aerobie at another, who tries to hit it with a bat. Players rush in from batting practice to resume heated games of Connect Four. Byrnes vies with Jackson and Reynolds in a daily Jeopardy! contest in the adjacent TV room.
The players are so irreverent that last season they huddled around a TV cackling at Jackass: The Movie minutes before the majority of them were to play for the first time at Yankee Stadium. Starting pitcher Micah Owings was spotted flying a kite in the Dodgers Stadium outfield hours before a game two weeks ago. The 32-year-old Byrnes, who admits, "I'm more immature than most of them," wouldn't have it any other way. "People talk about chemistry in baseball, and people can say it doesn't matter, but when you're with the same guys for 162 games, it does matter," he says. "I saw it when I was with Oakland [from 2000 to '05, when the young A's made four playoff appearances], and it's very similar here. A bunch of young guys that enjoy themselves on and off the field."
THE MAN charged with harnessing this team's hyperactive energy is the 46-year-old Melvin, a tall, lean skipper who speaks in measured, professorial tones. Most of the time he goes along with the loose vibe. He initiated a team-wide contest in which everyone competes to most quickly identify the artist on each song played over the ballpark's P.A. system during pregame warmups. "Being a classic rock guy, I'm pretty much getting my butt kicked nowadays," he says, although his players delight in hearing Melvin bellow, correctly, "Young Jeezy!" on occasion.
But Melvin, last season's NL manager of the year, resorts to more traditional motivational tactics when circumstances call for them. Last Sept. 5, for instance, with the Diamondbacks tied with the Padres for the NL West lead, San Diego ace Jake Peavy, the eventual Cy Young winner, lobbied to start the third game of a three-game set against Arizona on three days' rest. Melvin called a pregame meeting and showed his players video clips of recent hits the Diamondbacks had gotten against Peavy, and said, essentially, "Peavy thinks he has your number. Show him what you've got." The Diamondbacks torched Peavy for eight earned runs—his worst performance of the season—and Arizona didn't spend a day in second place thereafter.
Opponents say that the Diamondbacks' formula—take several parts youthful vigor and mix with a handful of savvy veterans and a manager who knows how to push all the right buttons—has produced a formidably cohesive result. "They're fearless and they refuse to get beat," says Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti. The on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of their seventh, eighth and ninth hitters (most often Drew, catcher Chris Snyder and the pitcher) all rank in the top nine in the majors for those spots in the order, remarkable for a National League team. "You have to think of it from [an opposing] pitcher's perspective," says Colletti. "Most teams, 7-8-9, you can take a breath, take it easy, gear up for 1 to 6. With their lineup, you don't have the luxury of having an easy inning."
That the Diamondbacks have gotten a higher batting average out of the ninth spot than all but three AL teams, which use position players there, is a credit mostly to Owings (who bears some resemblance to the actor Seth Rogen, if Rogen were to get a haircut, slip into a pair of platform shoes and spend a few thousand hours in the gym). The 6'5" righthander, who set a Georgia high school record with 69 career home runs and who is 4--1 on the mound this season, has a career OPS of 1.057, which is fourth-best alltime among players with more than 75 career plate appearances. (Owings has 88.) Only Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig own higher career marks; Barry Bonds ranks just behind Owings.
It's a small sample size, to be sure, but Owings does have rare pop. Last week a as a pinch hitter, he crushed a game-tying shot to the opposite field in an 8--7 win over the Astros. "He and Reynolds probably have the most power on our team," says Melvin. "If there was a home-run-hitting contest, it could be pretty close." Then Melvin, perhaps envisioning Reynolds and Owings interrupting a game of Frisbee baseball to sprint out to the field with bats in hand, adds, "No, we're not going to do that."
Owings made his big league debut at 24. He's just another player to excel after the Diamondbacks put their trust in him at a young age; Max Scherzer should soon add his name to the growing list. And don't expect the suddenly mature Baby 'Backs to regress any time soon, says Mets third baseman David Wright. "This kind of start, with that kind of talent?" he asks. "They're only going to get better."
"With their LINEUP, you don't have the luxury of an easy inning."
"With that talent," says Wright, "they're only going to GET BETTER."
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In the wake of Micah Owings's pinch-hit homer, SI's Pablo S. Torre looks at some of the most memorable hitting pitchers in history.