Winning NL West now all but over for D-Backs

Let me get the tough part out of the way ... Less than three weeks ago, I predicted that the Arizona Diamondbacks would win the National League West title in 2003.

Immediately after that prediction was made public, I received a few messages from fans of the San Francisco Giants, the gist of which were, "You're an idiot! Giants rule, dude!" (Or at least that's how I care to remember them. It's a lot easier to deal with critics if you assume they're all blowhards without an ounce of objectivity when it comes to their favorite teams.)

As it turns out, the Giants really do rule. You've probably heard that the Yankees' 11-2 start is the best in their history. And I know you've heard that the Royals' 11-1 start is the best in their history. What you might not have heard (I haven't) is that the Giants' 13-1 start is their best since the franchise moved to San Francisco in 1958. And since 1901 -- as far back as I can find -- only one other Giants team has opened 13-1; in 1918, John McGraw's New Yorkers also won 13 of their first 14.

That's a real oddity, by the way, for three teams in one season to get off to such great starts. It doesn't mean anything. It's just one of those statistical anomalies that keeps anomaly-lovers like you and me coming back for me.

What it does mean, though, is that the Diamondbacks probably aren't going to win another division title.

Let me repeat that, in the interest of getting you D-Backs fans really worked up ... the Diamondbacks probably aren't going to win another division title.

Yes, I'm violating Rule No. 1 of April Baseball Analysis: "Nothin' means anything."

But the Diamondbacks are, at this moment, 10 games behind the Giants.

That's a lot of games, even in the middle of April.

On the other hand, teams make up four- or five-game June and July deficits all the time. So what's so scary about a 10-game April deficit?

It's scary because the 10-game deficit might well be related to quality rather than luck. Most teams that start the season 13-1 are very good (or even great), and most teams that start the season 3-11 are pretty lousy.

One can, of course, get in trouble by drawing conclusions in April regarding the standings in September. In 2002, the Athletics were 10 games out of first place as late as May 31, and all they did was storm back to win 103 games and finish four lengths ahead of the second-place Angels. And it's examples like this that everybody likes to remember.

But using the 2002 A's to buttress hopes for the 2003 Diamondbacks is wishful thinking, because 1) not many teams have done what the A's did, and 2) A's GM Billy Beane is a master at improving his team in the middle of the season. It may turn out that D-Backs GM Joe Garagiola, Jr. is also a master, but for now we have to guess that he's not.

For hope, the Diamondbacks might hearken back one more year, to 2001. That spring, the A's were 10 games behind the Mariners on April 25 ... and they fell farther and farther behind, because of course the M's seemed to win just about every game that season. But just as they did last year, in 2001 the A's overcame a slow start and wound up winning more than 100 games. In this case, 102 games, which was plenty for the AL's wild card.

And for the Diamondbacks, the wild card is where the action remains. The Phillies are going to run away and hide in the East, ditto for the Giants in the West. But otherwise, none of the projected contenders have played particularly well. The Dodgers are only two games ahead of the Diamondbacks, the Cardinals and Astros are both 7-6, and the Braves are two games under the .500 mark. So if Randy Johnson starts pitching like Randy Johnson, Arizona's still got a shot.


Speaking of the Phillies, have you noticed that they're just crushing the ball? The Phils have scored 94 runs, tops in the majors, and that's without benefit of the DH. Since I've already admitted that probably I missed the boat on the Diamondbacks (and to a slightly lesser degree, the Giants), let me balance the scales with something I wrote last December ...

There's certainly no guarantee that the Phillies will lead the league in runs next season ... but at this particular moment, they do look like the best candidates.

And this after a season in which the Phillies had finished eighth in the Naitonal League, with 710 runs. Why did I think they'd do so much better? Two reasons. One, they added Jim Thome and subtracted Travis Lee. And two, they were unlucky with runners on base.

So for the Phillies, the key today is exactly what it was the day after Thome signed on the dotted line: pitching. Because the Phils are going to score a million runs. If they can just keep the other team from scoring 900,000, they're going to win a million games.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.