7 reasons the D-backs are the unlikeliest World Series team

October 25th, 2023

One of the most overused -- and inaccurate -- assertions made by athletes in junctures of jubilation is, “Nobody believed in us!”

That’s just not true. These players have friends and parents and agents and accountants who believe in them implicitly. And in baseball, especially -- a sport that has not had a repeat champion in 23 years and is about to see a Wild Card club win the World Series for the eighth time since 1997 -- any team that advances to the dance has a legit chance of walking away with its biggest prize.

But the members of the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks, having just dispatched the reigning National League champion Phillies in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series to punch their franchise’s first ticket to the World Series since 2001, are hereby permitted to go into their Fall Classic date with the Rangers and crow all they want about having been overlooked, underappreciated, underrated, underestimated, spurned, snubbed, ignored, deserted and just generally dissed.

Because we’re here to tell you that there’s a real argument to be made that this D-backs club is the most shocking pennant winner in MLB history.

None of us (save for those loving parents) saw this coming at the start of the year. None of us gave them a chance.

Sure, the Snakes entered the postseason as a No. 6 seed. But that alone doesn’t make their achievement unusual. We’re only in the second year of this expanded playoff format, but a sixth seed in the NL has now reached the World Series (checks notes) 100 percent of the time (the Phils did it last year!).

No, it’s a variety of factors baked into that No. 6 seed that puts the D-backs’ achievement in 2023 in a class all its own.

Let’s run through them.

1. They had the division/Wild Card odds stacked against them
We learned once again this year that projections, while always interesting, are barely worth the bandwidth used to post them. It ultimately doesn’t really matter what the computers thought of the D-backs’ chances entering the year.

But let the record show that little was realistically expected of this club in light of what was going on elsewhere in Arizona's division and in the broader NL. The Mets, Padres, Dodgers and Braves combined to spend more than a billion dollars this season, so forgive us if the D-backs didn’t get a lot of preseason ink.

Before the season, FanGraphs assigned the following odds of making the playoffs to these NL West teams:

  1. Padres, 85.3 percent
  2. Dodgers, 71.2 percent
  3. Giants, 40.3 percent
  4. D-backs, 15.3 percent

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections saw things much the same way, with the following record projections:

  1. Dodgers, 96-66
  2. Padres, 93-69
  3. Giants, 81-81
  4. D-backs, 74-88

Further complicating the D-backs’ cause was the perceived depth of the NL East. Obtaining a postseason berth would seemingly be made more difficult by the East having three teams -- the Mets (96-66 PECOTA projection, 77.1 percent FanGraphs-calculated chance of reaching playoffs), Braves (91-71, 90.3 percent) and Phillies (90-72, 50 percent) -- projected to waltz into the postseason, thereby taking up two of the three available Wild Card spots.

Well, you know what happened next. The NL East indeed sent three teams to the playoffs, but one of them was the 84-win Marlins. The Mets and Padres, meanwhile, were major disappointments, opening up an opportunity for Arizona that few forecast.

The D-backs entered the season with FanGraphs’ model giving them just a 1.2 percent chance of winning the NLCS. Only the Cubs (0.5 percent), Pirates (0.3 percent), Reds (0.1 percent), Nationals (0.0 percent) and Rockies (0.0 percent) had worse odds.

And yet, here they are.

2. They went 16-34 midseason
The D-backs’ 84 wins this season were tied (with the aforementioned 2023 Marlins, '08 Dodgers, 1997 Astros and '84 Royals) for the fourth fewest for a postseason participant in a 162-game season. Only the 1973 Mets and 2005 Padres (82 wins apiece) and the '06 Cardinals (83 wins) entered the playoffs with fewer wins.

Now the D-backs rank third -- behind those Mets and Cardinals teams -- in the rank of fewest regular-season wins among World Series participants.

Obviously, the expanded format increases the odds of a club with a not-so-sparkling regular-season record reaching the postseason … and therefore increases the odds of such a club advancing to the last round. But what sets the 2023 D-backs apart is how they got those 84 wins. They did it the hard way, jumping out to a 41-25 start before crumbling with a humbling 16-34 mark from June 13 to Aug. 11.

There has never been a previous pennant winner to have a 50-game stretch as bad as 16-34. The previous low was 17-33 by the 2005 Astros (a few overlapping spans between April and June) and the 1973 Mets (May 19-July 13).

The worst such stretch by a World Series winner was 19-31 by the 2019 Nationals and '14 Giants.

3. They had a negative run differential
As if the regular-season record weren’t vanilla enough, the D-backs put it together while being outscored by 15 runs (761-746). Heck, the disappointing 87-loss Mets (minus-12) had a better run differential than the D-backs!

The only other team to win a pennant with a negative run differential was the 1987 Twins (minus-20). But Minnesota went on to beat the 95-win Cardinals in the World Series in seven games. So watch out, Rangers.

4. They were led by a rookie
Corbin Carroll is not only the presumptive NL Rookie of the Year, but he's also the closest thing the D-backs have to an MVP candidate. He led Arizona position players with 6.0 fWAR this season. (The next-best mark belonged to NLCS MVP Ketel Marte, at 4.2.)

How rare is it for a pennant winner to have a rookie as its position player fWAR leader? Pretty darn rare. According to MLB.com researcher Sarah Langs, it has happened only three previous times:

  • Charlie Hollocher, 1918 Cubs
  • Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox
  • Evan Longoria, 2008 Rays

This is the best kind of note because it has the requisite Dead Ball Era player that few living people have heard of in Hollocher and a present member of the current club we’re discussing in Longoria. (Each of those other three rookies was on the losing club in the World Series, so Carroll will try to break that particular trend.)

5. Their highest-paid player isn’t even on the team
It’s certainly weird and wonderful that two years after the Rangers lost 102 games and the D-backs lost 110, they are facing each other in the World Series. But there’s no doubt that a sizable percentage of the Rangers’ rise was financed in free agency, with especially big deals for Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Nathan Eovaldi (and of course, a mammoth deal with the injured Jacob deGrom). They had the ninth-highest Opening Day payroll in MLB.

The D-backs, by contrast, aren’t here because of a spending spree. Hardly. They ranked 21st in Opening Day payroll, and the difficulty of rising above that rank to get to this point is well-established.

The largest expenditure associated with this Snakes squad was a five-year, $85 million deal with lefty Madison Bumgarner before the 2020 season … and it did not go according to plan. Bumgarner was designated for assignment on April 20 with a 10.26 ERA and more than $34 million remaining on his contract. He remains their highest-paid player by a long shot, with a $23 million salary this season that is basically double what the highest-paid player on the D-backs’ postseason roster -- Marte ($11.6 million) -- is making.

As part of their trade with the Mets, the Rangers are only on the hook for half of Max Scherzer’s salary next season, and even that half -- about $20.8 million -- would easily make him the highest-paid member of the D-backs.

6. They were able to capitalize on major rule changes
Would the D-backs even be in the postseason if MLB hadn’t ushered in unprecedented change to its rules for 2023? Impossible to say, but there is little doubt that the pitch timer, defensive shift limits and bigger bases helped them a great deal.

Arizona’s .250 team average, .293 batting average on balls in play and 20.4 percent strikeout rate were all big improvements from the .230 average, .272 BABIP and 22.2 percent K rate last season. The pickoff limits and bigger bases (and yes, of course, a full season of Carroll) contributed to the club’s jump from 104 stolen bases in 2022 (tied for sixth in MLB) to 166 this year (second in MLB). The D-backs’ stolen-base success rate went from 78.2 percent to 86.5 percent. They continued to use the stolen base to their advantage in October, swiping eight bags in Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS without getting caught.

The balanced schedule might have also helped this club. Taking advantage of more games against the weak NL Central (20-12) made a big difference in Arizona nailing down a Wild Card spot.

This was a rare opportunity -- arguably the most ambitious rule changes of the Modern Era -- and this young, athletic club was perfectly positioned for the faster-paced environment. It’s one reason why they were able to so thoroughly exceed expectations.

7. They were down 0-2 in the LCS
As if being prohibitive underdogs against the heavily favored Phillies weren’t daunting enough for the D-backs, they dropped the first two games at Citizens Bank Park. That’s a deficit only 14 teams had overcome to win a best-of-seven series in 90 previous instances. It had only happened four previous times in an LCS.

Oh, and let’s not forget how unlikely it seemed -- just a couple days ago -- that the D-backs could win back-to-back games at the Bank. Entering Game 6, the Phillies were not just 6-0 at home this postseason but an incredible 28-13 (.683 winning percentage) overall in that building in its postseason history -- the best postseason record for any team at a home venue. Ever.

To the D-backs, it didn’t matter.

Take any one of these factors on its own, and it’s not enough to confidently claim that this is the most unlikely pennant winner in MLB history.

But take all of the above together? This is extremely implausible stuff, even by baseball’s bonkers standards.

The only thing that would make it even more absurd is if these D-backs win the whole darn thing.

And you know what? They just might. We believe in them now.