The Arizona Diamondbacks are Major League Baseball’s most recent expansion team, brought into the fold in 1998, along with the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Philadelphia Phillies, on the other hand, are one of the oldest franchises’ in professional sport, established over a hundred years before the inception of the Diamondbacks in 1883. The Diamondbacks haven’t made the playoffs since 2017 and rank 21st in total payroll. The Phillies are the reigning National League champions and rank 4th.
At the outset, the Phillies and the Diamondbacks appear just as far apart as the two cities they call home. However, a deeper review into the rosters and the two teams appear not as different as they may seem. While one wouldn’t say that the Phillies will be staring into a mirror when they take the field on Monday night, the matchup will be akin to looking into some strange form of kaleidoscope. Bear with me for a moment.
In the age of Marvel’s multiverse and alternate timelines dominating the box office, the Phillies-Diamondbacks matchup fits right in. After bottoming out in 2021 with a 52-110 record, the Diamondbacks improved in 2022, finishing 74-88, before sneaking into the last Wild Card spot at the end of 2023. They are a team that is by all means ahead of schedule – consisting of a mix of young, homegrown talent like outfielder Corbin Carrol and prudent trade acquisitions like ace Zac Gallen – the Diamondbacks were not expected to be competitive this year, much less in the NLCS. And yet, here they are.
What’s striking about the Diamondbacks is that not only do they find themselves in the underdog position that the Phillies found themselves in during last year’s postseason run – Arizona has yet to lose a game and enters Philadelphia on fire, with absolutely nothing to lose – they are the version of the Phillies, in some alternate universe, that didn’t break your heart. If one thing had just broken the right way for the Phillies from 2019 to 2021, if their bullpen hadn’t been horrendous, if their offense had been just a little better, then maybe, just maybe they could’ve found themselves in Arizona’s current position: a David, marching into battle against Goliath, looking to achieve the impossible.
Instead, the Phillies find themselves the favorites heading into Game 1 of the NLCS. They are seasoned, if only by one year of playoff success, by countless years of regular season failure. They have gotten here not by shrewd trades and drafting – although, the homegrown talent of Bryson Stott, Alec Bohm, Johan Rojas and Orion Kerkering does help – by spending an inconceivable amount of money and then spending some more. That spending and the eventual success was the result of years of institutional failure – the Phillies forced their way to the top through free agent acquisition and culture change. The Diamondbacks also forced their way to the top, albeit in a more organic and storybook friendly way. However, sentiment is unlikely to matter in a series as competitive as this looks to be.
On paper, the Phillies are the better team. They have the more talented, powerful, and deeper offense that bests Arizona in nearly every metric besides baserunning, stolen bases, and strikeout and walk rates. While the scales may be even in the four games that each club will likely use their top two starters – Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola matchup closely to Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly – but the Phillies have the advantage in starting pitching in the other three games. As with any successful postseason team, both the Phillies and the Diamondbacks are benefactors from amazing bullpens, with the Phillies just edging them out statistically this October: the Diamondbacks’ relievers posted a 1.77 ERA with a 27.7% strikeout rate in 20.1 innings and the Phillies’ pen has put up a 1.45 ERA with a 17.7% strikeout rate in 18.2 innings. The Phillies also enjoy home field advantage for the first two games of the series, an environment that has proven to be more than difficult to opposing teams over the last two postseasons.
However, the Diamondbacks are more than a worthy opponent. They are a team that is built upon speed – something of a kryptonite to Phillies pitchers – not only finishing second in the NL in steals, but taking an extra base on a single or double 46% of the time. They also had 36 bunt hits to the Phillies’ 13. Where the Phillies have power, the Diamondbacks have speed and small ball skills. Many of the Phillies prominent pitchers such as Aaron Nola, Craig Kimbrel, and Jose Alvarado also struggle with being slow to the plate. The Diamondbacks will undoubtedly look to take advantage of the Phillies’ poor defense and slow deliveries by putting pressure on the base paths early.
The Phillies will have to find a way to retaliate – Arizona’s style of winning this postseason has been to offensively overwhelm opposing teams early on, taking out their starters and stretching out bullpens. They want to punch you in the mouth before you even have a chance to think. In short, they want to win ugly. Good thing the Phillies are more than comfortable making things ugly as well.