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June 1, 2004

Prospectus Matchups


by Jim Baker

Hi. My name is Jim Baker and what follows is what I will be doing at Baseball Prospectus. Twice a week, I'll select four games based on some very rigid criteria and write about them or the teams involved. Every Tuesday and Friday, you'll see a Best Matchup, a Worst Matchup, a Biggest Mismatchup and a Closest Matchup. How do I know these games actually fit their billing? Simple, I use the won-loss records of the teams involved.

Is that scientific? Hell no!

But it gives me a platform to state a case about any number of things both germane and tangential (not to be confused with the Vaudeville act of the same name) to the matchup at hand. I could make it more scientific by only using the Pythagorean records of the teams involved, but the key to enjoying this column is not to get too caught up in the billing--or the methodology of how the billings were conceived.

What are my credentials? For one thing, I am related by blood to every single current member of Baseball Prospectus, so my arrival here owes something to nepotism. Apart from that, I was once Bill James' assistant and contributed to the first edition of the Historical Baseball Abstract. I've spent the past two years writing for ESPN.com, primarily on the MLB Insider page.


BEST MATCHUP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): Boston Red Sox @ Anaheim Angels (61-40)

Can you use a 43-year old headline as bulletin board fodder? Probably not, but, just in case, the Red Sox handed the Angels their first loss ever on April 15, 1961. Boston 3, Los Angeles 0. The Angels had won their debut in Baltimore on April 11 and then missed a game owing to weather. (They opened at 1-8 but went on to have the best expansion year ever.) Ike Delock was the winning pitcher for Boston. Now there's a guy who gets no ink whatsoever. He was on the team for over a decade and I dare you to raise your hand if you've heard of him.

Here's another question: Can you name the Angels player who is leading the team in walks? It would be Troy Glaus, but he's getting lapped while being tended to by the pit crew (Note to editor: this fulfills my obligation for crossover material pandering to NASCAR demographic). It's Jeff DaVanon, actually, leading the way with 17. Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen are fairly close, but they both have more than double the number of at-bats DaVanon has managed. Given this, it should not surprise to find the Angels last in the league in walks received.

Can a team draw the fewest passes in the league and still succeed? Anaheim is currently a half-game behind the Yankees and Red Sox for the best record in the American League. When is the last time a team came in last in walks but still finished with the best record in a league? It was 15 years ago, when the Cubs went 93-69 but were 12th out of 12 teams with 472 walks. Things were a little more compressed that year in the National League. The Cubs were only 100 behind the leader, Montreal, with 572. (The league average was 521.) Consider that this year, the Angels are already 100 behind Boston, the leader with 231. Projecting for the entire season, the Red Sox will out-walk the Angels 748 to 411. That's leaving a lot up to chance on the Angels' part, isn't it?

WORST MATCHUP (worst combined record with both teams being under .500): Kansas City Royals @ Detroit Tigers (40-58)

Bad news for the Tigers:

.500 is a girl who used to like you
.500 is a puppy who ran away
.500 is a car that won't run anymore
.500 is a cushy job you used to have

Good news for the Tigers:

Quick, name the major league shortstops that are leading their teams in VORP... It's a short list: Carlos Guillen of the Tigers and Michael Young of the Rangers are it. A player at a key defensive position leading the way for a team on track for a 20-plus-game improvement--do they have an award for that?

Man! I would have bet anything that Juan Gonzalez would get through 2004 without going on the Disabled List. I'm just shocked and astounded to find him there. What if Gonzalez had been able to assimilate some of Cal Ripken's DNA back in 1990? How many home runs would he have by now? Since he has sat out nearly three complete seasons since becoming a big league regular in 1991 (actually, more like 2.75) and since he hits a home run every four games, he'd project to be in Jimmie Foxx/Mickey Mantle territory on the all-time home run list. He would also project into the top 20 in strikeouts, but that's a small price to pay.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to each other in won-lost records): Houston Astros @ Chicago Cubs (tied)

Apart from rearranging my book collection based on color, I spent a good portion of the off-season contemplating the fun possibilities this series could feature in terms of pitching matchups. They were:

The Texas Shootout: Kerry Wood vs. Roger Clemens
War of the Two-Thirders: Mark Prior (24-12) vs. Roy Oswalt (43-17)
Cy Then vs. Cy Tomorrow: Roger Clemens vs. Mark Prior
Battle of the Hall of Famers: Greg Maddux vs. Roger Clemens

And so on--Maddux vs. Pettitte, Maddux vs. Prior, Pettitte vs. Wood, Pettitte vs. Prior and Oswalt vs. Wood. Instead, what do we get?

Brandon Duckworth vs. Glendon Rusch

Right. No game with 10 combined Cy Young Awards. No showdown of the only men to have struck out 20 batters. Instead we get two guys with a combined career ERA of 5.00. If P.T. Barnum were alive today, he'd be rolling over in his grave. Back when he owned a baseball team, his sense of showmanship wouldn't have permitted this sort of thing, I'll tell you what. (It was a baseball team he owned, right?)

MISMATCHUP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records, with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): Colorado Rockies @ San Diego Padres (San Diego up by 8 games)

Are you familiar with the story in the Bible about a wanderer named Reshak who finds himself in the Valley of Plentitude and does not even realize it? He goes on living as if he was no place special and leaves without taking advantage of that which was afforded him.

Don't know it? I'm not surprised, as I just made it up to help illustrate this next bit about players who get to play in Coors Field and don't make the most of it. Making up Bible stores is illegal in Texas (where I live), but I thought it was worth the risk. Here's a list of the worst home OPS numbers of any Rockies player who had 50 plate appearances in 2002 or 2003 or is projecting to do so in 2004:

.422: Sandy Alomar, 2002
.446: Denny Hocking, 2004
.506: Bobby Estalella, 2003
.517: Rene Reyes, 2004
.590: Kit Pellow, 2004
.619: Mark Bellhorn, 2003
.648: Jose Ortiz, 2002

No Rockies regular in the last three years has had an OPS under .700 at home. You do a thing like that and people are going to notice and limit your playing time, no matter how neat you keep your locker or how polite you are to your elders on the team. Among the players on this list, Ortiz had the most home plate appearances, with just over 100.

Visitors appear to be having an easier time adjusting to Petco Park than have the Padres. Opponents have a group OPS 50 points higher than San Diego players in the new joint (.718 to .669). Only the Anorexpos are worse. On the road, the Padres are 116 points better, topping their hosts .785 to .762.

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