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June 4, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Yankees-Rangers, Live on PESN

by Jim Baker

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BEST MATCHUP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): Texas Rangers @ New York Yankees (62-41)

Here's a round-up of Wednesday's 6-5 victory over the Orioles in which the Yankees only had three hits, as brought to you by PESN (Pidgin English Sports Network):

Yanqui gat stick. Nogat paitim. Paitim kam tripela taim. Wokabaut sikis taim. Gat plet sikis taim. Pisin losim sikis - faipela.

Taking an all-time great from a team is no guarantee of immediate success against that team in the ensuing season. The Yankees lost two of three in their first meeting with Texas this year in the wake of getting Alex Rodriguez from the Rangers. Here is a smattering of similar circumstances involving seriously exalted players who left clubs through trade or free agency. Their new team's record against their old team follows.

  • Babe Ruth (Yankees) vs. Boston, 1920: 13-9 (9-10 in 1919)

  • Rogers Hornsby (Giants) vs. St. Louis, 1927: 12-10 (10-12 in 1926)

  • Jimmie Foxx (Red Sox) vs. Philadelphia, 1936: 13-9 (16-6 in 1935)

  • Alex Rodriguez (Rangers) vs. Seattle, 2001: 5-15 (5-7 in 2000)

  • Joe Morgan (Reds) vs. Houston, 1972: 11-6 (5-13 in 1971)

  • Barry Bonds (Giants) vs. Pittsburgh, 1993: 7-5 (6-6 in 1992)

WORST MATCHUP (worst combined record with both teams being under .500): Tampa Bay Devil Rays @ Baltimore Orioles (44-58)

People--and by "people" I mean people not like you and me--are fond of saying that statistics are a cold and unfeeling way to look at baseball, that they have nothing to do with the human side of the game. Consider this, though: Not every number we see before us is a precise calibration of events that actually transpired. Many cold and hard stats are filtered through the portal of human infallibility.

Let's take the triples count for Rays left fielder Carl Crawford. The number before us reads '4.' This is good enough for third in the league behind Chone Figgins and Carlos Guillen. Here's an instance where the number doesn't tell the story. I was at Tropicana on May 1 to see the Rays play the A's. In that game, Crawford hit half of those four triples. Sort of.

The first was a fly ball into the right-center field gap that Jermaine Dye got to but couldn't haul in. It glanced off his glove and the speedy Crawford arrived on third base. Should it have been ruled an error? Maybe, maybe not. I realize that in most cases these days, that play is going to be ruled a hit, because it is assumed by the scorekeeper that a major league ballplayer is going to have a tough time handling a fly ball after a long run.

His second triple of the night came in the ninth inning. It was a ball that should have been a single all the way, but left fielder Eric Byrnes overcommitted on it and it skipped happily past him. Because he never put a glove on it, the scorekeeper deemed it a clean triple.

So, what's my point here? I think it has something to do with the duality of man, sir. Or, perhaps I am trying to say that nothing is ever as it really seems. Maybe I might be implying that illusion is reality and reality illusion. Then again, I might be trying to justify my trip to that particular game, since I never wrote about it before. You just never know.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to each other in won-lost records): Houston Astros @ St. Louis Cardinals (St. Louis up by ½ game)

The Astros (or Astors as dyslexic rich folks call them) have five pitchers whiffing more than a batter per inning. Starters Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte are doing so, as are relievers Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Dan Miceli. None of those names should come as a surprise, except for Pettitte. He has never been anywhere close to this rate before. Granted, he's only thrown 37.1 innings so far. On the whole, Houston leads the league in team Ks and could challenge the Cubs numbers of the past three years. Better yet, they are walking fewer batters than those recent Cub whiff machines:

Yr   Team   K/BB
2004 Astros 1377/518 (projected)
2003 Cubs   1404/615
2002 Cubs   1333/606
2001 Cubs   1344/550

If you could remove the one inning of "work" logged by Jared Fernandez (five walks, no strikeouts), the projection would be an even better 1377/505.

MISMATCHUP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): Montreal Expos @ Cincinnati Reds (Cincinnati up by 14½ games)

It's lonely at the bottom--especially when all the other teams in your division are at .500 or better. The Expos have a chance to do what very few teams have done before: be the sole sub-.500 team in their division. What makes this trick difficult is that it requires the cooperation of one's division mates--they have to do their part by winning at least half their games. The Pirates are currently in the same situation as well but would require the Brewers to keep up their winning ways and have these Reds--Montreal's weekend opponent--not fold like they did last year. The Expos would have to see similar stick-to-itiveness from the Mets, the most likely of the Eastern teams to keep them from this dubious distinction.

Here's the roster of teams that have managed to turn this nifty feat. Missing are the five clubs who have done so in four-team divisions. Sorry '95 A's, '96 Giants, '97 Padres, '00 and '02 Rangers--it's just too easy when there are only three other teams involved.

  • 1969 Padres (52-112, 29 games out of fifth place): The first team to ever pull off the trick. The 1916 A's could have done it but for a rainout against the Senators. Had they played that game to a victorious conclusion for Washington, that would have put them at .500 in seventh place in an eight-team league. What is interesting about the Pads is that one would assume the teams in their own division wailed on them, allowing them to all be over 50/50. It wasn't exactly like that, though. Eastern teams--especially the Mets and Cubs--beat them unmercifully, to the tune of a .722 winning percentage. The five other Western teams only spanked them at a .645 clip.

  • 1979 Blue Jays (53-109, 53½ games out of sixth place): It's been 50 years since a team finished in single-figures in saves. By 1979, even a number in the teens was becoming rare. These Jays, who only had a save in about one-fifth of their victories, have the lowest team save total since the '62 Mets, and nobody, save for Billy Martin's armbustin' A's the following year (with 13), has come close since.

    The 10 lowest team save totals since 1954:

    
    7:  1954 Senators
    8:  1954 Orioles
    10: 1962 Mets
    11: 1979 Blue Jays
    12: 1955 Tigers
    12: 1963 Mets
    12: 1954 Phillies
    12: 1971 Yankees
    12: 1974 Angels
    12: 1974 Rangers
    
    

  • 1988 Braves (54-106, 27 games out of fifth place): You'd think having a generous bottom-feeder like this at the floor of the lake would mean there would be more room at the top. Not necessarily. Only the Dodgers finished with more than 90 wins in the West.

  • 2000 Padres (76-86, six games out of fourth place): Unlike the rest of these teams, the double-ought Pads were nowhere near the worst team in the league. In fact, five other clubs had worse records than they did. This was the year of the Great Compression Panic, in which it was foretold by mindless alarmists that parity would eventually drive all teams into a 77-to-85-win zone.

  • 2003 Mets (66-96, 16½ games out of fourth place): This is how a true doormat team needs to operate: play worse against those teams in their own division. In this case, the Mets were .355 against the East and .459 versus the rest of the world.

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