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June 11, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Interleague Edition

by Jim Baker

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BEST MATCHUP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): San Diego Padres @ New York Yankees

    Back before Al Gore invented Sabermetrics, I would have forgiven Sports Illustrated for their cover story on Derek Jeter and slumps. In this day and age, though, I have to get more from a publication of S.I.'s stature than the usual interview-the-player/manager/GM/ask-the-anonymous-scout kind of article. The topic of slumps is a fascinating one beginning with the concept of whether they--like alien invaders, auras and repressed memories--even exist at all. There were several times in Tom Verducci's article that I thought he was going to veer into that very area. At one point, he quotes Bob Uecker (lifetime .200 batting average but, let us never forget, a man who always walked at least once every 10 at-bats) as saying, "I had slumps that lasted into the winter."

    Here was an opportunity for a great segue into a couple of paragraphs into how things tend to even out over time for the good hitters and "slumps" seem permanent for the bad ones--and by "bad" I mean, those with lower batting averages. Which is another problem with the piece--it's all about batting averages. With so much research afoot about balls in play and the declining import of BA, the article treats the stat like the intended audience was the 1955 subscriber base of Sport magazine. Did we learn nothing from the Yankee experience of April 2004? S.I. is a great magazine with some of the best photos ever taken on the planet, and several writers who kick the language in the ass. In other words--they have what it takes to be more probative than this.

    As you enter Yankee Stadium tonight, you'll probably see an impatient-seeming, heavyset guy hanging around the front entrance. He'll be glancing at his watch a lot just before game time, looking really angry. He'll be all bent out of shape because he's getting stood up by a young guy who caught him doing something that could get him whacked, so he's a little on edge. And people say I have a problem discerning reality from make-believe!

WORST MATCHUP (worst combined record with both teams being under .500): Montreal @ Seattle

    Randy Johnson was traded by the Expos to the Mariners right around 15 years ago and that tangential tie to this game is as good as an excuse as any to shoot a hole in one of interleague play's alleged positives: it gives fans a chance to see a ballplayer they wouldn't ordinarily see.

    I think we can all agree that getting to see Randy Johnson pitch would be a treat, right? And I think we can all agree that the arguments for interleague play increasing attendance are almost entirely anecdotal, right? So, here's a nice anecdotal counter-argument to the great interleague boondoggle:

    Randy Johnson's visit to Camden Yards with the Diamondbacks on Tuesday produced an attendance of 28,927.

    Here are the Orioles home attendances on previous Tuesdays in 2004:

    
    Apr 06: 35,355 (Boston)
    Apr 27: 19,747 (Seattle)
    May 04: 21,488 (White Sox)
    May 25: 42,846 (Yankees)
    
    
    That's an average of 29,859--or, about 1,000 more than came to see the Big Unit humiliate the locals. Not much of an argument? Maybe not--but it's no weaker than the junk that's trotted out in support of the concept.

SOLE N.L.-ONLY MATCHUP (The odd teams out in the Interleague frenzy): Houston @ Milwaukee

    First the Brewers play a third of the season over .500 then they get Peter Bergeron.

    You might remember that during the offseason there was quite a debate over which team had the best starting rotation. Arguments were made on behalf of the Astros, Marlins, Cubs, Angels, A's, Yankees and Red Sox. I thought it would be fun to see how they were faring in a simplistically complicated way. What I did was take the VORP for the five busiest starters on the seven teams just mentioned and run a kind of race, pitting the best, second-best and so forth. First place was assigned seven points and last one point.

    The standings:

    
    1.  A's        29
    2.  Astros     28
    3.  Cubs       23
    3.  Marlins    23
    5.  Red Sox    15
    6.  Angels     10
    6.  Yankees    10
    
    
    With Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, the A's have the best one-two punch and, when they add Rich Harden, the second-best top three behind Houston's Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. The A's are the only team whose low man (Barry Zito) is not in negative figures.

    If we go merely by adding the VORP of the five busiest starters on these teams, the A's remain on top with 88.8 while the Astros (66.9) slip to third behind the Cubs total of 68.2. Considering the loss of Mark Prior, the Cubs have done a pretty good job of holding their own in this race.

    Last year, Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg thrilled us all by hitting 25 home runs in just 441 plate appearances. Then along came 2004. He's projecting to have about as many plate appearances this year but has yet to hit a single home run so far. If he can somehow manage to keep this up without losing his job to Mike Lamb, Ensberg will obliterate a record first set 11 decades ago by a fellow named Billy Shindle--also a third baseman--with the 1891 Phillies. Shindle hit 10 homers in '90 for the Quakers of the Players League but not a single one the next year in over 400 at bats. The record was tied the very next year and again in 1946 by Snuffy Stirnweiss, in the ultimate gesture of postwar back-to-reality hitting.

    Here is the list of players who have hit at least seven homers in 400 at bats and followed it up with nary a round tripper the next year. (Chart courtesy of Keith Woolner.)

    
    NAME                  YEAR         AB         HR    PREV_HR
    -------------------- ----- ---------- ---------- ----------
    Canavan,Jim           1892        439          0         10
    Shindle,Billy         1891        415          0         10
    Stirnweiss,Snuffy     1946        487          0         10
    Rogell,Billy          1933        587          0          9
    Appling,Luke          1948        497          0          8
    Kreevich,Mike         1941        436          0          8
    Oliver,Al             1984        432          0          8
    Lee,Hal               1935        422          0          8
    Urbanski,Billy        1933        566          0          8
    Beaumont,Ginger       1902        541          0          8
    Cuyler,Kiki           1937        406          0          7
    Grimm,Charlie         1922        593          0          7
    Latham,Arlie          1892        622          0          7
    Wynne,Marvell         1984        653          0          7
    Werrick,Joe           1888        413          0          7
    Stovall,George        1915        480          0          7
    Oakes,Rebel           1915        580          0          7
    Kerr,Buddy            1948        496          0          7
    
    

MISMATCHUP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): Pittsburgh @ Oakland

    Lloyd McClendon has been at the helm of the Pirates now since 2001. Each year, they move a little further up the ranks in sacrifice bunts:

    
    2001: 12th in National League
    2002: 7th
    2003: 4th
    2004: 2nd
    
    
    Clearly, there is a five-year plan at work here. Something tells me Mr. McClendon isn't going to be around to see it through, however.

    While we're on the subject of sacrifices, what's up with Clint Hurdle? The Rockies are currently third in the league in give-ups, a rather incongruous spot for a team that is neck-and-neck with the Cardinals for the top spot in runs scored in the National League. You're probably thinking that he does most of his movin' on over while on the road, where the Rox score about two-thirds the runs they do at home. Nuh-uh: 22 sacs at home and 13 on the road so far. Before this, Hurdle had Colorado much closer to where it should be in the league rankings in this stat: 15th in 2002 and 14th in 2003. His predecessor, Buddy Bell, was also sacrificially predisposed. In his last full year in Colorado (yes, the italics are meant to be taken with grave foreboding), the Rockies sacrificed 47 times at home--good for second in the league--and 34 times on the road. They damn near scored seven runs a game at home that year, too.

    Is the Angels bandwagon overturned in a ditch now, wheels skyward, spinning while musicians and hangers on nurse broken bones on the roadside? I did not get on that bandwagon, so, if only for the dignity of my preseason pick, I'm perhaps experiencing a little Schadenfreude at their recent misfortune. The fact is, in addition to being completely outclassed by the A's in the starting pitching department, the Angels are not all that much better with the cudgels, either.

    Looking at VORP position-by-position, the Angels only have a clear advantage in center field (depending who is out there) and right. They have a slight edge in left. With that, the Angels have only scored eight more runs than the A's while surrendering almost 30 more. Bottom line? I think the A's are a productive outfielder away from putting the division in a gold and green bag.

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