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July 6, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Bescrewed Edition

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (Best combined record with both teams being over .500): Cincinnati @ St. Louis

    I know we don't really talk about RBI much in these circles, but it's still kind of neat that Scott Rolen is on pace to break the all-time mark for runs batted in by a third baseman. Al Rosen set that record in 1953 with 145. Rolen could better it by a dozen or so if he keeps up his current output. Not only has no third baseman ever reached 150 RBI in a season, very few men who played even a single game at third in their careers have gotten there.

    Why is this? For one thing, third base has often been a defense-first position in the past. For another, some of the best third basemen of all-time plied their trade in the run-deprived '60s and '70s. Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Ron Santo never came close to Rosen, partly for that reason. What follows is a list of all the players who have played even an inning at third base who have managed to match or exceed Rosen's mark of 145. (Note that most of these players racked up big numbers in the hugely team-dependant stat by playing alongside great offenses, in big hitter's eras, just as Rolen has done hitting at various times behind great bats such as Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols).

    • Sam Thompson, 166 in 1887, 165 in 1895
      Thompson played one game at third, but it came in 1885.

    • Vern Stephens, 159 in 1949
      Vern closed out his career at third and totaled 322 games there but didn't play a single one of them in his biggest RBI year.

    • Tommy Davis, 153 in 1962
      Davis is the closest thing to a genuine third baseman on this list in that he played 39 games there in his big RBI season. All told, he took to the hot corner 147 times in his career.

    • Rogers Hornsby, 152 in 1922, 149 in 1929
      Everyone's choice for happiest ballplayer of all-time played no third in his two monster RBI seasons. He played there a total of 192 times in other years.

    • Andres Galarraga, 150 in 1996
      One career inning at third, and it happened to come in his biggest RBI year.

    • Johnny Bench, 148 in 1970
      People forget how much time Bench spent away from catching. The 1970 season was the first in which he started to expand his defensive horizons, playing some outfield, first base and logging one brief appearance at third. By 1982, he was playing more there than anywhere else, and closed with 195 games at the hot corner.

    • Cap Anson, 147 in 1886
      Anson played about 85% of his games at first base, but did see action at third 220 times. None came in 1886, however.

    • Mark McGwire, 147 in 1997 and 1998
      Big Mac made his major league debut at third base in Yankee Stadium on Aug. 22, 1986. He was done with the position by '88 and finished with 24 appearances for his career there.

    • Ed Delahanty, 146 in 1893
      Just 17 games there in his career, with none coming in '93.

    • Hardy Richardson, 146 in 1890
      Richardson was a 35-year-old who led the Players League in RBI in its one year of existence. He was primarily an outfielder that year, not seeing any action at third. In total, he played there 178 times in his career.

    • Hugh Duffy, 145 in 1894
      Seven career games at third, none in '94.

    • Don Mattingly, 145 in 1985
      Three games played at third, all coming the year after he knocked in 145. Mattingly remains a hero to all lefties who want to break out of the pitcher/first baseman/outfielder ghetto to which reality has cast them. He played 18 innings there in 1986 when Mike Pagliarulo was sidelined.

    • Edgar Martinez, 145 in 2000
      Martinez played 593 games at third in his career, before giving up the practice in 1997.

Worst Matchup (Worst combined record with both teams being below .500): Seattle @ Toronto

    Toronto's Carlos Delgado could well be activated for this series, which means that the matchup would feature two of the biggest swan dives of 2004 pitted against one another. Delgado's VORPr has dropped by .419 so far, while Seattle's Bret Boone's is down by .364.

    These two clubs have combined to hit fewer home runs than the Yankees and are currently last and next-to-last in round-trippers. Seattle is on pace to hit even fewer homers than last year (139) when they finished 13th in the league. (Toronto was fifth in 2003.)

Biggest Mismatchup (Largest disparity in records with one team over .500 and the other under .500): Detroit @ New York Yankees

    I know it's hard not to do, but we all still do it--forget that one game is not the end of the world as we know it. If last Thursday night's Yankees-Red Sox thriller had been a Broadway play, the reviews would have been unanimously spectacular. The play would have gone on to run for the next five years and people would plan vacations around getting tickets to see it. Unfortunately, this is baseball (no, strike that: fortunately this is baseball) and in baseball they tear up the script and start all over again the very next night. To hear it on the street and in the media, the Yankees had climbed the final mountaintop and were preparing to ski down into Pennant Town (to mix a theatrical and Winter Olympic metaphor). The problem is, in this game you've got to go out and do it all over again the next day and the day after that. It's like brushing your teeth.

    Speaking of that game, I want you to consider for a moment that Derek Jeter's headlong audience dive, while exciting and a testament to his superhuman desire to be better than anyone who has ever drawn breath, might not have been the sanest play he could make. Think of this academically for a moment: Jeter gets in there among the citizens and does something serious to his neck. Bad serious. Maybe even Christopher Reeve serious. What then? What have the Yankees gained and lost? They've gained an out but lost a player. Even if it wasn't Reeve serious, maybe only bad enough to miss the rest of the season, the team has taken a big hit.

    I'm going to give both sides of the argument here without coming down on either. I'll leave it up to you to consider it for a moment--or longer, given that we're dealing entirely in post-hoc analysis, if you're having a slow day or boring life.

    Pro
    Do we really want players who think that far ahead? Probably not. As soon as a player gets the idea planted in his head that there is no point in not hustling on every play, he no longer has the same value. That instinct to go all out on every play is what drives him to be the very best in the game. As soon as the governor is slapped on the motor, he slides down the hill to mediocrity.

    Con
    Players like Alex Rodriguez--who banged into a railing a short time ago chasing a pop--and Jeter are to be commended for their desire. However, no single out or even a single regular-season game is worth the risk of losing someone of their caliber for any significant length of time. In high-risk situations, they should put on the brakes and let it go, surviving to fight again another day. The Yankees got lucky that Jeter came out relatively unscathed.

Closest Matchup (Teams with records that most resemble one another at press time): Anaheim @ Chicago White Sox

    I got an e-mail from Yankees.com today imploring me to vote for Hideki Matsui for the final slot on the American League team. First of all, I'm a little shocked that I'm even on the Yankees.com mailing list. Second, I'm even more shocked that the Yankees are actively campaigning to get one of their own onto the squad. How utterly undignified. It's like those ads movie companies run in the trade publications promoting their pathetic offerings for Academy Awards. "Members of the Academy, for your consideration: Ben Affleck in Gigli..." Campaigning is for dog catchers and county aldermen, not the most successful, storied and--allegedly--classy franchise in American sport.

    Perhaps I doth protest too much. After all, the All-Star Game voting and selection is so completely bescrewed that it's much too late to bring any sanity to the proceedings now. If you would like to take a stab at doing so, however, you wouldn't be voting for Matsui. Here are the VORP totals of the five American League candidates for last roster spot (through Sunday's games):

    Frank Thomas, Chicago: 37.5
    Travis Hafner, Cleveland: 32.1
    Paul Konerko, Chicago: 26.9
    Lew Ford, Minnesota: 24.4
    Hideki Matsui, New York: 21.8

    Matsui currently rates fifth in VORP among American League left fielders alone. Since outfield position doesn't matter in All-Star considerations, it is germane to point out that he doesn't crack the top 10 among all AL outfielders. Germane in a sane world, that is. In a world such as ours, however, Matsui will probably win this runoff handily.

    As for the National League, what in the name of peace, love and understanding is Juan Pierre doing on this runoff ballot? There are something like 25 outfielders in the league with a better VORP than Mr. Pierre. The best of them all is Bobby Abreu a player, who--once again--is being ignored by fate (figures again through Sunday's games):

    Bobby Abreu, Philadelphia: 44.3
    Aramis Ramirez, Chicago: 33.4
    Steve Finley, Arizona: 26.6
    Jason Kendall, Pittsburgh: 16.7
    Juan Pierre, Florida: 13.7

    ...Well, not ignored to the point where he's not on the ballot, but Abreu's been ignored to the point where he has to be on this pot-luck supper of a talent showdown. If folks don't rally around him in this afterthought vote, Abreu may go down in history as the best player never to make an All-Star team.

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