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August 6, 2004
BEST MATCH-UP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): Oakland @ Minnesota
Since moving to Minnesota from Washington in 1961, the Twins have never finished over .500 four seasons in a row. That is about to change. While in Washington, they did it three times, but never got to five:
Seasons Won-Loss Pct. Results 1930-33 378-236 .616 one pennant 1912-15 347-246 .599 two seconds 1924-27 354-255 .581 one pennant, one World Championship 2000-04 361-286 .558 two division titles, one TBD (92-70 projection for '04)
So, there's something to look forward to. Meanwhile, the A's find themselves in the closest divisional race at the moment, with Texas right there with them. Don't look now, but we're in danger of having a stretch drive with very few pennant races. Once again, the argument that more divisions equals more pennant races is failing on the proving grounds of reality (and no, I'm not counting the Wild Card in this discussion). Right now, the average distance between the first- and second-place teams is nearly six games. That's about where it was last year, except that in 2003 it was two double-figure leads driving the margin.
Since the advent of three-division play, the average distance between first and second has risen from 6.4 to 8.2 compared to the two-division era. Percentage-wise, about a quarter of the races come within 2.5 games when the season is done, which is also about what it was during the two-division era. Grudgingly then, I must concede that the raw number of close finishes has gone up because--obviously--25% of four division races is less than 25% of six. However, it is undeniable that the number of blow-out finishes has gone up as well, and not just because there are more divisions. Fully a third of the divisional races since 1995 have gotten way out of hand, up from about 25% in the 1969-1993 era. If teams like the Phillies, White Sox, Red Sox, Cubs, Padres and Giants don't watch out, that trend will be maintained this year.
WORST MATCH-UP (worst combined record with both teams being under .500): Seattle @ Tampa Bay
And then there were seven. That's how many men remain from the 2001 team that won 116 games. They are: Dan Wilson, Bret Boone, Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro and Ryan Franklin. That shouldn't be too surprising, really. For instance, the team that beat them in the playoffs that year--the Yankees--have only six holdovers from three years ago, and one of them (Orlando Hernandez) left and came back. These Devil Rays, who finished 54 games behind the Mariners three years ago, have five holdovers from then. As a subgroup within each club, the Mariners' 2001 holdover crew is doing much better than those of the Rays. Among Aubrey Huff, Toby Hall, Travis Harper, Jesus Colome and Bobby Seay, only Huff is having a passable year.
So, what's the point? Um...glory is fleeting. Save your money. Stay in school. Plan for the future. No--this is it: Don't get your team's logo tattooed on your personage.
Ichiro is leading the league in at-bats once more. He finished first in 2001, third in 2002 and second last year. This is not really a good category in which to lead the league, what with the implication that walking is not being done. Obviously, it would be much better to emphasize the leader in Plate Appearances. Perhaps that will become the new benchmark of participation in the future. Write your congressman and insist on it.
CLOSEST MATCH-UP (opponents closest to each other in won-lost records): Milwaukee @ Florida
Most folks seem to be focusing on the Dodgers' side of the recent Florida-Los Angeles player exchange. That probably makes sense, in that the Dodgers are in first place, have more fans and play in a major media outlet. The Marlins' angle is infinitely more interesting to me and bears mention. To do that, we need, for the moment, to leave aside all consideration of what the players involved are currently doing and to think more in terms of what future value they possess.
Without even bothering to get into value-for-value comparisons, what the Marlins did is nothing short of insane. They traded three players with an average age of just under 25 for three players with an average age of just over 30. That alone should have south Florida fans up in arms. World Championship teams that rebuild should want to get younger rather than older. You can argue the relative merits of the players involved all you want, but the bottom line is this: The Marlins chucked a big chunk of their future for no apparent good reason.
Getting back to the quality of those involved, Joe Sheehan and others have already cataloged how the trade is a failure for the Marlins on that count as well. For those of us on this side of the analytical fence, it looks like a coup by Paul DePodesta. Simply put, the aggregate value of the players who went to Los Angeles is currently better than that of those who went to Miami.
As Rob Neyer points out in his latest ESPN.com piece, the rest of the media see things the opposite way. It might take a few years, but they, too, may eventually come around to see the true folly of this trade. Why so long for them? By then, the one player in the deal that has gotten the least mention could well be making a name for himself. Bill Murphy is a lefty who appeared in the Futures Game a month ago. Around the time of that game, the Marlins were actually contemplating a promotion for him to help relieve their beleaguered starting staff. This brings up another point: Why does a team that was so desperate for pitching that they gave eight starts to Darren Oliver trade away not one but two starters?
That leads us to the acquisition of Ismael Valdez from San Diego. You know, it's not as though the Marlins don't have any examples of what a good starting pitcher looks like. Why is it then they would send for the services of Valdez, a pitcher who is currently in eclipse and who is--like two of the three players acquired from the Dodgers--on the wrong side of 30? Prior to the trade, Marlins starting pitchers had the second-best K:BB ratio in the league. Swapping out the likes of Brad Penny (2.73 in this category) for Valdez (1.19) is an odd choice. There was a time in his life when Valdez could be counted on for a passable strikeout-to-walk ratio, but Valdez has been losing it for the last couple of years. His strikeouts-per-nine innings rate's headed south in a hurry.
If you have any room in your hearts to sympathize for the fans of the World Championship team, you have to feel for the Marlins rooter who, after having Derrek Lee and then Hee Seop Choi at first base, comes to the park to find Damion Easley wearing the oven mitt. (Realize that Easley was soon supplanted by Jeff Conine, another dubious choice to handle the job for any length of time. It's what the presence of Easley at first symbolized right after the trade was announced: A harbinger of doom for a run at the Wild Card.)
The Marlins were adamant that they would not divest themselves of talent the way they did the last time they won the World Series. That is a promise they probably think they are keeping and, yes, there is a difference between 1998 and 2004. The '97 champions were dismantled through malice aforethought; the '03 champs are being devalued through incompetence.
MISMATCH-UP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): Atlanta @ Arizona
The Braves will dodge the Randy Johnson bullet this time around. Instead, they will face a trio with a combined won-lost record of 6-26. Worst of the three is Edgar Gonzalez. As Jonah Keri notes in his column today, Gonzalez has been part of a D-Back youth brigade that's killed the back end of Arizona's rotation; he's got one of the worst Support-Neutral Won-Lost records in the game (Johnson has the best).
I've been thinking about baseball video games lately. I don't play them myself, being as busy as I am and so forth, but it occurred to me that there will come a time where the quality of the product will demand I participate. I think the threshold for me will be the introduction of holographic images. When a game can transpire in 1/12th or 1/6th scale on the floor of one's living room in three dimensions, then I will have to prioritize other things and get myself hooked on that. How far off is that technology? Well, if the government would create a Manhattan Project-like task force to tackle the problem, a holographic baseball game system could be on every kid's floor within five years. Without such an effort, I'm going to say 15. Naturally, they'll be incredibly expensive when they first hit the streets. Save your money for the day it arrives and prepare to have real fun.