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August 13, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

A Trip Around the Majors

by Jim Baker

The weekend's matchups, culled at random:

National League

    Arizona @ New York: Earlier this week in Prospectus Matchups, I challenged readers to name a pitcher of Randy Johnson's quality who pitched for a team as bad or worse than these Diamondbacks. This prompted a lot of responses naming Steve Carlton of the '72 Phillies. Now, this team didn't fit my strict parameters because they finished with a .352 winning percentage while Arizona was at t-minus .310 and counting the day I wrote that. As some of you pointed out, though, the Phillies without Carlton were a .269 club. (The Diamondbacks without Johnson are a .255 team.) Those Phils supported Carlton about the same they did everybody else, a little over three runs per game. This was the second-worst total in the league, ahead of only San Diego. What is interesting is that those Padres, without the presence of a Carlton-class pitcher, finished with a better winning percentage than the Phillies.

    A couple of things about Carlton's amazing season: on May 30, his record stood at 5-6 while the team was 16-24 (or 11-18 without him). From there on out, he accounted for over half their wins and only 8% of their losses. Under other circumstances, it is probable that Carlton would be remembered as the last 30-game winner and not Denny McLain. For one thing, the season was shortened by six games owing to a strike. For another, on July 15, Carlton left after five innings trailing 4-0. The Phillies plated 11 runs in the sixth and he got the ND. He lost two games by the score of 2-1, one by a 3-1 score, and one by a 3-2 score. Even with Philadelphia's pathetic offense, he almost got to 30. Had he been supported by a middle-of-the-pack team like San Francisco, 30-7 does not seem so farfetched. Had he been surrounded by the bats of Houston, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, would it be so crazy to speculate that he might have gone 34-5?

    Los Angeles @ Chicago: If the Dodgers can maintain a better record than the Braves, and these Cubs nab the wild card, then both first-round matchups will be foreshadowed this weekend. Los Angeles and Chicago have never met in the playoffs. In fact, in their long mutual history in the National League (dating back to 1892), they have had very little head-to-head contact that meant anything. Only once in the entire time they shared space before getting portioned off into divisions in 1969 did they find themselves in a pennant race. In 1930, Brooklyn and Chicago got into a battle that neither of them ended up winning. On September 9, the Cubs had a 3 1/2-game lead over Brooklyn and a three-game bulge over St. Louis. They went into Brooklyn and scored one run in three days (no mean feat in 1930) and left town with just a half-game lead over both chasers. The Cubs played well after that, going 10-5, but the Cardinals were even better, going 13-3 to grab the flag. The Dodgers faded with a 6-8 finish.

    Is that the most important confrontation these teams have ever had? I'm going to have to say that it is--at least, perhaps, until this October.

    St. Louis @ Atlanta: Cardinals fans might want to make this trip with the team and begin inquiring about lodgings for October. We know darn well there will be tickets to be had.

    This Thing
    
    There was this thing
    -- They tried to kill it
    Its very blood
    They longed to spill it
    To once and ever
    Finally still it
    And yet they never could
    
    This thing went on
    Reanimated
    Year after year
    It fell, not sated
    To rise again
    And climb, ill-fated
    To a finish not withstood
    
    I tell you now,
    Oh thing eternal
    Thing frustrating
    Oh thing infernal:
    "It matters not the
    times you return, 'twill
    never come to any good."
    
    Colorado @ Pittsburgh: The Rox started the year with the most questionable rotation in baseball. Let's see how those original Fab Five, placed in order of their original starts at the beginning of the year, have fared in 2004:

    Shawn Estes: The luckiest man on the planet just keeps getting luckier. He's got the second-best support in the league, accounting for his 12-4 record, a won-loss total not usually associated with Rockies pitchers. That -2.6 VORP is a more reasonable accounting of his performance. Here's a question: has a pitcher ever pitched so poorly for two different teams in two seasons and had this kind of continuity in support? The Cubs were also very generous to him last year.

    Jason Jennings: Along with Estes, Jennings is the only Rockies starter to make all his show times. His VORP is an even worse -7.4. He's got a robust 5.55 road ERA.

    Joe Kennedy: Anyone who can keep his ERA under 4.00 on this team should get a free ice cream. Anyone who can move to Colorado and lower their career ERA deserves two free ice creams. Limited to 18 starts by injury, he's due back in this series.

    Scott Elarton: It was the reliance on the E-men that had to make fans in the Denver think twice about renewing that season ticket. Elarton was a longshot at best and one that didn't come in. He made eight starts and allowed more runs than innings pitched in six of them. A seventh (6 IP, 5 ER) was a close call. He's Cleveland's problem now.

    Denny Stark: Can you believe he's almost 30? Don't you always assume that all rookies are something like 22 or 23 and that when one has a good first season he's got at least a ten-year career ahead of him? Stark was 27 when he showed up in Denver two years ago, with an apparent command of Coors reality at his discretion. Last year was a loss with injuries, and it's been more of the same in '04. His April 16 game in St. Louis has to be one of the worst starts of the year by any pitcher.

    Houston @ Montreal: Isn't it about time some team broke the current uniform mold? When is the last time a team stepped out of the ongoing trend and shocked the world with something daring? The Astros unleashed their rainbow jerseys in 1975. After that, what is the most radical thing we've seen? Probably the semi-futuristic 1982 "S O X" jersey worn by Chicago. That lasted until 1986. Since then, what? Rehashes and variations, mostly. Yes, teams change uniform designs quite a bit, but when is somebody really going to step outside the design box and surprise us? I think the Expos should do so when they relocate. You know, really get freaky on us. If we keep going the way we are, it's going to make Turn Back the Clock Night in 2050 a pretty dull affair.

    San Francisco @ Philadelphia: After only five big league starts, Noah Lowry already has the second-highest VORP among Giants pitchers, trailing only Jason Schmidt. Prior to his arrival, Schmidt was looking a little lonely on that staff. Michael Tucker has not turned out to be the disaster that many of us thought he might be. In fact, if he keeps it up, he might be on his way to the second-best season of his career--second only to his spike year of 2000.

American League
    New York @ Seattle: Now that Edgar Martinez has announced his retirement effective at the end of the season, a lot of web and newspaper space will be devoted to the relative merits of his inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Putting aside all other arguments, here is Baker's Fourth Baseball Axiom: If you have to argue for more than 20 minutes about whether or not a guy belongs in the Hall of Fame, he probably doesn't. Given that, I would have to say that Martinez is not Cooperstown material. In a way, though, that's the wrong way to measure a career. It was still a wildly successful ride for him, all things considered. Not crossing the ultimate threshold is not a sign of failure.

    Minnesota @ Cleveland: A C.C. Sabathia--Johan Santana showdown sure would have been fun, but neither is scheduled to pitch in this series. They're 24 and 25 respectively and have a combined major league record of 86-59. Is the fact that the Indians are still challenging for a divisional title at this late date a sign that their rebuilding program is coming along? They have certainly dismantled the last team to make the postseason, the 2001 squad. Only Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, David Riske, Omar Vizquel and Tim Laker survive from that team.

    Baltimore @ Toronto: You know those little puzzles that have nine spaces and one of them is blank and you have to move the other eight into some kind of order? Does that make any sense? Am I succeeding in evoking the desired image? Probably not. In any case, the American League East reminds me of one of those puzzles this year. The Yankees and Red Sox long ago got into their assigned positions. The Orioles recent hot streak has gotten them above the Devil Rays--as is their station. The one piece that is not falling into place is the Blue Jays. They've got to close seven games on these Orioles in the next seven weeks to make everything right with the universe as we have come to know it these past six years.

    While we're throwing blame around, whatever happened to Eric Hinske? His VORP has taken an alarming 59 to 16 to 2 trip down the loo these past couple of years. BP 2004 rightly pointed out that his Isolated Power didn't really suffer from 2002 to 2003, but such is not the case this year. It's only .127, down from .194 last year. After his 2002 showing, we all assumed that by now, a week past his 27th birthday, he'd be one the best third basemen in the game.

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