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August 24, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Bye-Bye R.A. Dickey Edition

by Jim Baker

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BEST MATCH-UP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): Minnesota @ Texas

    The Rangers are trying to pull off something that has only been tried once before since baseball went to a divisional lineup. They are attempting to win a divisional title while having only two pitchers with 20 or more starts. Kenny Rogers and Ryan Drese have both crossed the threshold and it appears quite unlikely that anybody else on the staff is going to join them. R.A. Dickey got to 15 before sanity prevailed and hauled his 6.04 ERA out of the mix. Joaquin Benoit and his six-plus ERA were shipped to the bullpen after 13 starts. Ten other men have given the ball and, of them, Chan Ho Park has the most starts with eight.

    It was the Cardinals team of two years ago that managed to pull off this trick. What is especially amazing about that team is that even the two pitchers who did get over 20 starts didn't meet their full quota. Matt Morris started 32 games and spent a little over two weeks on the disabled list. The second-most active starter was Jason Simontacchi and he spent part of the year in Memphis, ending up with 24 starts in the bigs. The Cardinals won 97 games and had the fourth-best team ERA in the league. What they had that the Rangers do not is a number of pitchers doing well in roles limited by circumstances:

    • Andy Benes: missed two months and then came back and posted his best-ever ERA relative to the league average.

    • Woody Williams: missed about three months with two separate trips to the DL. Like Benes, his 2002 ERA was the best of his career compared to league.

    • Chuck Finley: arrived from Cleveland on July 19 and pitched fairly well. He struck out nearly a man an inning in what was to prove to be his final year.

    • Darryl Kile: was off to an OK start when he passed away on June 22.

    The Rangers have no such secondary arms ready to take on leading roles. Benes, Williams and Finley all made playoff starts for that club. If the Rangers were somehow able to overcome this handicap and take the division or a wild card spot, who they would trust to follow Rogers and Drese in the playoffs is a mystery.

    The only other teams I could find to finish in first meeting this parameter were, not surprisingly, from the strike years of 1994-95. The '95 Reds had Pete Schourek with 29 starts and John Smiley with 27. The '94 Rangers made do with two 29-year-olds with 25 and 24 starts respectively: Kevin Brown and, somewhat ironically, Rogers.

WORST MATCH-UP (worst combined record with both teams being under .500): Arizona @ Pittsburgh

    It took an RBI from the starting pitcher to do it, but the Diamondbacks achieved a rare feat on Saturday: They were victorious in a one-run game. They are now 7-24 in such contests. As you know (or as I'm assuming you know), there is often a direct correlation between a team's record in one-run games and its record against its projections based on runs scored and allowed. Arizona is a good illustration of this, as they are underperforming their run allocations by double figures. When a team's run allocations aren't very good to begin with, this leads to situations like the one that occurred against the Reds this past weekend: taking one of three games actually improves the team's winning percentage.

    Arizona's one-run game situation is monumentally bad. They have the worst record in one-run games since at least 1972. Here are the worst five in that era, courtesy of research by BP's James Click:

    
    W-L      Pct.   Year   Team
    7-24    .226    2004   Diamondbacks
    11-32   .256    1999   Royals
    16-41   .281    1975   Astros
    12-30   .286    1981   Padres
    11-27   .289    1985   Rangers
    
    

    (The best in the same time frame has been the '81 Orioles at 21-7. The best in a non-strike year was the '80 Royals at 29-12.)

    Arizona is flirting with a sub-.300 record, the benchmark for a historically bad team. Even among history's sub-.300 roster (you know a lot of them: the '62 Mets, '52 Pirates, '41 and '42 Phillies, '15 and '16 A's, '03 Tigers and so on), what the Diamondbacks are doing in one-run games is quite substandard. Of all the teams to finish below .300, only one--the 1935 Boston Braves--had a worse record in unos than this year's Arizona squad. Like Arizona, they performed well below their projection: 12 games under on their way to a historically awful 38-115 record. They rebounded to mediocrity the next year, which might give the D-Backs hope that the team will not be at this level for too long.

    Is Arizona really that much better than their record, though? Consider that they are equally as bad in games that aren't close. In contests where the margins of victory are five runs or greater, they are just 8-30; 1-11 since the All-Star Break. (It's in those few games in between that they shine, going 16-9.) This is a fairly typical blowout record for a sub-.300 team. Most of them finished in single figures in blowout wins and somewhere in the 30s or 40s in blowout losses. Only two of history's sub-.300 teams managed a better winning percentage in blowout games than they did in one-run contests: the aforementioned '35 Braves and the '39 St. Louis Browns.

    In fact, the worst teams of all-time are, on average, twice as good in the close ones as they are in the blowouts:

    One-run games: .351
    Blowout games: .177

    No team better exemplified this than last year's Tigers. Their blowout record was a typical (for this group) 7-40, but they did two things that no other sub-.300 team had ever managed before: They had a winning record in one-run games (19-18) and they beat their projection by six games. The previous record for one of these teams was three by the '42 Phillies.

CLOSEST MATCH-UP (opponents closest to each other in won-lost records): Philadelphia @ Houston

    This was supposed to be a playoff preview series. Instead it's the battle between the two biggest disappointments of the 2004 season.

    When Phil Nevin came to the plate during Monday night's game against the Mets, the New York announcers reminded us that the Astros had Derek Jeter signed, sealed and delivered as their number one pick in 1992. Instead, they switched to Nevin and the rest is history. Jeter has four rings and is thought by many to be the kind of leader who get men to charge uphill against odds of 10 to one.

    What would have happened had Jeter gone to the Astros? How would he be regarded today? How many rings might he have won had he joined the Killer B's instead of the Bronx Bombers? Jeter's career began in 1996. Since then, the Astros have had a number of good seasons and a number of pedestrian shortstops. For instance, in 1999--Jeter's best season--the Astros got by with Ricky Gutierrez and managed to win almost as many games as did New York. The same was true in 2001. It's a fairly safe statement to make that Houston would have had better records in each and every year since Jeter's debut had he played for them, some years (like '99) more than others (like 1996 and 2003).

    Now we get into the metaphysical end of things. Surrounded by a team that has pushed even the most ardent disbelievers on the concept of choking to a point where they strongly consider its existence, would Jeter be wearing any rings? This is where you either buy the born leader stuff or you don't. If you do, you would postulate that a Jeter-lead Astros team would have broken out of its collective slump and gone all the way once or twice. I think a more realistic assessment is that the presence of Jeter might have won the Astros one or two more playoff games along the way and, perhaps, helped them to avoid one their patented crushings in the first round. Given that Astros shortstops were a combined 5 for 42 (but with seven walks!) in their four postseason appearances, it's no great leap forward to suggest plugging a player of Jeter's caliber into that hole would have made a nice difference. I don't buy that it would have made enough difference to get Houston a big ring.

    Conversely, what would have been the fate of the Yankees had Jeter not come along? Jeter was arguably their best player in two of their dynasty years (1999 and 2001) so, while I am tempted to say that George Steinbrenner would have made the cash available to find a suitable replacement, there simply aren't that many shortstops out there who can perform to that level. A more likely scenario is that the Yankees would have made do until 2001 when they would have signed Alex Rodriguez instead of Texas. So, then, how many of those rings would they not have won? The 2000 team was pretty gummy and might not have aced out the Red Sox with a standard-issue shortstop. The 2001 playoff run hinged on Jeter's miracle play on Jeremy Giambi against the A's, so, if you want to go the Back to the Future destiny-is-written route: If he's not there to make that play, the 2001 team doesn't make it to the World Series.

    So, what's the thesis here? It's this: had Jeter been drafted by Houston, he'd have a lot of All-Star rings, a very nice salary and a lot of respect around the game. Given the nature of playing in Houston vs. playing in New York, however, combined with the makeup of the two teams since the start of Jeter's career, he probably wouldn't today be considered some sort of Chesty Puller-like leader as he is in some quarters.

MISMATCH-UP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): Kansas City @ Anaheim

    One of the advantages of having a division with a small and even number of teams is that it makes it easy for the schedule maker to have the clubs close out against one another. Beginning on Sept. 13, the American League West goes to all intra-divisional play. The four teams will play their final 20 games against one another. The National League Central, with six teams, could also pull off a similar arrangement, but that would just be too complicated to block out all six teams from inter-divisional play for that long a period.

    There's something sweet about the fact that after only four plate appearances, Calvin Pickering had a higher VORP than Juan Gonzalez, who came to the plate 138 times for the Royals before succumbing to his latest injury. Of course, Gonzalez isn't the only Royals position player so out-polled after Pickering's two-homer debut on Sunday. Among Royals with at least 100 plate appearances, Pickering is already ahead of Angel Berroa, Desi Relaford, Aaron Guiel, David DeJesus, Dee Brown... you get the picture.

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