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August 31, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Jim's Up To Something

by Jim Baker

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BEST AMERICAN LEAGUE MATCH-UP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): Anaheim @ Boston

    In which we stumble into a matchup relevant to a wild-card race. Not only do these two teams have the best combined records of the 15 matchups in the early part of the week, they are also the two hottest squads in baseball. The Red Sox are 12-1 of late and the Angels are 12-2.

    Compare and contrast: among the 15 Angels players with the most playing time, only Jeff DaVanon and the now-activated Troy Glaus are drawing one walk every ten at-bats. The Red Sox, on the other hand, have ten of their most-active 15 over that mark. That helps explain how a team can lead the league in scoring in spite of a wiped-out Trot Nixon season and only a month's worth of at-bats from Nomar Garciaparra, replacing them with a combined 500 plate appearances from Gabe Kapler and Pokey Reese.

    Boston has out-walked Anaheim 1.5:1. The Angels are in dead last in the American League in walks with 348, a number that looks even worse when you consider that it includes a league-high 39 intentionals. They do make up for this somewhat by leading the league in getting hit by pitches, an advantage they promptly squander by having the second-most sacrifice bunts in the league. The Angels also compensate with a pretty good theft record. (Oddly, the teams with the five best stealing rates in the AL are, in order, one through five in total steal attempts.)

    Come to think of it, the Angels are always up to something. In fact, let's invent a new stat to measure that. We'll call it the U2S number: U2S = Up To Something, acronymed in the Prince style. U2S means how often a team is doing something on the basepaths. It's a little number you can quickly do yourself to see how busy a team is on the once they get to first base. It combines steals, caught stealing, sacrifice hits and sacrifice flies. Not surprisingly, the Angels are the busiest in the American League with 1.78 such events per game. Let's see if you can guess the three least-busiest in the league…poke yourself in the eye with a slide rule if you didn't say:

    Boston
    Toronto
    Oakland

BEST NATIONAL LEAGUE MATCH-UP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): San Diego @ St. Louis

    Looking at the same number in the National League, we find the Cardinals on top with 1.9 such incidents per game. Their first opponents this week, the Padres, are 14th, with just 1.18. This is not an especially telling number in terms of predicting team record in that there are good and bad teams on both ends of the spectrum. For one thing, the inclusion of sacrifice flies is probably suspect, but what I was looking for was a quick way to count post first-base activity without having to check score sheets for hit-and-run plays and runners being gunned down trying to take extra bases. It does help illustrate a manager's approach.

    So, I guess what I'm saying is: don't look for me to be winning the Best New Stat Award at this year's annual Prospies (televised on the WB, Tuesday night, November 30).

    Most teams--even the very good ones--have an albatross in their rotation for at least part of the season. In 2004, of the 12 teams that still have the best shot to reach the playoffs, none have had to carry a bigger burden in their starting rotation than the Dodgers have with Hideo Nomo. Among pitchers with at least ten starts for contending teams, Nomo's -16.9 VORP is the worst. Fortunately for Los Angeles, it's only been over the course of 67 innings. Conversely, the Cardinals' most burdensome starter has not been that much of a burden. In spite of being the weak link in the Cardinal rotation, one cannot picture Matt Morris not getting a start come playoff time. A number of these other fellows will probably not be given the ball should their teams persevere, however:

    (Ten lowest VORPs among starting pitchers on contenders, minimum ten starts):

    -16.9: Hideo Nomo, Los Angeles
    -9.3: Derek Lowe, Boston
    -6.0: R.A. Dickey, Texas
    -1.7: Ismael Valdez, San Diego (now with Florida)
    0.0: Joaquin Benoit, Texas
    0.0: Jose Contreras, Yankees (now with White Sox)
    4.3: Mike Mussina, Yankees
    4.8: Kirk Rueter, San Francisco
    5.9: Kyle Lohse, Minnesota
    6.1: Brett Tomko, San Francisco
    10.2: Bartolo Colon, Anaheim

    Here are the low men from the remaining contenders:

    10.5: Mike Hampton, Atlanta
    11.1: Mark Prior, Cubs
    13.5: Matt Morris, St. Louis
    19.4: Mark Redman, Oakland

    Redman would rank third on four of the other A.L. contenders and fourth on Minnesota. He'd be third on the Braves and second on the Giants.

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

    When the 2004 season began, these teams were about equal in the consensus among predictors. Now, heading into September, they are 35 games apart, which means they could finish with a spread of 40 by the time they're done. How did folks miss by so much on the Diamondbacks? Moreover, is this one of the biggest mass mis-predictions in history? This is a rhetorical question, really, as to discover the answer to that would require a library of magazines few have at their disposal. Fortunately, Mark Armour has a number of vintage Sport magazines from the '60s that contain their annual preseason poll.

    A number of teams selected to repeat by the players did not--that's not especially shocking. The biggest bomb out of the period was the 1967 Orioles, who fell to 76 wins and sixth place after humiliating the Dodgers in the World Series the year before. Even that's only about 20 games below what was expected, however. (The '68 favorite Minnesota Twins met a similar fate, finishing seventh, while the '68 White Sox--picked for second--plummeted to ninth.) The one pick that might surprise you from this period came in 1965 when the players anticipated the end of the Yankee dynasty and tabbed them for fifth, this after 15 pennants in 18 years. The Bombers nearly obliged, coming in sixth.

    We do know that Sports Illustrated made an infamous pick regarding the 1987 Indians, calling them the best team in the league and putting them on the cover of their preseason issue. What I cannot recall is if this was an iconoclastic choice on their part or representative of a general feeling at the time. Like this year's Diamondbacks, the Indians had gone 84-78 the year before. They finished with 61 wins, a number Arizona would have to play until November 1 to see.

    One of the more optimistic outlooks that doesn't stand up to hindsight I could find belongs to the late Gil Hodges. The Dodgers let him go in the expansion draft, allowing the Mets to bring him back to New York for their inaugural season. Given that the Los Angeles Angels had just had a pretty decent run in their first year (70-91), it probably wasn't considered too outrageous when Hodges said, "We have a chance to finish fifth. That will depend on the pitching, but fifth place is not a far-fetched idea - not in the National League." That was in The Sporting News on February 14, 1962. Of course, we're discussing media picks here, not players (at least not the ones who had the anonymity of the Sport poll), so we shouldn't judge Hodges too harshly. After all, we expect subjectivity from players. Had Hodges said, "We'll be lucky to finish in the league with this pack of bums," eyebrows would have been raised on high. As Mr. Armour points out, though, Hodges' outlook was not a feeling shared by the media. He reminds us that Roger Angell had the Mets number by March of that year.

TEAMS GOING WORST MATCH-UP (worst combined records in most recent games): Pittsburgh @ Milwaukee

    A combined 2-18 over their respective last ten games as they both scramble to get to the level predicted for them before the season began. Actually, that's not quite true of the Pirates. McClendon's Mood Swingers have done the following since the start of post-All-Star break play:

    8-2
    2-9
    9-3
    2-8

    So that's 21-22, much better than most expected of them for the year. The Brewers, on the other hand, have won back-to-back games only once during the same time period. I would equate their season to the attempts made to solve the Oak Island Mystery: lots of holes filling up with water and no way to bail quickly enough.

    As of right now, the Brewers only have a handful of players making any kind of headway in this thing we call reality. Lyle Overbay is the sole position player meriting mention, while Ben Sheets, Doug Davis and Dan Kolb are representing for the pitching corps. Brooks Kieschnick deserves a mention for the unique work he's done in his combined role of reliever/pinch-hitter. It's OK to admit you were pretty happy to have Kolb as the closer on your fantasy team back at the All-Star break. Little did you know he'd have so damn few opportunities in the second half. The good news is, he's saved seven of the Brewers 10 wins since then; that's above average. Usually, only about half of all games result in a save. So, Kolbsters, at least you have those oases in this desert bereft of victory.

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