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September 7, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Checking on Changes Edition

by Jim Baker

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

Someday, all baseball will look like this. Well, not really. While we can predict that a larger and larger percentage of teams will start selecting personnel for the same reasons the A's and Red Sox do, there will never be enough pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder to go around.

Speaking of the revolution in talent acquisition, I think we've got an interesting test case coming up this off-season that will help us judge just which teams have gotten the message and which teams haven't. The impending free agency of Boston's Derek Lowe (the starter in the middle game of this series) will separate the men who deserve their GM name plates from the ones who should have to buy them from an office supply store and play "pretend GM" at home in a converted bedroom.

On the surface, Lowe is a starter who has won 50-plus games over a three-year span. That used to count for something in this world. What it should count for in the baseball world of 2005--given all the other metrics available to the men responsible for the multi-million-dollar budgets of big league teams--will be fascinating to see. Will general managers look at the support he has received over the past three years? Will they consider that he is one of the luckiest men in the game (currently fourth behind Shawn Estes, the aforementioned Mulder and Eric Milton)? Will they take into account that during his big year of 2002 he was extremely fortunate regarding the destination of the balls put in play against him?

One of three things is going to happen to Mr. Lowe:

  • A team with more money than sense is going to overpay him for a number of seasons.

  • A team with not a whole lot of money but looking to impress its fans with their commitment to adding new faces is going to waste precious resources on him.

  • He's going to get the cold shoulder treatment afforded Ivan Rodriguez the past couple of off-seasons. He'll end up signing a one-year deal or a very cut-rate one-plus-option.

If the last item is his fate, then we'll know that we have entered an age of enlightenment. If not, then it will probably take a few more years.

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

This match-up features two of the top three teams in terms of allowing fewer runs over 2003. Projecting through games of Sunday night, we get this:

Runs Allowed - Most Improved

-181: Texas
-158: St. Louis
-133: San Diego

For all the talk of how great the Cardinals' offense is, do you realize they are actually on pace to score fewer runs than they did last year? Not by much--just seven--but still, it's interesting that they are getting a lot of ink for the force of their lineup, and it isn't any better than the 2003 edition. If that sounds like a slight, it isn't; there's no sin in holding your own when you have the second-best offense in the league. The real story in St. Louis is a pitching staff that is on pace to carve 158-plus runs off the opponents' share of the possum steak. In fact, the Cardinals are on pace to allow the exact same number of runs the Giants allowed last year: 638. The Giants are on pace to up their offense by over 100 runs. So, had they been able to hold the line on the pitching end of things, it would be them winning two out of every three games like the Cardinals are. Instead, their pitching blowed up real good and is likely to finish 2004 with over 800 runs allowed. The Giants are one of only two teams (along with Cleveland) to both allow 100 runs and score 100 runs more than they did in 2003.

Here are the rest of the best and worst comparing 2003 to a projection of 2004:

Runs Scored - Most Improved

+256: Detroit
+183: Los Angeles
+179: Cleveland

The Miracle Tigers are on pace for a net gain of 357 runs. That's pretty damn exceptional. Of course, to go that kind of extreme, you have to be at an extreme in the first place.

Runs Scored - Biggest Drop

-160: Toronto
-136: Kansas City
-98: Atlanta

Toronto has held the line on defense (see below), but losing a run a game will kill you just about every time. The Royals, who were over their heads last year, are on pace for a net loss of 182 runs. Atlanta has compensated for their anticipated offensive drop by whacking 84 runs off its opponents' total.

Runs Scored -- Most Consistent

-7: St. Louis
+9: Houston
-13: Tampa Bay

The Cards are a couple of runfests away from falling off this list.

Runs Allowed - Greatest Jump

+239: Arizona
+204: Seattle
+174: San Francisco

Well, there's your problem, see. You start giving them other fellers an extry run, run-point-five per game, they gonna git the better of ya more times than not. I ain't pointin' fingers now, I'm just sayin' is all.

Runs Allowed - Most Consistent

+3: Toronto
-4: Florida
+11: Anaheim
-11: N.Y. Mets

In order to compete in their hellish division, the Jays needed to cut about 100 runs off their opponents' tally and hold their own on offense. Instead, they've held their own on defense and have seen their offense go to seed. I'd like to study which group of teams is more likely to improve the following year, the ones like the Jays, who fell down on offense, or the ones who go the opposite route, holding their own with the bats but falling down in the allowance department.

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

The first pitching match-up of this series is intriguing. It features Brandon Webb, who is 6-14 by circumstance, versus Hideo Nomo, who is 3-11 on merit. This isn't to say Webb is completely blame-free for his lot. As of this moment, he's pitched just about as many innings this year as he did last and there are some downward trends in his game. His ERA is .71 higher than it was in 2003. He's striking out 20% fewer batters while walking 50% more. Even with that, though, he is still the unluckiest pitcher in baseball.

I said this in my chat on August 26, but now that it has actually happened, please indulge me repeating it. If a team has taken the step of bringing in September call-ups and placing them in the lineup, then they are, essentially, calling it a season. Why then, walk Barry Bonds intentionally? By using Triple-A players, the manager is, essentially, taking the season to an experimental level. He is putting the live observation of farm hands above winning as the ultimate goal. Now, while I am opposed to the whole September call-up system to begin with, that's another argument for another time. The rules allow it so it must be addressed on that level, therefore, I say to you that--strategic arguments aside--Al Pedrique's three intentional walks to Bonds over the past weekend were unconscionable.

Now, one could make the counter-argument that, in the case of the Diamondbacks, there is very little difference between Josh Kroeger--the September call-up in question--and any number of other players in their lineup who just happened to get there before September 1. Andy Green, Doug Devore, Juan Brito and Luis Terrero all have limited major-league experience.

WORST MATCH-UP (Opponents with the worst combined records with both teams being under .500): Kansas City @ Detroit

Last time out, we discussed something I called the Loneliness Factor. It's a number designed to illustrate how isolated a team's best player is in terms of value over replacement level. To figure it, we take the best player's VORP, subtract the second-best player's VORP and divide the remainder by the third-best player's VORP. That is, if the second- and third-best players' VORP meets the best player's. If not, we must reach down to the fourth- and fifth- and, in the case of Barry Bonds, the seventh-best player's.

In other words, it takes the total VORP of six Giants position players plus a portion of a seventh to match Bonds' VORP. A number of you wrote in and asked to see the same thing calculated for pitchers. Understanding that this isn't quite apples-to-apples, I went ahead and did it anyway.

In the American League, the "leader" in this category is Kansas City's Zack Greinke, who pitches Wednesday night in this series. The highest numbers from the American League:

2.13: Zack Greinke, Kansas City
1.73: Freddy Garcia, Seattle
1.69: Mark Buehrle, Chicago
1.62: Johan Santana, Minnesota
1.52: Ryan Drese, Texas

This number can mean different things to different teams. For the Royals, it's indicative of a disastrous pitching year in that Greinke has the second-lowest best VORP in the league at 25.6. Only Tampa Bay leader Lance Carter is better. (This points out something of an inadequacy with the Loneliness Factor for pitchers: it combines both starters and relievers. To separate them would be to make the comparison pools too small.) Unlike the other teams in the top five, for Minnesota to be here is actually a good thing in that their second-best pitcher--Brad Radke --has a very nice VORP of 48.7 and their third-best is better than seven of the A.L.'s second-best.

In the National League, we have the odd circumstance of a team with one pitcher whose VORP is higher than all the other pitchers combined. No combination of Diamondbacks pitchers equals Johnson's VORP. There are nine with numbers on the positive side, so, we'll assign him the number of 9-plus. Like his teammate Bonds, Jason Schmidt is posting a number disproportionate to his fellows. The National League highs:

9-plus: Randy Johnson, Arizona
5.20: Jason Schmidt, San Francisco
2.04: Oliver Perez, Pittsburgh
1.91: Livan Hernandez, Montreal
1.88: Ben Sheets, Milwaukee

Related Content:  The Who,  Managers Of The Year,  The Call-up,  Best

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