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September 13, 2004

Prospectus Today

Reset, AL Version

by Joe Sheehan

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We have three weeks to go in the season, which means that the only good thing the three-division format has ever given us kicks in: the AL West goes intramural. Three weeks of intradivisional matchups, in a division that has given us most of the good races since 1995. I'd just as soon see them play in reversible T-shirts, the way we did back in high school. Shirts and skins doesn't work well for baseball, although I know some distaff Tim Salmon fans who wouldn't mind.

This is a good day to reset the AL. With about 20 games to play, we know the Twins are in. Despite looking absolutely brutal for the better part of six weeks, the Yankees are most likely going to survive and advance. They've won seven of their last eight, with a big assist from Mr. Schedule.

Going back to the four-team standings I've been running all season:


Yankees   90-53  --  @KC (3), BOS (3H, 3A), TOR (3H, 3A), MIN 3, TB 1
Red Sox   86-56  --  TB (3H, 3A), BAL (4H, 4A), NYY (3H, 3A)
A's       83-59  --  TEX (4H, 3A), SEA (4H, 3A), ANA (3H, 3A)
Angels    81-61   2  SEA (3H, 4A), TEX (3H, 4A), OAK (3H, 3A)
The Yankees have an 8 1/2-game lead on the Angels with 21 games to play. Given that some of the Angels' games are against the A's, the Yankees would have to go something like 6-13 to miss the playoffs. Call them in. The Red Sox have a five-game lead over the Angels for the last playoff spot, and play 14 of their final 20 games against the same Devil Rays and Orioles who have brightened the Yankees' last seven days. It would take a collapse of epic proportions for them to miss the postseason. Give all the credit to the trade, or just see it as the inevitable product of being the best team, but the Sox are going to October.

The presence of a back door into October may be the only thing keeping anyone interested in the National League, but in the AL, it's going to kill what should be a great race between two rivals. No one from either the Yankees or Red Sox is going to admit it, but the difference between winning the division and finishing second isn't meaningful when both spots get trips to the playoffs. It is much more important to be ready for what has become a very long postseason than to worry about seeding. Home-field advantage just isn't essential; remember that this Red Sox team just went into Oakland, where the A's were something like 752-13 this year, and took all three games.

We don't get Yankees/Red Sox for all the marbles this year. Not yet, anyway. When the two teams play a basically meaningless series on the season's penultimate weekend, keep that in mind. The wild card, more than anything else, is why comparisons to 1978 fail.

That leaves the A's and Angels in an old-fashioned, loser-goes-home division race, which is almost certain to come down to two things: who gets tripped up more by the Mariners, and who wins the head-to-head battle. I'd like to tell you I have a good idea of what will happen, but that's not the case. The A's lead the season series 7-6, which isn't much help. The Angels are healthier than the A's for the first time all season, as the A's have both Erubiel Durazo and Jermaine Dye either on the bench or diminished due to injury. The A's rotation is currently as reliable as it's been all year, although the bullpen is scarier than "Girls Gone Wild: Lunchroom Ladies Edition!"

The Angels gain a small edge in important series in that they can push more innings to their dominant relievers, Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez. Rodriguez has looked insanely great in the second half, Friday night's blown save notwithstanding. His numbers don't do him justice; you have to see him pitch to get a sense of what he's doing to hitters most nights.

Predicting the outcome of any small number of games between evenly matched teams is folly, which is a point we usually start making three weeks from now. One thing to watch: the A's are due to miss Bartolo Colon in the first series, which would be an edge for them if the Angels don't tweak their rotation. Similarly, the Angels could miss Rich Harden, who might be the A's best starter right now, and, as a power right-hander is probably the best matchup against the Angels.

It will be factors like these--and even smaller ones, like blown calls and bad hops--that determine the AL West champ. I'll go with the team that has the lead, but it's a weak call. Frankly, I'd like to get out of the predictions game, but that's a column for another day.

You'll notice that I'm once again leaving the Rangers out of this discussion. I got some e-mail over my decision to dismiss them last week, so I should probably explain it. The only thing the Rangers have going for them is the schedule: 14 games against the A's and Angels, with the possibility that they could go 11-3 or something and put themselves into the race. Yes, that could happen, but if it did, I'd be too busy trying to get the flying monkeys back into my rear end to care.

The Rangers have actually managed to be a better run-prevention team than run-scoring team in the second half. While cycling through everyone short of David Clyde, the pitching staff has held its own, improving its ERA to 4.38 since the All-Star break (4.59 before). In that time, though, the offense--heavily dependent on guys hitting for average--stopped being an asset. The Rangers have hit .247/.315/.433 since the break, and the difference between the pre-break offense (5.66 runs per game) and the post-break one (4.79) is the 33 missing points of batting average. They're walking just as much (not enough) and hitting for the same amount of power. When guys saw their averages return to earth, the offense went from above average to below, and let down one of the great pitching stories of the season.

By the way, The difference between Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano this year, just on offense, is about 27 runs, or 2 1/2 wins. That difference is a big part of what keeps the Rangers out of the playoff discussion, and a trip to the playoffs is worth a ton of direct and indirect revenue. That will be worth considering when evaluating the deal down the road.

The NL race is going to require a team of highly-trained physicists, two shots of Cuervo 1800, and maybe Miss Cleo, so we'll work on that Tuesday.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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