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September 14, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Making History the Bad Way

by Jim Baker

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

Javier Vazquez is scheduled to pitch the third game of this series on Wednesday afternoon. At the rate he is going, he should get another three or four starts and finish with 14 or 15 wins and 190-something innings pitched, figures that will lead the team. These do not appear to be numbers becoming the ace of a playoff-bound staff, do they?

Forty-two previous Yankee teams--not including the strike nightmare that was 1981--have reached the postseason. Of those, only three of them had team leaders in wins and inning spitched who could even compare to the counting stats of Vazquez. They are:

  • 1960. Most wins: Art Ditmar (15). Most innings pitched: Ditmar (200)

    In this, Casey Stengel's last year in pinstripes, he did perhaps his most masterful job of juggling pitchers. Of the 11 men to whom he gave starting assignments, only one, Bill Short, did not also relieve. Ditmar made six appearances out of the pen, Whitey Ford made four and Bob Turley made 10. Yankee starters that year went 62-41 while the same group of men, when pitching in relief, went 24-10. Yankee starters in 2004 are a very similar 63-40.

  • 1957. Most wins: Tom Sturdivant (16). Most innings pitched: Sturdivant (201 2/3)

    Of the 12 Yankee pitchers who saw action in '57, only Sturdivant worked exclusively as a starter and only Bob Grim worked exclusively in relief.

  • 1941. Most wins: Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing (15). Most innings pitched: Marius Russo (209 2/3).

    Seven of Joe McCarthy's pitchers got at least 14 starts while only one--Russo with 27--got more than 23. Only Johnny Murphy and Norm Branch worked exclusively in relief. They very nearly had the best team ERA in the league and did allow the fewest total runs per game.

These three teams finished first, first and second (by just one point) in ERA. Twenty-one postseason-bound Yankee teams have led the league in ERA and another nine came in second, three of those by just one point. The first-place group has gone 14-7 in pursuit of World Championships, while the others have been 12-9. The 2004 Yankees are currently sixth in the ERA department.

Lowest ERA finishes of postseason-bound Yankee teams:

8th: 2004 (108) fate not yet known
7th: 1995 (103 - 3% better than league average, unadjusted) Lost in first round
6th: 2000 (103) World Champions
5th: 1996 (108) World Champions
4th: 1926 (104) Lost Game Seven of World Series
4th: 2002 (115) Lost in first round

No Yankee team has ever gone to the postseason with a team ERA worse than the league average. Thanks in part to last night's 17-8 pasting by the Royals, this year's team has a 4.77 mark, .15 above the AL average of 4.62.

All this isn't to say the Yankees won't get it right come playoff time. A starting rotation of Orlando Hernandez when he's on, Mike Mussina back to form, a not-in-funk Vazquez and an anger-managed Kevin Brown could take them all the way.

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

If either the Astros or Cubs end up as the wild-card team, they could well be the first one to be closer to last place than to first. The Astros are 17 games behind the Cardinals, but just 14 games in front of the Brewers. (After last night's win, the Cubs are a half-game closer to first and further from last.) Prior to 2004, no team has ever been anything like close to doing this. The '98 Red Sox were 22 games out of first but 29 ahead of last. That same year in the National League, the Cubs were 12 out of first and 20 ahead of last. So, the two closest margins have been seven and eight games.

Realizing that no team can dominate at every position, the Cardinals have gotten about the least production out of their left fielders of any team in the league. (Since Reggie Sanders has moved across the outfield to accommodate Larry Walker that has improved.) Their catchers are also very near the bottom in production. All three, Mike Matheny, Cody McKay and Yadier Molina, have negative VORP.

What if they had gotten more typical production out of these positions for the majority of the year? They might just be cruising for over 110 wins, making them one of the better teams of all time. Not that there's anything wrong with what they're doing, it would just be cool to see a team just maxing it out or, at least, getting something out of every position.

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

You know, if you write this as TX @ OK you might lead a novice fan to think it's Texas versus Oklahoma. That would be a pretty good rivalry if the A's relocated to Oklahoma City. That might be about the only good to come of such a move, though.

Wouldn't it be cool if there were a magic button for predicting the outcome of baseball games? Then you could earn your living betting and not have to pick up after elephants at the circus or honey-dip latrines or do any of the other disgusting things one must do to make a living in this dog-hump-dog society of ours. What if that magic button were something as simple as which pitcher strikes out more men per nine innings? We know there is a threshold with that number below which a pitcher cannot hope to be effective for very long. What if we ran the numbers and discovered that every time a pitcher below that number met a pitcher, say, two strikeouts above it, he lost 70% of the time. That would be a good thing to know, wouldn't it? You're picturing yourself throwing away your shovel, aren't you?

It always seems like I get these ideas just before I have to file and cannot follow through on them with the vast amounts of research they require. So, here are a couple of quick things you might want to study:

  • In head-to-head match-ups, in what percentage of the games does the team starting the pitcher with the higher K/9 prevail?

  • Is there a margin (two more K/9, 2.5) at which that winning percentage becomes overwhelmingly favorable?

In this series, the A's have a significant advantage in this stat in Wednesday's (Mark Mulder vs. Ryan Drese) and Thursday's (Rich Harden vs. Kenny Rogers) games and are about break-even on Tuesday (Mark Redman vs. John Wasdin). Juan Dominguez had the upper hand on Tim Hudson on Monday night.

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

While watching the Diamondbacks host the Giants last Friday night, I heard the Arizona announcers laud the fans for showing up in big numbers in spite of a season that has gone disastrously. It got me to wondering, given their record, are the Diamondbacks the best-supported team on a per-win basis ever?

Our database only goes back to 1960, but that's not really a problem in that attendance didn't explode until years after that. We know that very few teams before the '60s drew anything like the highest-drawing teams of the '80s and '90s, and those few that approach the modern numbers were very good teams. Since we're going to examine fan loyalty based on how well they support substandard teams, let's look at the best-ever figures for team attendance on the basis of attendance/per team victory:


Team Lg  Year    W  Attendance  Fans/per W

COL  NL  1993   67   4,483,350    66,916
ARI  NL  1998   65   3,610,290    55,543
ARI  NL  2004   43   2,238,431    52,057
TOR  AL  1995   56   2,826,483    50,473
BAL  AL  2001   63   3,094,841    49,124
SEA  AL  2004   53   2,581,843    48,714
COL  NL  1999   72   3,481,065    48,348
FLO  NL  1993   64   3,064,847    47,888
(Based on information provided by James Click and Keith Woolner.)

Removed from this list was any team that played better than .450 ball. As we can see, it pays to be new. The very first seasons of three of the four most-recent expansion teams occupy the first, second and eighth positions. Also, not surprisingly, their first two seasons in Denver were most lucrative for the Rockies, playing in a stadium, Mile High, with seemingly unlimited capacity. Their 1994 would be second on this list if not for the fact that they played slightly over .450 ball.

So, if we dismiss the novelty factor of having a brand-new team in town, then my assumption was right: Diamondbacks fans have turned out in the greatest numbers in baseball history relative to the poor quality of their team. Not too far behind them, in sixth place, are this year's Seattle Mariners.

Are these fans to be commended? I think so. Derek Zumsteg disagrees and he makes an interesting point, one that has been used to illustrate the attitude of Cubs management for many years. He writes:

"If the Mariners knew they'd draw three million fans while sucking on the cheap every year, they'd suck on the cheap every year. I don't think supporting inept teams should be cause for praise."

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