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September 17, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Big Stakes for Cards-Snakes

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): Arizona @ St. Louis

    "Leading with the Mismatch-up?" you ask with incredulity. Well, this isn't just any ol' mismatch-up.

    There's a fairly decent chance that something is going to happen in 2004 that has not occurred in 50 years. It is this: a team winning two-thirds of its games and a team winning only one-third in the same league in the same year. Not since the Indians and Yankees finished over .667 while the Philadelphia A's were clocking in at .331 in 1954 has this occurred. Now it would seem that the Cardinals and Diamondbacks could do it again. The Cards don't have much margin for error and must play at a 13-4 clip the rest of the way to get there. Arizona, on the other hand, has a lot more leeway and could win as many as seven of its remaining 17 games and still not top .333.

    The Birds and Snakes have only met three times so far and that was way back during the second series of the season. St. Louis took all three games and, in so doing, served early notice that Arizona was not going to achieve standing buoyancy in 2004, outscoring them 29-13 in their three victories. A sweep here will put St. Louis almost back at .667.

    This is clearly not a cause-and-effect situation. Since Arizona and St. Louis are only going to meet six times, one cannot attribute their situations to having to play each other. Since the 18 previous times this occurred came in years when teams met 22 times, there is a much greater correlation between those teams' have and have-not standing situations. I won't list all 18 occasions, but it's only happened four times since World War II. In addition to the two mentioned above in 1954, the Dodgers and Pirates found themselves on the opposite ends of The Great One-Third Divide in 1953 and the Red Sox and A's did in 1946 as well.

    If all goes to form, the Cards will sweep the D'backs this weekend. Actually, even if they lose one of the games, they will end up with a better winning percentage (.833) than the average of the +.667 vs. the -.667 match-ups prior to this. The average win-loss in these match-ups had the better team going 18-4 (.819). The most complete annihilation in these extreme match-ups came in 1909 when the Pirates beat the Braves 20 out of 21 tries. The best showing ever came four years before that when the Dodgers went 7-15 against the mighty Giants.

    What are Arizona's chances this weekend? Randy Johnson is out of the way, having pitched on Wednesday night, so their best bet comes on Friday when Brandon Webb takes the mound. Here are the pitching match-ups, with VORP for the starters:

    Friday: Webb (19.6) vs. Woody Williams (30.7)
    Saturday: Casey Fossum (-21.5) vs. Chris Carpenter 40.5
    Sunday: Mike Gosling (1.6) vs. Jeff Suppan (23.5)

    Gosling is making his second major league start against a team that knows a little bit about putting runs on the board. It could be worse for Arizona--at least the Cardinals aren't seeing Stephen Randolph (-2.6) or Edgar Gonzalez (-19.0).

    What are the chances the Diamondbacks will rise up and not only win but really put a hurting on the Cards? Not good. In examining all the games ever played between the One-Thirders, there have been very few cases of the lesser team really taking it to the better. The notables:

    • June 21, 1906: Boston 10 - Cubs 1: This is the largest margin of victory ever for the poorer team in this situation, and it came against the team with the best winning percentage ever.

    • April 14, 1915: A's 2 - Red Sox 0: It's not especially humiliating, just misleading because it came on Opening Day. Herb Pennock had the shutout.

    • September 5, 1927: Red Sox 12 - Yankees 11 (Game 1): A close game, but it represents the most runs ever scored by the sub-.333 team in these circumstances. Like the Royals of very recent vintage after scoring lots of runs, the Red Sox were shut out in the second game of the doubleheader, 5-0.

    • April 14, 1915: A's 2 - Red Sox 0: It's not especially humiliating, just misleading because it came on Opening Day. Herb Pennock had the shutout.

    The '32 Red Sox beat the Yankees 11-6 and the White Sox beat New York the same year, 10-5. There have been nine shutouts under these circumstances, but seven were in the Dead Ball era. The most one-sided shutout in this subset of baseball history came in Game 2 of an April 21 doubleheader in 1946 when the A's bested Boston, 3-0. (Bobo Newsom was your winner.)

BEST MATCH-UP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): Boston @ New York Yankees

    After the Red Sox were swept by the Yankees in New York on July 1, I happened to be listening to Mike and the Mad Dog on WFAN. Actor Chazz Palminteri called in to the show and was all over the Red Sox. He said he could see it in their eyes that they were a beaten team, destined never to rise again after having their dreams crushed by the Yankees. To their credit, the hosts tried to reign him in a bit--reminding him that there was a lot of season to go--but he was having none of it. To Chazz, the already-legendary Jeter dive into the stands and the moping of Nomar Garciaparra proved the Red Sox were just playing out the string.

    This is not to single out Mr. Palminteri for persecution, because haven't we all done this at some point in every season? We watch a series in which a team can't get out of its own way and things just seem so certain. The future becomes obvious--in spite of the fact that there are another 50, 70 or even 100 games left in the season. It's like we all forget what happened the year before and the year before that. I think this is especially true for series we watch in person or on television. There is something about looking at the players' faces and body language that makes us think we know what's going on in their hearts and minds, or moreover what an objective look at objective evidence would tell us. If one were to merely examine the box scores from such a series, it is far less likely that one would come away with the same certainty about the future.

CLOSEST NATIONAL LEAGUE MATCH-UP (Opponents with the closest won-lost records): San Diego @ San Francisco

    I'll dispense with the old-person gags because I'm related to some old people and I plan on being one myself someday, but did Felipe Alou really say this? "We're not scoring a lot of runs, not hitting a lot, not running a lot. But we're finding ways to win games."

    Either he has the highest standards in the world or he hasn't been watching his own team's games. Is he not aware that the Giants are second in the league in runs scored per game? Or is he just referring to the eight games since they punished the Diamondbacks for their sins? Even still, they've scored 4.75 runs per game in that time, going 6-2 in the process--and that's not all that far removed from the 5.4 they score the rest of the time.

    One of the reasons for that success is the play of J.T. Snow. Any way you slice it, Snow is playing the best ball of his career. Here are his best Translated EqAs:

    
    2004: .330
    1997: .306
    2003: .285
    2000: .282
    1995: .281
    
    

    Snow played a lot more in '97--about 200 plate appearances worth by the time this season is done. This year, he's gotten an almost steady diet of right-handed pitching, and it's working.

WORST NATIONAL LEAGUE MATCH-UP (Opponents with the worst combined records with both teams being under .500): New York Mets @ Pittsburgh

    When the Mets look back on 2004, they will be able to point to two good things:

    1. David Wright's major league debut
    2. The team's stolen base record

    We talked about the second accomplishment back in July, and the Mets have stayed right on pace. In fact, since July 23, they have climbed from fifth all-time to second. In order for them to grab the all-time lead from the 1994 Orioles, though, they must tear off 17 straight steals without getting caught. Such is life when working above the 80%-mark. The Mets are currently at 82.6%, and to get past those O's, just two percentage points higher, they have to steal a base per game and be perfect about it. Isn't math a bitch? One slip-up and it's all over. If they could pull that off, this is how the all-time leaders would look:

    2004 Mets: 117 steals, 22 caught: 84.17%
    1994 O's: 69 steals, 13 caught: 84.15%

    It's not going to happen, of course. The Mets haven't gotten to where they are now by swiping bases indiscriminately.

WORST AMERICAN LEAGUE MATCH-UP (Opponents with the worst combined records with both teams being under .500): Tampa Bay @ Toronto

    Oh those halcyon days of June! The bold strokes of Lou Piniella! The great swinging of destiny's pendulum! In the end, it's just another typical Tampa Bay season, except that high point was a little higher. Their 20-6 showing in June marked only the fifth time in their seven-year history the Rays had a month with a record over .500.

    
    1998: none
    1999: 16-12 in August (.500 in April)
    2000: 15-11 in June (.500 in August)
    2001: 14-13 in September/October combined
    2002: none
    2003: 14-12 in July
    2004: 20-6 in June
    
    

    Off to a 3-10 start in September, it's looking unlikely that they will crack the magic 70-win mark this year. Including this series with Toronto, they have nine games against last-place teams remaining (three more at home against the Blue Jays and three against Kansas City). Five games are against the Tigers, a team who has leapfrogged them in a big way. There's a singleton with the Yankees and three hosting the Red Sox. It sounds like they might fall just short of the 70 barrier.

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