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April 12, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Reveling in Rivalries

by Jim Baker

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BEST MATCHUP (Best combined record with both teams being over .500): New York Yankees @ Boston

So, you say you're not a member of either Red Sox Nation or the great Yankee diaspora and you're sick to death of hearing about these two teams. You say there's got to be another rivalry out there that can get you excited. There is the obvious choice of the Cardinals and Cubs. There are many parallels between the two rivalries. Each has its successful partner and, before 2004, its seemingly snake-bitten partner. There are the Dodgers and Giants, but jeez, they play ball pretty far from one another. In fact, Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix is actually closer to Dodger Stadium than is SBC Park.

For those who think baseball could stand a couple more intense rivalries of more than fleeting duration, we need to cultivate some new ones and no, we're not talking about BS interleague contrivances here. We're talking about showdowns where teams face each other so often that familiarity is bound to breed contempt. Here are four criteria that should be in place if a rivalry is going to get off the ground:

  1. A shared populace. At a geographic point between the locales of the two teams, the loyalties of the people must be divided. This is a big country, so we don't have the same set-up they do in England wherein major football teams are plentiful in small spaces and often share the same grounds. In North America, "close" can be 200 miles. The Cubs and Cardinals are nearly 300 miles apart but they share loyalties of an entire region, making them a special case.
  2. The same aspirations. In other words, they have to be in the same division. Spare us the interleague "intrigue" angle.
  3. A storied past. They must have tangled with a lot on the line in years past - preferably often.
  4. Geo-envy. It helps if one of the locales has a chip on its shoulder about the other.

  • Chicago Cubs - Milwaukee Brewers
    (approximately 90 miles apart)
    Can a team have two true rivals? The University of Texas has Texas A & M and Oklahoma, so I suppose it's possible. Of course, it would help if the Brewers would get over .500 once as a National League team. This is the closest distance between two interdivision rivals in all of baseball, so you'd like to think something will come of that someday.

  • Philadelphia Phillies - New York Mets
    (110 miles)
    All the ingredients are there except for the fact that they've never really had it out for a pennant or wildcard. It wasn't until 1975 that they were both over .500 in the same season. The next year, they finished one-three but 15 games apart. In 1986 they were one-two but 21 ½ games apart. In 2001, Philadelphia finished second and the Mets third, but New York was not really in it down the stretch; a weak Braves team and a strong finish by the Mets made the final standings look much closer than they were.

  • San Diego Padres - Los Angeles Dodgers
    (125 miles)
    So much promise. It's going to require the Padres arriving near the top and staying there for a while. So far, in the 35 seasons they've been together, the Dodgers have finished ahead of San Diego all but six times. They had a nice battle for first in 1996 and were fairly close last year but, by and large, they have been shying away from each other. That could change in the Bonds-less National League West of 2005. This could be the battle that really kicks this one in the sliding pads.

  • Philadelphia Phillies - Washington Nationals
    (135 miles)
    The last time Washington was in the National League, they managed to finish ahead of the Phillies just once in eight tries. That was in 1897, so we'll have to classify that as water over the dam. This is Year One of a whole new ballgame, baby, so maybe it's time to start sewing the seeds of hatred. Who is to say that 25 years from now this won't be the death battle that sets the Mid-Atlantic region buzzing?

  • Cleveland Indians - Detroit Tigers
    (170 miles)
    I know what you're thinking: if they're not mortal enemies after 104 years, what's going to start them now? After being two of the three legs in one of the greatest pennant races ever in 1908, there hasn't been much between them since. Their 1940 race is famous but since then…Here's the thing, though - if they get cranking now or next year and start beating the hell out of each other for a few years, who is going to care about the first hundred years?

  • Pittsburgh Pirates - Cincinnati Reds
    (284 miles)
    For back-story there are the five National League Championship Series showdowns. Can a second rivalry spring up in a division that already features a major pairing? Not at this rate. Since being tossed into the same cage, their battles have been more for fourth than first. Since the Reds won the division in '95, they averaged 150 wins between them. Not the stuff of legends, alas.

    One could try to make the case for the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim but, at 400 miles, that's a bit of a stretch.

WORST MATCHUP (Worst combined record with both teams being below .500): Colorado @ Arizona

Early indications are that these two clubs are ready to swap their 2004 positions. If we sit in the front row of Small Sample-Size Theater, we see that before last night, the Rockies have allowed nearly ten runs per game and have only played at home twice.

Their desire to go with younger players is intriguing, at least. Looking at their roster, the only players over 30 are starting pitcher Jamey Wright (30), back-up catcher Todd Greene (33), star hitter Todd Helton (31), reserve infielder Desi Relaford (31) and the oft-injured Preston Wilson (30). The Rockies have got to be praying that Wilson is putting up locally-inflated numbers come the All-Star break so that they can off-load him onto a team with outfield needs and a blind spot to what it is, if I may be allowed to lapse into arcane '60s vernacular.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (Largest disparity in records with one team over .500 and the other under .500): Washington @ Atlanta

It's happening again, isn't it? They're going to keep this going for another year. Watching them carve up Zach Day last night in their home opener - it's just more of the same. Do you realize there are college graduates who became baseball fans in the third grade and have never seen a Braves team finish anywhere but first place? What does this do to the formative mind? It either creates a sense of well-being and a faith in the consistency of some if not all things or has the opposite effect, creating a feeling that change is not inevitable.

In the last Match-ups column, I chided Jack McKeon for bunting with Juan Pierre at the plate and the winning run on second in the bottom of the tenth inning against the Braves last Wednesday. As several of you pointed out, I don't think I used the best statistical evidence to make my point. Regardless, I stand by my contention that Pierre swinging is still a better bet than Pierre bunting because of his about one-third of the balls he puts in play fall for hits. Because he rarely strikes out, even one of his outs could end up being of the "productive" variety, which would serve the same purpose as a sacrifice bunt.

In the same piece, I asserted that Pierre's prowess as a singler in 2000 had to be unmatched in history among players with 200 or more plate appearances. That year, he had 60 singles out of 62 hits. Readers Jon Wilt and Dan Coomer responded with lists of players who could make a stronger claim to that title. They include:

  • Herman Pitz, 1890 Brooklyn/Syracuse (AA)
    346 plate appearances, 47 singles, 0 extra base hits
    It's a safe bet to say that had there not been three leagues in 1890, Pitz would have never seen the light of day in anything even remotely arguable as a major league. He did walk 58 times, though. This complemented his .000 Isolated Power. He also helped out by playing every position except first and pitcher.

  • Bill Holbert, 1879 Syracuse/Troy (NL)
    245 PA, 50 singles, 0 XBH
    In his first three seasons in the National League, Holbert came to the plate 464 times and hit two doubles. To prove it wasn't it a fluke, there were two more seasons in his career in which he added just three doubles, no triples and no homers to his singles collection. Of course, the 1879 Syracuse Stars slugged .270 as a team, so comparing what Holbert did to Pierre's 2000 accomplishment in a run-fueled league and park environment is nearly moot.

  • Juan Pierre, 2000 Colorado (NL)
    219 PA, 60 singles, 2 doubles
    There are two ways to take this list from this point:
    1. Most plate appearances with fewest extra base hits
    2. Highest percentage of hits that fell for singles

    To make my contention look more accurate, I'm going with the second choice. 96.8 percent of Pierre's hits in 2000 were for one base. That was the highest percentage in 110 years.

  • Parke Wilson, 1896 New York (NL)
    277 PA, 58 singles, 2 doubles
    Wilson had a career Isolated Power of .060, so 1896 (.008) was just one of those things.

  • Morrie Rath, 1913 Chicago (AL)
    356 PA, 57 singles, 2 doubles
    Rath drew lots of walks and his .007 Isolated Power in 1913 was not quite in line with the low but not as obvious figures (.029 to .041) during the rest of his six-year career. '13 was his last year topside for a while, not counting war duty in the navy. When next his name was in the national news, he was playing against his old mates as a member of the Reds and getting plunked with the foreboding pitch that marked the beginning of the tainted 1919 World Series. If you live near Harrisburg, you can visit his grave.

  • Brett Butler, 1982 Atlanta (NL)
    268 PA, 50 singles, 2 doubles
    There are 23 men who have come to the plate at least 200 times in a season and hit two or zero extra basehits (nobody has just one). Butler is easily the best of the lot. A late bloomer, he was 25 in 1982 when he nearly pulled off the all-singles trick. Had the Braves traded him then, you probably couldn't have faulted them. Instead, he came alive in '83 and led the league in triples. Then they dumped him. There are certainly some similarities between Butler and Pierre in their earliest seasons. The difference is that Pierre had a three-year jump. If he could have developed Butler's plate discipline it would not be an outrageous statement to say he would be angling toward the outer guardpost of the Hall of Fame. That's a big "if," though.

  • Bill Sweeney, 1907 Chicago/Boston (NL)
    227 PA, 49 singles, 2 doubles
    This was Sweeney's rookie year. He went on to develop some doubles power (153 career) and finished seventh in the league in triples in 1912, light years away from all-time single-season leader Owen Wilson's 36. Sweeney had the misfortune of being traded away from the Cubs in the midst of a dynasty and then back to them just in time to miss out on being a member of the 1914 Miracle Braves.

  • Jimmy Cooney, 1892 Chicago/Washington (NL)
    291 PA, 41 singles, 2 doubles
    Without coming right out and saying it is the case, one could intimate that Jimmy Cooney illustrates what happens when pitching talent goes from being diluted to concentrated. His three-year big league career coincided with team counts of 24, 16 and 12. He got worse with each reduction, culminating in an 1892 campaign in which he managed a double and a triple in 291 trips to the plate. Unlike Pierre, he was devolving (34 doubles, 13 triples and four homers before that) rather than evolving.

  • Julio Cruz, 1986 Chicago (AL)
    256 PA, 43 singles, 2 doubles

    Also unlike Pierre and Butler -- who had their power outage on the way up -- 1986 marked the end of the line for Cruz, an acrobatic second baseman who supplemented his meager batting average with a decent number of walks. Not that it probably haunts him or anything, but Cruz entered the '86 season with a .303 career slugging average. The failure to get more than two doubles sunk that average to .299.

    Of the rest, the best-known are Rick Dempsey in 1976 and Elliott Maddox of the 1973 Rangers. Maddox is one of only two of these players to have a home run be one of his two extra base hits. The other is a pitcher, Jersey Bakely of the 1888 Cleveland Blues (AA). Bakely had the best Isolated Power figure of any of the 23 as his other XBH was a triple.

Related Content:  The Who,  Rivalries,  The Atlantic

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