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April 26, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Deja Vu

by Jim Baker

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BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Baltimore (7th) @ Boston (6th)

Stop me if you've heard this one before. This team called the Baltimore Orioles comes out of the gate well and hangs around .500 for a good while, only to fade later on in the season. Oh, you have heard it before? Well, it's no wonder.

What follows is a list of Oriole starts in the last five years. The Won-Lost record is where they stood on the morning of May 1. The date that follows is the day they went below .500 for good in that season:

2004: 12-9, June 2
2003: 13-12, June 4
2002: 12-14, August 24
2001: 12-14, May 28
2000: 14-10, May 10

At the very worst, they're going to have a record at the end of April 2005 that is better than their lowest tallies of the last five years, so it's becoming fairly monotonous, isn't it? Almost makes one want to get a pool going to peg when the 2005 O's are going to sink below the horizon line for the last time.

But will they? Is this Baltimore team any different from the 2000-04 editions? Just because it's happened five years in a row doesn't mean it will happen again. One red flag is the number of runs they've allowed so far. As of Sunday, they had surrendered nearly five runs per game, the worst record among first-place teams. If that keeps up, how far are they going to get surrendering 784 runs this year? Since 2001, three American League teams have made the playoffs while doing so: The 2004 Yankees won 101 games while surrendering 808 runs; the 2003 Red Sox won 95 games and a wild card spot while forking over 809 runs; and the 2001 Indians won 91 games in the process of giving up 821 runs.

While the comps aren't perfect (the '01 Indians were not in a rough division), it still says that less than 20% of the last 16 AL playoff teams got there with the kind of generosity currently being displayed by the O's. Is the point of the exercise to make the playoffs or to get out of the sub-.500 ghetto they've found themselves in since 1998? If it's the latter, then this looks like the team to do it. If it's the former, then we'll need to see a reduction in those runs allowed--a big reduction.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Florida (2nd) @ Colorado (28th)

Once again, the Rockies find themselves on the short end of the Mismatchup stick. Last time out, they were in the same predicament, only with Los Angeles. If this Mismatchup goes the way that one did, they'll soon be petitioning for the honor. They belted the Dodgers around pretty good and took two of three.

So, for the second consecutive series, they get an opportunity to dismantle a Prospectus Hit List front-runner. That front-runner is a team that should be itching to get at the promiscuous confines of Coors Field. Through Sunday play, the Marlins had registered a team Isolated Power of just .113. Only the woeful Pirates (.106) are worse. What is more, the Marlins have stopped trying to steal like they once did. After finishing first in steals and attempts in 2002 and 2003, they slipped to fifth last year and are now tied for sixth. Former big-time thief Juan Pierre is just two-for-five. They haven't abandoned the practice the way the Cardinals (two-for-three as a team) have, but it's certainly not a part of their game the way it was in the Jeff Torborg regime.

It will be interesting to see how Josh Beckett will fare at Coors tonight. He is the possessor of an average Game Score (69) higher than the best Coors outings this year:

The five best Game Scores at Coors Field in 2005:

68: Jeff Francis vs. Arizona, April 19
67: Jason Jennings vs. Los Angeles, April 22
62: Shawn Chacon vs. Arizona, April 18
53: Brandon Webb vs. Colorado, April 18
52: Joe Kennedy vs. San Francisco, April 16

Needless to say, Beckett can be effective and not make this list. I'm thinking the Game Score handicap at Coors should be 12 to 15 points.

Out of the gate, the Marlins have one of the best one-two starting punches. Only four teams can boast two starters who are in double figures in VORP:

Atlanta
Mike Hampton, 15.0
Tim Hudson, 14.4

Florida
Dontrelle Willis, 13.6
Josh Beckett, 10.7

Oakland
Rich Harden, 12.5
Joe Blanton, 11.0

Seattle
Jamie Moyer, 11.2
Ryan Franklin, 11.0

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): San Diego (20th) @ San Francisco (19th)

Only the Dodgers have a worse K/9 rate than do the Giants. Any rotation featuring Kirk Rueter is bound to be headed for the nether reaches of this list but, clearly, others are contributing as well. In fact, if you remove Jason Schmidt from the list, the team has only whiffed one batter every two innings.

This is nothing new, though. They've done quite well working in this neighborhood the past few years:

2004: 13th in the league (6.3 K/9 IP), 91 wins
2003: 10th (6.3/9), 100 wins
2002: 13th (6.21/9), 95 wins

Losing a strikeout per game off that mark is pushing it a bit too far, though. Schmidt is the only starter with a positive VORP other than Noah Lowry, who is at 0.9 headed into this series. With no Barry Bonds on the other side of the warehouse, this kind of starting pitching could finish their season in a hurry.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Tampa Bay (26th) @ Toronto (23rd)

You know what would be interesting? Well, lots of things would be interesting, like seeing an elephant do the limbo at spring break on Padre Island, but I'm limiting this to the context of baseball. I would like to see a team make a go of it with only one coach. Are all these guys with high numbers and ill-fitting uniforms really necessary? Can a case be made that they are really there so that the manager will have somebody to talk to on the road?

It used to be standard operating procedure that coaching staffs were much smaller. Somehow, clubs got through the entire season. Some of them even came in first place (two per year) and won the World Series (one per year). How did they do it? Managers used to coach third base for one thing--that reduced the need by one. Why not have them do that again? A player not currently in use could handle the coaching chores over at first--another old-timey gambit. I think we can all agree that it would be a good idea to have someone on staff to keep an eye on the pitchers, so I'm proposing that the one coaching position that remains would be the pitching coach. Bench coaches? What the hell is that all about? At this rate, Major League Baseball is going to end up like Texas high school football with a coach-to-player ratio of one-to-two.

What inspired this rant was the news that the Toronto Blue Jays had replaced their hitting coach, Mike Barnett. Here are the Jays' American League standing in runs per game in the year before Barnett arrived (2001) and in the subsequent years of his tenure:

2001: 9th
2002: 7th
2003: 2nd
2004: 11th
2005: 8th

SkyDome played like a pretty extreme hitter's park in 2001 and was fairly neutral in 2002, so the growth exhibited there is probably more pronounced than the two places in the standings would indicate. In 2003, it was back to favoring the hitters, so their big increase should be viewed with some temperance. It was basically unchanged between 2003 and 2004, so the drop-off is not owed to changing ballpark conditions. What happened between the two seasons to players who were on hand for both years? There were eight Blue Jays who got at least 232 plate appearances in both 2003 and 2004: Carlos Delgado, Orlando Hudson, Eric Hinske, Reed Johnson, Vernon Wells, Chris Woodward, Josh Phelps and Frank Catalanotto. The combined VORP of that group in 2003 was 269.1. Last season, it was 103.7. Some of this downturn can be attributed to the 13% reduction in the number of plate appearances logged by the group. Some of it can also be attributed to injuries suffered by Delgado and Wells.

Can the rest of it be laid at the feet of Mike Barnett? Or perhaps the more relevant question: Will a new hitting coach make a difference?

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