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May 6, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Life Without Barry

by Jim Baker

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BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined BP Hit List rankings): Chicago White Sox @ Toronto

You see a team playing at a .750 clip and you just assume that they've got to have some of the highest-ranking position players in the league. Not so with the White Sox. Here are their rankings by position in terms of VORP:

C: 8th - A.J. Pierzynski, 3.0
1b: 14th - Paul Konerko, 0.7
2b: 3rd - Tadahito Iguchi, 7.4
3b: 5th - Joe Crede, 5.1
SS: 9th - Juan Uribe, 1.9
LF: 12th - Scott Podsednik, 2.0
CF: 14th - Aaron Rowand, 0.1
RF: 16th - Timo Perez, -1.2 and 18th - Jermaine Dye, -3.6
DH: 8th - Carl Everett, 4.7

These placements are less surprising when you consider that they have scored more runs than only four other American League teams. What this basically means is that their pitching staff is going to have to keep blowing the lights out for the rest of the year if they are going to hold onto their guaranteed playoff spot. Because of this, the Twins are still the team to beat in their division.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the BP Hit List rankings): Washington @ San Francisco

Remember when you left high school, and you thought the place would go to ruin without you? Everyone thinks things will never be the same after they leave. What they are really coming to grips with is the fact that institutions survive while those who leave must adjust. We are seeing this in San Francisco with the absence of Barry Bonds. Life there is continuing apace. People are in the seats and ballgames are being won. The Giants are actually two games ahead of where they were at this time last year and have a better runs for/runs against ratio to boot:

2004 through 27 games: 119-157
2005 through 27 games: 138-136

Am I suggesting they are better off without Bonds? Of course not. That 2004 RF/RA was compromised by a number of games that did much to unbalance the natural order. They lost four games by the scores of 9-0, 10-1, 11-0 and 12-3. Their record this year is bolstered by a number of players who may be enjoying the best moments of their lives. Don't beat yourself up if you've never heard of Jason Ellison. He's a 27-year old rookie who has done as much pinch-running in the majors as anything else. He's currently boasting a Richie Ashburnesque runs scored to RBI ratio of 12:1. Lance Niekro has also had a nice burst, as has Pedro Feliz.

In fact, the only Giants who aren't playing up to or over their career norms are Ray Durham and Marquis Grissom. Even Edgardo Alfonzo has his groove back and Mike Matheny is experiencing the kind of spike that all players who stick around long enough will have from time to time. The question is, can the Giants keep this up until Bonds returns sometime in July? While many of the players mentioned above will be overdue for a downward adjustment, the Giants should still be able to stay close enough to the top that the addition of Bonds and a deadline deal player might make the difference--especially in a division of questionable solidity like the National League West.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in BP Hit List rankings): Kansas City @ Baltimore

Ah, delicious symmetry. The Royals entered the week at 7-18 while their opponent in the previous Mismatchup, Chicago, was 18-7. Now they are 7-21 and 21-7 respectively after a Pale Hose sweep. It doesn't' get any easier for Kansas City as they make their way to Baltimore to face the league's other hottest team.

Zack Greinke continued the character-building portion of his existence yesterday, leaving the game with a 1-0 lead and a couple of Soxers on the bags and one out. Constant readers might recall me harping on the White Sox lack of walks in the early going. That's way behind them now. In addition to the walk and hit batsman they got from Greinke before he departed, they took three more passes from Andy Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos, forcing in two runs and creating the 2-1 final score in the process. One Royals fan I spoke to had this to say: "Aaaaaaaaaaaarrrrggh!"

If the Orioles were to keep playing Rafael Palmeiro at first base and designated hitter at the rate they've been using him, it will cost them about 28 more runs over the course of the season, provided he doesn't fade any further or have a sudden burst of talent nostalgia. Using PMLVr (Runs/game contributed by a batter beyond what an average player at the same position would hit in a team of otherwise league-average hitters), we find that he's costing them about .251 runs per game. That means he's already cost them about 5.6 runs, or a little over half a victory. Extrapolate that and you're at three wins for the year. Can the Orioles afford this? Would you want to bet on the Yankees and/or Red Sox being so completely cooked that three games wouldn't matter in keeping them at bay?

Palmeiro has had a long and fruitful career. All that's missing, really, is a World Series ring or, failing that, a Series appearance. Ironically, it would appear that his best shot at making it there in 2005 might be to relegate himself to a less-prominent role.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined BP Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Oakland (21st) @ New York Yankees (23rd)

These rankings are from earlier in the week but, after the New York debacle in St. Petersburg, I took the liberty of downgrading them into the worst matchup. My guess is that neither their long-time haters nor their backers--now filled with self-loathing--will argue this choice.

Of the 72 playoff teams over the last nine seasons, more than one in seven came to this point in the season under .500. They are:

Sub-.500 29-game starts among eventual playoff teams since 1996:

11-18: 2001 A's
13-16: 2002 Cardinals
13-16: 2001 Braves
13-16: 1996 Cardinals
14-15: 2004 Braves
14-15: 2003 Marlins
14-15: 2002 Braves
14-15: 2002 Angels
14-15: 2001 Cardinals
14-15: 2000 A's
14-15: 1996 Dodgers

Here's what they went and did after that so as to earn their ticket to the postseason show:

2001 A's: 91-42; .684
2002 Braves: 87-44; .641
2002 Angels: 85-48; .639
2002 Cardinals: 84-49; .632
2004 Braves: 82-51; .617

The others won between 75 and 79 games. Is this good news for the 11-18 Yankees or bad? On the one hand, two future World Champions are on this list. On the other, only one of the teams was as bad off as 11-18. True, that team made the best recovery, but its status as true precedent is tenuous at best.

The '05 Yankees have allowed 167 runs, 11 more than the highest number in this group. The topper among these teams was the '00 A's, who had an American Basketball League-like 179-156 runs for/runs against after 29 games. (Game 29 was a 17-16 loss to the Rangers). Of the 11 teams, four scored more than they surrendered to this point. The team with the worst RF-RA was the '96 Dodgers at 114-150. (One might want to toss the '99 Reds onto this list. They won 96 games and almost made the playoffs, losing at tie-breaker to the Mets. They were 13-16 after 29 games.)

Win or lose tonight, the A's will also be looking at this list for hope. They'll either be 14-15 or 13-16 and will be casting about for precedents. Their lack of offense (102 runs scored) matches the lowest three teams on the list:

106 runs: 2001 Braves
107 runs: 2002 Braves
107 runs: 1996 Dodgers

In any event, it's interesting to find Team Money and Team Moneyball squaring off at this juncture with a combined record of 24-33. These are high times indeed if you're a Yankee-hating anti-stathead.

Keith Woolner provided research for this column.

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