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August 23, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Central Themes

by Jim Baker

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BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Chicago White Sox (6th) @ Minnesota Twins (11th)

If you think of the White Sox' recent losing streak as a "correction" rather than a "slump," then it doesn't feel so bad.

If the White Sox don't over-correct, they'll be the latest link to a time-tested tradition of the American League Central: its winners always outperform the won-loss record projected by their run differentials. Since the second year of its existence, AL Central champions have been about 40 games better than their projections. This trait has haunted--if that's the word--all three teams who have won the division in this time. Be it the recent-vintage Twins, the semi-dynastic Indians or the one-shot White Sox of 2000, they have all won more games than expected. This year's Sox are following in that tradition. Their third-order won-loss record actually puts them behind the Indians, who trail them out in the real world by eight games.

My first inclination when looking at this was to assume that American League Central champs would be disastrous in the postseason. While the AL Central is one of the three divisions that has yet to have one of its champions go all the way, their champions have actually acquitted themselves better than those of three other divisions:

Postseason records of division champions, 1995-2004:


                       Won  Lost    Pct.
American League East    75    43    .636
National League East    47    41    .534
American League Central 35    43    .449
National League Central 31    40    .437
National League West    22    37    .373
American League West    17    36    .321
One of the many problems with the wild-card concept is the fact that the schedule maker cannot gerrymander the schedule so that those teams competing for it can meet head-to-head down the stretch. This is an obvious but frequently overlooked downfall of having a back door into the playoffs.

A little less than one-third of the games yet to be played by the five American League wild-card hopefuls come against one another. They are:

9: Toronto vs. New York
6: Cleveland vs. Minnesota
3: Cleveland vs. Toronto
3: Cleveland vs. Oakland
3: Oakland vs. Minnesota
3: Oakland vs. New York
0: Cleveland vs. New York, Oakland vs. Toronto, Minnesota vs. New York, Minnesota vs. Toronto

This doesn't take into account any of the current division leaders coughing up their leads and becoming, instead, wild-card contenders. Each team has either nine or 12 games remaining against fellow card-chasers and between 25 and 30 matchups with those who are not. That's probably about as good as can be expected under the circumstances. A good percentage of that comes from the nine games the Jays and Yankees have remaining.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Boston Red Sox (2nd) @ Kansas City Royals (30th)

The Royals came to the crossroads of history in the sixth inning of Saturday night's game against the A's. With roughly 42 percent of the nation watching (number determined by way of an informal poll I did calling people with funny names I found in the phone book), Oakland--down 2-1--loaded the bases with one out. Ambiorix Burgos relieved Andy Sisco (who would have been called "The Sisco Kid" in the '50s; now, in these more clever times, we just call him "Andy"), struck out Nick Swisher and got Mark Ellis to hit into a force play. While the A's had two men on and two out the next inning, and the tying run on second with one out in the eighth, it was this bases-loaded situation in the sixth that, I believe, will be forever remembered as the moment the Royals averted the precipice of a record-setting losing streak.

Sure, teams look bad when they're in the midst of historically-long losing streaks. That stands to reason. What were they like outside of that streak, though? Is it fair only to judge them when they were getting their hair mussed? Take the Royals, for instance. Before they lost 19 straight, they weren't especially good, but were they so bad they deserved to be made sport of?

What follows is a list of every team that has lost at least 18 games in a row since 1901. If we include the Cleveland Spiders of 1899--as I rantingly suggested we do last week--they'd find themselves at the bottom of the list, of course.


Year Team      Streak     Wins   Losses - less streak    W % w/o streak
1959 Senators    18        63          73                   .463
1914 Reds        19        60          75                   .444
1948 Senators    18        56          79                   .415
1975 Tigers      19        57          83                   .407
2005 Royals      19        40          63                   .388
1988 Orioles     21        54          86                   .386
1906 Braves      19        49          83                   .371
1969 Expos       20        52          90                   .366
1943 Athletics   20        49          85                   .366
1906 Red Sox     20        49          85                   .366
1961 Phillies    23        47          84                   .359
1920 Athletics   18        48          88                   .353
1916 Athletics   20        36          97                   .271
Aficionados of bad teams will recognize a few of these clubs. The ones toward the top are not so well-known, though. This is for obvious reasons: they simply weren't historically bad enough to become infamous. Instead, they occupy that twilight ground that most bad baseball teams inhabit. The '59 Senators were just three games under .500 when their big schneid started. The '14 Reds and '75 Tigers were just nine under. (The Tigers won just 11 games over the last two months of the year, though.)

If the Royals could play .500 the rest of the way, they would vault all the way up to third-place on this list. If they play at the current overall rate of dropping two of every three games, then they'll stay in the same general vicinity.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Cincinnati Reds (22nd) @ Washington Nationals (20th)

Is it possible to have a race that is too good? Or, at the very least, complicated by too many teams? It seems to me that keeping track of what-all is going on in the National League wild-card race is going to get pretty gummy as we go forward. Papers will have to start printing those complicated charts that show what happens in the case of a five-way tie. If your favorite team is involved, you'll have to consult some sort of elaborate Excel spreadsheet to figure out which of the other teams you should be rooting for or against when they happen to meet head-to-head. Seriously, it'll hurt your brain to think about it. Eventually, you'll be so overwhelmed by all the scenarios that you'll decide to stop watching altogether and simply wait until the day after the season to check who came out on top.

I don't want to get into too many ifs here, but if Brad Wilkerson were playing up to his 2004 level and the Nats had a replacement-level shortstop instead of Cristian Guzman, they'd be about four games better off than they are right now. That would put them at the top of the wild-card hunt and within spitting distance of the Braves. Guzman, by himself, has been a two-game burden.

I think I've spent too much time this year muttering to myself that the Nationals can't be as good as their record (which they haven't been), when what I really should have doing is trying to get some vicarious thrill from their overachievements. They are doing good baseball missionary work in a city that desperately needs it. While I seriously lament the loss of a team in Montreal and wish that some other team could have been moved to reclaim the District, this is pretty much a happy story so far. There are a lot of chapters to go, obviously, but it could have begun so much worse.

Related Content:  The Streak,  The Who,  Cleveland Spiders

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