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September 30, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Heavenly World Series

by Jim Baker

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Best, worst, misaligned, closest--none of those matters now. Only these four matchups are relevant heading into the last weekend of the season:

New York Yankees @ Boston Red Sox

In a short story titled "The Heavenly World Series," Frank O'Rourke tells the tale of what happens when a baseball game is played in the great hereafter to decide which league was better, the American or National. All-Star teams of the greats from either league square off to decide--once and for all--which league gets bragging rights. The tale first appeared in Esquire magazine in 1952 and was reprinted in a collection of science fiction/supernatural-related baseball stories called Baseball 3000, (Elsevier Nelson, 1981). The first game of the series is joined and, because of the sheer weight of talent on either side, is tied at the end of nine innings. Then, "…the game went on, into the twentieth inning, then the twenty-first, as more men tried their luck against pitchers, and hits sprayed to all fields, only to fall short of home as double plays and magnificent catches cut off the threats."

In the end, the game gets to the 26th inning, still tied and the Lord Himself intervenes to call off the proceedings, saying "Should we continue, nothing would be proved. I doubt if we could ever finish the series." (The players involved are all names you would recognize: Eddie Collins, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw and Hall of Famers of that ilk. Curiously, though, the author chose to put Eric McNair on the American League team.)

What does this have to do with the Yankees and Red Sox? It's just this: what have we learned over the course of the season? Do we really have a handle on which team is better? Let's go back through the last three seasons and ask the same thing. In 2003, their playoff went into extra innings of the deciding game before an outcome could be achieved. Last year, it took seven games as well to sort it out. This year, they are coming into the final weekend of the season without the issue being resolved and they could well end up with identical records at the end of the regular season on Sunday.

This is the very definition of stalemate, is it not? When teams have played for three years with so very little separating their ventures, do the eventual victors really get bragging rights?

Whenever I consider the recent success of David Ortiz, I am always reminded of something a friend of mine overheard at a Trenton Thunder game in 2001. In July of that year, Ortiz was on a rehab assignment with New Britain of the Eastern League and the team was visiting Trenton for a game in which my friend found himself sitting among a group of scouts. He reported at the time that all the scouts who ventured an opinion about Ortiz were in agreement that he looked terrible and was probably just about done.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of the Most Valuable Player Award, this much we can all agree on: he is anything but "done." Whenever I consider the scouts vs. stats wars of recent years I think of this story and it remind me of how important it is to have a system of checks and balances in place and how scouting and statistical analysis should be symbiotic in nature and not adversarial.

I think we may have reached the tipping point on Mariano Rivera's Cy Young candidacy. The circumstances are in place that will probably give him the award. By the Baseball Prospectus accounting practices, the best starting pitcher in the American League in 2005 has been, once again, Johan Santana. His VORP of 69.7 is head and shoulders above anybody else in the league. It will come down to more traditional metrics in the real world voting, however and the lack of a clear-cut leader there will, I believe, lead to Rivera's deliverance. The pitchers with the most Cy-friendly won-loss records are Bartolo Colon (21-8) and Cliff Lee (18-5). Santana's won-loss doesn't quite measure up to theirs, but he aces them in strikeouts and ERA. This distribution of leadership is going to send the Cy Young voter elsewhere, namely to the ninth inning.

Let's face it: the Santana candidacy does not have the glamour factor it needs to catch the attention of the voters. The Twins tanked around him and he didn't pitch quite as well as he did in 2004. Rivera, on the other hand, has been in what is generally perceived to be hot soup for most of the year and the voters are going to love that.

I'm just throwing this out there as a tautology, but, if Rivera is the Cy Young Award winner, then doesn't it follow that Huston Street should be the Rookie of the Year? If Rivera's season trumps all starters, then shouldn't Street's--which has been very comparable to Rivera's except for the save load--trump the seasons of a rookie starting pitcher who posted higher VORP numbers?

In the American League, only his Oakland teammate Joe Blanton really put some distance between himself and Street, out-VORPing him 42.6 to 33.7. Gustavo Chacin of the Blue Jays is at 35.6.

Chicago White Sox @ Cleveland Indians

What do the White Sox "owe" in this series and to whom do they owe it? Do they owe it to themselves to make sure their team is well-rested and ready for the playoffs? Do they owe it to the Red Sox or Yankees to play their very best players in an attempt to knock the Indians out of the running for the wild-card? Do they owe it to themselves to get the best possible matchup for the first round of the postseason? This series well illustrates any number of the problems with baseball. Late-season call-ups, the wild-card format, the bracketing procedure: all of them are at play here and could conspire to make for some very murky motivations.

Sportswriters had better hope that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen stays on the scene for a long time. He's the writer's friend, a human quote factory the likes of whom we haven't seen since…? Well, what manager of recent vintage put as much verbiage out there as does Guillen? Tommy Lasorda maybe?

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals

Does any season in which a team heads into the final three games with a chance to make the playoffs have to be considered a success--especially playing in the same division with a monolith? That's debatable. Philadelphia fans certainly didn't think so--at least in terms of wanting to show up to witness it. Phillie attendance fell by almost 600,000 from last year. Some of that 2004 figure was inflationary owing to the novelty of the new stadium, but, clearly, the hunt for wild-card gold is not the turnstile turner MLB would want us to believe.

Should the Nats take two of three this weekend, the Phils will have finished 86-76 for the third season in a row and fourth time in five years. There are far worse ruts to be in, like the 1938 to 1942 Phillies, who won between 42 and 50 games for five years.

One of the men trying to derail the Phillies playoff hopes is Hector Carrasco. The 35-year old joined the Nationals rotation late this year and his presence among their starters has to be a precedent of some sort. Prior to this season, Carrasco had appeared in 498 games--all as a reliever save one--and even that one comes with an asterisk. Five years ago Saturday, he was the starting pitcher for the Red Sox against Tampa Bay. "Starting" is probably a misnomer here. "Opening" would be a better description of what he did, which was be the drum major in a parade of six pitchers--four of whom never appeared in the majors again. (Steve Ontiveros, Jesus Pena, Sang-Hoon Lee and Rich Croushore.) Only Carrasco and Tim Wakefield survive from the sextet.

His career as a reliever lasted until September 13 of this year when manager Frank Robinson called on him to start against the Mets. He gave up two runs in four innings. He hasn't given up a run since. True, this not a Don Drysdale/Orel Hershiser kind of streak where he's tossing complete game shutouts, but, if the Phillies survive until Sunday, this "rookie" starter could have a lot to say about their fate.

Chicago Cubs @ Houston Astros

It's time to trot out a chart we ran at the end of last month. At that time, it was relevant to the rise of the A's. Now, the Astros have given themselves a shot to be counted among a select group as well--and, in the bargain, make the playoffs.

Prior to 2005, only two teams that fell below 15 or more games under .500 ever managed to come back to completely reverse that and go 15 or more games over .500. They are:


Year Team    over .500      Deficit   Turnaround
1914 Braves     35             -16           51
1965 Pirates    18             -15           33

If things go a certain way this year, the list can double in length:

Year Team    over .500      Deficit   Turnaround
2005 Astros     15             -15           30
2005 A's        14             -15           29

The A's seemingly had making this list in the bag about a month ago, but they've slipped and, like the Astros, need to win two of three this weekend in order to complete the turnaround.

Of the 12 games relevant as of this moment, tonight's Astros-Cubs contest provides the best pitching matchup. Andy Pettitte faces the Cubs best, Carlos Zambrano. The Phillies have to be at least considering their offseason plans with Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt lining up to try their hands against the Cubs.

Speaking of Pettitte, it will be interesting to see where he finishes in the Cy Young voting. With Chris Carpenter spitting the bit in his last four starts and Clemens limiting his September duties greatly, Pettitte has climbed right into the thick of things. He hasn't had a truly bad start since the middle of June. Pettitte and Carpenter seem like fairly equal candidates to me, although the voters might not see it that way. Assuming the voters are not going to give Clemens the nod no matter how much the 3.57 runs per game support number is bandied about, I think what this does is open the door for Dontrelle Willis to snare the award--especially if has a nice start on Sunday and gets his 23rd victory.

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