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April 14, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Seems? Nay, It Is.

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Milwaukee Brewers (6th) @ New York Mets (5th)

The Mets have their first real challenge of the year in the Brewers. This is the team that snuck up on nobody heading into 2006, becoming everybody's best bet to surprise and, therefore, not surprising anybody with their 6-3 start. These two clubs have allowed the fewest baserunners in baseball so far. And then Ben Sheets returns to make things even better for Milwaukee. Now they just have to start getting their slug on.

After a heady offensive performance in Washington yesterday in which everyone in the heart of the order homered, we can ask this question: have the Mets put together the best duo, trio and/or quartet in their history with any combination of Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, David Wright and Cliff Floyd? The men to beat are:

Best duo:
2000: Edgardo Alfonzo (77.1) and Mike Piazza (70.2). The best and third-best VORPs ever compiled by Mets. The second-best one-two Mets punch came in 1998 when Piazza and John Olerud both cracked 60.

Best trio:
1999: Edgardo Alfonzo (59.7), Mike Piazza (56.8), Robin Ventura (53.4). The only Mets trio to ever crack 50. Lance Johnson, Bernard Gilkey and Todd Hundley came close in 1996.

Best quartet:
1999: same three plus John Olerud (46.3). Rickey Henderson had a 39.9 that year as well, making it the best year all-around for individual Met achievement.

It seems possible that New York has come up with its best trio ever. Beltran, Delgado and Wright are all candidates to post a VORP of 60.0. Floyd, at his best, is more likely to get into the low 40s or high 30s. He's probably not going to best Olerud's 46.3 of 1999. On the other hand, it's only a matter of time before David Wright breaks Alfonzo's record for highest VORP ever by a Met. If not in 2006, then in some season very soon we are going to see Wright have the best Mets season ever. This is probably not as bold a statement as it might seem in that the Mets have not set the bar very high. These are the five-lowest team VORP leaders since 1960:

54.1: Devil Rays - Aubrey Huff, 2003
74.0: Phillies - Dick Allen, 1966
77.1: Mets - Edgardo Alfonzo, 2000
77.4: Angels - Vladimir Guerrero, 2004
81.0: Expos/Nats - Vladimir Guerrero, 2000

Wright has the goods to overshoot that mark by a significant amount by the time his prime runs its course.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Kansas City Royals (26th) @ Tampa Bay Devil Rays (21st)

It almost seems like this is an automatic: if the Royals are playing the Devil Rays they're bound to be the Worst Matchup qualifier. The difference between these two teams? The Royals will be showing up in Worst Matchups two years from now while the Devil Rays will not. The cavalry is riding to the rescue for Tampa Bay, while the Royals' cavalry can't find their saddles. They will soon go their separate ways.

Early going extremes: The Rays are just 3-for-9 in stolen base attempts. The Royals have only walked 16 times. Another extreme is the number of baserunners each club is allowing. The Rays are at 1.71 per inning and the Royals at 1.83. That's good for 12th and 14th in the league, respectively. Can we expect there to be 3.5 men on base per inning this weekend in St. Petersburg? No, as some of the Royals' inflation has to do with playing the Yankees, a team adept at choking the bases with personnel; there could still easily be three men on base in the combined top and bottom of every inning.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Chicago Cubs (2nd) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (28th)

Cubs fans can bemoan the perennial loss of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood as a possible undoing of their 2006 season, but the additions of Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones are the incidents that are really going to bite them where they sit. Both have taken very little time to show why they were poor choices in the quest to unseat the Cardinals. It's all up to Matt Murton to keep the Wrigleymen from having the worst outfield in baseball. So far in his brief career, he seems up to the challenge.

Any time a pitching staff surrenders more than five runs in a game, it's putting the onus on the offense to win the game for the team--a routinely impossible onus. For instance, the Pirates did this 63 times last year and managed to win five of those games. (By contrast, the Cardinals were 9-39 in such contests.) This year, the Pirates are hitting very well but it's been masked by the pitching staff's inability to give them a fighting chance. In only three of the team's 11 games so far have the opponents scored less than six runs. Naturally, they won't keep up that insane pace, which would put them at 118 games surrendering six runs or more. Even the '62 Mets only did this 86 times.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Houston Astros (10th) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (9th)

So far in this early going, the Astros have been fielding a lineup that has produced not a whiff of power from no fewer than four positions: catcher, center field, shortstop and, of course, pitcher.

Catcher: Brad Ausmus and Eric Munson have 36 PA between them with seven singles and three walks.
Center field: Willy Taveras has come to the plate 39 times with 11 singles and two walks.
Shortstop: Adam Everett has tried 29 times with six singles and no walks.
Pitcher: Astros pitchers are 2-for-18 with a walk.

That's a lot of black holes for one lineup to endure. Yes, it's early and there will be some improvement from the position players in question, but it's not like any of them have a proven record of real success in this area. There's an upper limit to how many players a team can start for defensive/speed/sentimental reasons and the Astros are over it. This is something they'll have to endure all season, I'm afraid, unless they tire of seeing single digits in the middle of the stat column and make some moves.

The Diamondbacks currently have the lowest team batting average in the National League. It's about 90 points lower than that of the leaders, the Mets. By how much will the gap between lowest and highest narrow by the time the season is done? That's hard to say exactly. Last year it was just 20 points. The year before it was 30 and the year before that it was 41. (These were all with the league average staying at a fairly constant .262.) In any case, this extreme--like 95% of the extremes you're looking at this week--will narrow considerably in due time.

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