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May 23, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

A Long, Deep Outfield

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Yankees (2nd) @ Boston Red Sox (6th)

I think we can all agree that it's very, very hard to get to the major leagues. As hard as it is, though, I've always thought it's even harder to get out of them. Think about it: Terrence Long was the starting left fielder for the New York Yankees last night. He's done everything he can to make himself unappealing to big league ball clubs, yet there he was at Fenway Park on Monday, wearing the same uniform that Joe DiMaggio once did. Teams are so infatuated with players who have major league experience--regrettable though that experience might be--they're always ready to give a shot to a guy like Long.

That was a fun comeback attempt by the Yankees in the ninth last night. As the balls were flying every which way, consternation crept in like shadows on the memories of their two previous 2006 monster comebacks. Of course, Long wasn't with the team then. You knew it was over when he stepped to the plate, but that late lightning always livens up a runaway. If anyone says or writes anything about there being a carryover effect for tonight's game, don't believe it. The existence of such a phenomenon is not even worth checking.

Back when Bernie Williams had to have his appendix out, I suggested that all ballplayers should have theirs removed in the offseason to avoid the possibility of missing time during the season to such a nuisance. Obviously, nobody was listening because look what's happened now: Orioles pitcher Hayden Penn will be missing his first major league start of the year against Seattle tonight because he had to get his appendix yoinked. Had he followed the Baker Plan and had it done preemptively back in November, he'd be toeing that slab this very night.

Best National League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): St. Louis Cardinals (4th) @ San Francisco Giants (17th)

This is the sixth season that Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds have shared league space. In that time, they have not met very often head-to-head. In fact, last night's game marked just their 14th direct match-up. Understanding that baseball is not boxing and there are eight other players on the field, I still think it's interesting to see what the men who have racked up the most MVP votes over the last five years do when they run into each other on the ballfield.

From 2001 to 2005, the Cards and Giants have played 30 games. Bonds has missed 16 of those games and appeared as a pinch hitter in a 17th. Pujols entered one game late and missed two others. (Imagine going to see the Cards and Giants play in this era, settling into your seat, glancing up at the scoreboard and noticing that neither Bonds nor Pujols are in the lineup. It happened on July 25, 2004 in St. Louis. I hope the Cards gave everyone a free small soda or something as compensation, although they did win 6-0.)

In the games where they both started, Pujols has hit two home runs and walked nine times in 64 plate appearances, posting a line of .327/.407/.500. Bonds has hit six home runs, walked 17 times in 55 plate appearances and gone .263/.491/.763. The Giants have won eight of the 13 contests. Not surprisingly, they're 8-9 in their other 17 games against St. Louis over the same period. In the games against San Francisco where Bonds has not started or appeared against the Cardinals, Pujols has a line of .189/.283/.245. Your motivationally-motivated types would assert that Bonds brings out the best in Pujols, but you could pull 15 games at random from his career in similar parks and find lines like that, I'm sure.

What would be fun to see is a game where they both cut loose simultaneously. Bonds hit two homers on July 2, 2003, but Pujols had a single in four at bats. Pujols was 3-for-4 with a homer and a walk on July 17, 2002, but Bonds managed a single and three walks. They've never had simultaneous multi-hit games, but that's not entirely surprising given how often Bonds walks. Their best combined game came on July 23, 2004 when they both hit home runs and drew a walk each. Pujols added a single. Their worst combined game was on June 29 of Pujols' rookie year when he took the size four collar and Bonds walked three times in four at bats, scoring one run. Last night's matchup was about as productive as that: two singles, a walk and an RBI between them. As you would imagine, they've yet to have a game where they combined to do nothing or next to it.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Chicago Cubs (26th) @ Florida Marlins (28th)

When you add it all up, no team should rankle the long-suffering Cub fan more than the Florida Marlins. After all, they managed to win a championship within five years of their birth while Chicago was doing another also-ran lap. Then they did it again, the second time taking a direct route over the flailing body of the Cubs to get there. And for whom--a fan base that takes, at best, a passing interest in their team? What is even worse is that there is a chance the Marlins won't exist anymore by the time the Cubs get repositioned to make another run at a championship. Florida will have lived a short and occasionally explosive life while the Cubs continue to plod along in the background.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Detroit Tigers (1st) @ Kansas City Royals (30th)

On April 22, 2003, the Royals beat the Twins 4-3, improving their record to 15-3. Meanwhile, in Oakland, the Tigers lost to the A's 4-3, dropping their record to 1-17 and putting them 14 games out of first long before April was even over. Think about how far apart these two clubs were at that moment and what has happened since. The Tigers went 42-102 the rest of the way in '03 while the Royals went 68-76. Detroit made up another 29 games over the past two seasons so that, heading into 2006, their combined records since that day in April three years ago look like this:

Detroit: 185-283
Kansas City: 182-286

Now, finally, they have come full circle. The Tigers enter this series with the best record in baseball and the Royals have the worst. "Full circle" is misleading, though as the '03 KC squad was in way over its head and was experiencing a brief respite in its string of 100-loss seasons.

So the Royals had a players-only meeting before last night's game in response to Scott Elarton's charges that some of them aren't trying hard enough. If I had to write a speech to kick that meeting off, this is what it would look like:

"Some things have been said and I can understand why Els is pissed because we don't score for him or hold his leads. Well, it's not for lack of trying. The truth of the matter is, we're just not that good and it's not our fault. We are who we are. The fault lies with the people who thought they could bring us together and call it a competitive major league team. We are all of us prisoners of that misconception. Some of us belong in the major leagues and some of us don't. If you scattered us around the other 29 teams, nobody would notice, but bring us together as a unit and it's very noticeable: we just can't compete. So fellas, this is our fate and there's nothing we can do about it. Let's all try to have fun, take what pleasure we can out of winning every fourth day and lay off each other because we're all in this together. And we are trying. Unfortunately, this is what us trying looks like."

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Atlanta Braves (16th) @ San Diego Padres (15th)

The National League West made some infamy for itself last year when all five teams nearly finished under .500. Had San Diego not won five of its last six that is exactly what would have happened. This year they seem to have reversed the trend in that all five teams are now over .500 (as are 12 of the 16 National League teams). This is what the NL West standings looked like about this time last year:

Team           W    L  PCT.   GB     RS   RA
--------------------------------------------
San Diego     26   17  .605     -   202  183
Arizona       26   18  .591   0.5   194  208
Los Angeles   22   20  .524   3.5   208  209
San Francisco 20   22  .476   5.5   185  214
Colorado      12   28  .300  12.5   195  237
The only team that had its run differential in order ended up being the only team to make it over .500. This year, all five clubs have scored more than they've been scored upon so the turnaround is not an illusion--at least to this point.

Jake Peavy shouldn't feel so bad about striking out 16 Braves and losing. When Steve Carlton set the then-record of 19 Ks in a game on September 15, 1969, he also lost as Ron Swoboda hit a pair of two-run homers and the Cardinals could only come up with three runs. (Earlier that season, Swoboda had whiffed five times in five tries against Carlton and two relievers.) We know that striking out a lot doesn't necessarily hurt a team in the macro sense and now we've got another example of it not being a detriment in the micro.

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