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May 30, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Tiger Relevance

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Yankees (2nd) @ Detroit Tigers (1st)

When is the last time these two clubs played a game where it mattered to both of parties? It's been 15 years since the Tigers had a better record than the Yankees and 13 since they were anywhere close. Since 1994, the closest Detroit has come to New York at the end of the season was 8½ games in 2000, the year of the Yankees Slacker Championship. Since then, the average gap has been over 37 games a year.

Getting back to the original question, the last time they both met with something on the line for all comers was in late July of 1993. At the start of their three-game series on July 26 of that year, the standings looked like this:

Boston     55-43  -
Toronto    56-44  -
New York   56-44  -
Baltimore  54-45 1.5
Detroit    51-48 4.5
In the first game of the series, David Wells scattered six hits and beat Jimmy Key 5-2. The next day, the Yankees knocked out Bill Gullickson in the second inning and went on to win 5-2 behind Jim Abbott. Bernie Williams had four hits. The rubber match went to New York as Don Mattingly, Roberto Kelly and Paul O'Neill all homered. In a losing cause, Travis Fryman hit for the cycle and threw in an extra double for good measure. Bob Wickman, the only other still-active player to take part in the series aside from Williams and Wells, got the win in relief for the Yankees. From that point on, the Yankees barely cleared .500 and fell behind the Jays for keeps. The Tigers played better than the Yankees and Red Sox both but Toronto put the spurs to it and won it all.

The last time Detroit and New York met late in the season with both clubs still in it was September 11, 1988. The day began with the Tigers in second at 76-66, 3½ games behind the East Division-leading Boston Red Sox. The Yankees were at 74-66 and 4½ out. This was the fourth game of the series and New York had won the first three. The game went six hours. In the top of the 18th Tory "The Next Mantle" Lovullo (no, wait, the Next Mantle was Kirk Gibson. Lovullo was supposed to be "bigger than the Beatles"--I get my Sparky Anderson hyperbolic outbursts confused) put the Tigers up 5-4 with a run-scoring single. In the bottom of the inning, Rickey Henderson led off with a walk--his first time on base all day in eight tries--and Claudell Washington followed with a two-run homer to win it. In the end, nothing came of it as the Red Sox won the division. Detroit swept the Yankees in the last series of the year to make it look closer on paper than it actually was because both had been eliminated before the final series began.

Memo to the people who constantly criticize Alex Rodriguez for not being "clutch": you have much to learn about our national game. For those of you in that group who are laymen, you can say whatever you want as you have nothing on the line but your rep among your friends as to how much you know about baseball. For those of you in that group who are paid to discuss such matters, however, you need to play some serious catch-up in the knowledge department to justify your salaries.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Kansas City Royals (30th) @ Oakland Athletics (21st)

Waiting…waiting…waiting…when will the A's spend their last day under .500 this year? For the past seven seasons they have finished over .500 and, in six of those years, spent a fairly significant amount of time not so. Here are the last days from each year they were one game below .500. The next game they got to the break-even point and never looked back.

2005: July 11
2004: May 9
2003: Never (worst was 8-8 on April 17)
2002: June 6
2001: July 6
2000: May 29
1999: July 11

The loss to the Royals in the opener last night guarantees they will not have their last sub-.500 day in May this year. It also drops them to their worst record of the season so far. They've been in more dire straits, though, as this chart illustrates:

Low Tide of the A's, 1999-2006
Year Date       W-L     Pct.
2006 May 29     23-28   .451
2005 May 29     18-32   .347
2004 May 5      12-15   .444
2003 April 17   8-8     .500
2002 May 21     19-25   .432
2001 April 15   2-10    .167
2000 April 16   4-8     .333
1999 April 29   9-14    .391

(Note: The 2001 team got to 10 games under .500 on May 1 but with a .308 winning percentage and the 1999 team had worse winning percentages than .391, but all within their first 10 games.)

I would imagine this is a hard way to live. Just once I'm sure their fans, management and over-bettors would like to see them win 10 games to start the year, go to 24-9 and never look back. That's not how it's done in Oaktown, though.

Not only is Nick Swisher almost single-handedly propping up the A's offense right now, he's also one of the few American League left fielders having a good season. He, along with Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox, are the only AL leftfielders in double figures in VORP. Looking at the average VORP of the top seven players at each position by league, we find this hierarchy:

Lg Pos AVE
NL 1B  20.93
NL LF  18.20
AL RF  17.33
NL 3B  17.20
AL DH  16.17
NL SS  16.09
AL 1B  15.81
NL 2B  15.37
AL CF  15.24
AL SS  15.20
AL 3B  13.84
NL CF  13.44
NL RF  11.73
AL LF  11.54
AL 2B  11.00
AL C   10.63
NL C    9.74
Overall, the best of the National League average 15.3 while the American League's best are at 14.1. We must expect some discrepancy based on the dispersal of talent over nine positions as opposed to eight and the fact that "top seven in the American League" is a higher percentage of total players than in the National.

Recalibrating the list to measure the average VORP of the second- through sixth-best players (so that Albert Pujols and Jason Bay don't impact the skew), we find that American League left field drops even further without the services of Swisher.

Lg Pos 2nd-6th
NL 1B  17.90
NL LF  16.87
AL RF  16.55
NL SS  15.40
NL 3B  15.27
AL 1B  15.02
NL 2B  14.10
AL CF  13.98
AL DH  13.95
AL 3B  13.35
AL SS  12.98
NL CF  11.87
NL RF  10.73
AL 2B  10.45
AL LF   9.58
AL C    9.42
NL C    8.77
Taking him out of the mix puts the AL leftfielders on a par with the catchers, a group that always suffers in these sorts of comparisons.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Cincinnati Reds (14th) @ Chicago Cubs (29th)

The Cubs have done it! They have managed to bring together two of the biggest sabermetrician's whipping posts of recent history not only on the same roster but in the same keystone combo! The much-maligned Tony Womack has joined the consistently-criticized Neifi Perez to form the gilded keystone atop the Cubs offensive arch. They have only played one game together in this capacity so far but it resulted in one of those outcomes that makes this game so damned fascinating. Together they combined for six hits in 12 at bats and drove in five runs, leading the Cubs to 12 tallies against the Braves on Sunday. (That Chicago still lost is besides the point.) When things return to normal, though, a lineup with Womack, Perez, Juan Pierre and a pitcher is a fairly scary proposition.

Closest National League Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Colorado Rockies (17th) @ San Diego Padres (15th)

Here are the three lowest OBPs among leadoff hitters with a minimum of 100 plate appearances in that spot:

.270: Juan Pierre, Cubs
.291: Mark Ellis, A's
.308: Cory Sullivan, Rockies

Now here are the three lowest OBPs among two-hole hitters with a minimum of 100 plate appearances in that spot.

.283: Clint Barmes, Rockies
.297: J.J. Hardy, Brewers
.317: Jose Lopez, Mariners

It's counter-intuitive to find an Athletics player on the leadoff list, but there he is. In their defense, the A's have tried Mark Kotsay at the top spot as well with better results. There just aren't a lot of alternatives right now given their lineup. The Rockies, though, man--they're setting the table without any silverware. To this point, their leadoff men have a .313 OBP and the two-men are at .315. No wonder Jamey Carroll has been looking like Max Bishop by comparison.

Neither figure is worst in the majors, but they rate:

Colorado leadoff: 26th (Worse: Astros, Rays, Royals, Cubs)
Colorado second: 27th (Worse: Mariners, Tigers, Brewers)

The trick is, the Rockies are near the bottom of both lists. To go along with being last in leadoff OBP, the Cubs are 26th in number two OBP.

I think the Rox are going to be the first team to blink in the National League West race. Their run differential has already slipped to the dark side and their won-loss record is sure to follow.

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