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June 20, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

In a Pinch

by Jim Baker

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Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Minnesota Twins (20th) @ Houston Astros (23rd)

Back when interleague play was just a bad idea floating around the ether, the most popular argument in its favor went like this: "Could you imagine what a Mets-Yankees series would be like?" My favorite counter-argument was always specifically this: "OK, but what about Houston-Minnesota--who'd care about that?" I wasn't picking on these teams, just singling out two clubs that would have only the most obscure reasons for wanting to meet anywhere but in the World Series. (It could have been any one of 200 other combinations.) And now, my counter-argument of 1991 has become reality, as here they are, clashing on very equal terms in 2006.

The only thing worse than making a bad decision is compounding it by not admitting it was bad. Kudos, then, to the Twins for realizing that the decision to bring Tony Batista back to the majors in a third-baseman rich environment was an unfortunate one. The thing of it is, though, we can almost guarantee that Minnesota will not be Batista's last stop. He's only 32 and has thrown up enough outsized counting stats--as recently as 2004--that someone is bound to take another shot at him before he goes home and starts living off whatever is left of the $17-some million he's made in his career.

Oddly--and yes, it is in the course of a small sampling--Batista is walking at a better rate than at anytime in his eleven-year career. His OBP was always his Waterloo, but this year, he's walked a nearly respectable 15 times against 172 at bats. That's about 33 percent better than his career mark. Batista has not been the worst-hitting third baseman so far this year. Yes, he's below the Third Generation Threshold (that point at which David Bell and Aaron Boone are performing), but he's been better than a few folks:

-9.7: Vinny Castilla, San Diego
-9.0: Aubrey Huff, Tampa Bay
-6.1: Adrian Beltre, Seattle
-5.3: Tony Graffanino, Kansas City
-3.5: Batista

Bad news for Beltre: through 2005, he was Batista's most-similar player according to Baseball-Reference.com.

The Twins have made a number of other good subtraction moves this year:

  1. Pulling Kyle Lohse from the rotation
  2. Pulling Carlos Silva from the rotation
  3. Pulling Scott Baker from the rotation

Of course, there was only one Francisco Liriano to fill all these holes, so Silva had to go back in for the time being. Liriano faces rookie sensation Roger Clemens on Thursday in what could prove to be a spanning-the-eras type of showdown. If Liriano goes on to have the career hinted at by the formative stages of his career (and that's an "if" with a capital ph given the TINSTAAPP axiom), then we'll be seeing four decades of pitching excellence juxtaposed for one brief moment Thursday night. Back in March, I discussed the possibility of the Twins having one of the best lefty duos of recent vintage. I'm always happy to discuss my predictions (unless they prove to be inaccurate). This one is looking reasonable so far: Liriano and Johan Santana still have a chance to accumulate one of the 10-best combined VORPs of any lefthanded pitching duo since 1972.

How good has Liriano been? Consider that among the pitchers with the 30 top VORPs, 24 of them have either 14 or 15 starts. The six exceptions are:

GS: Player, Team (VORP)
12: Jose Contreras, White Sox (30.2)
13: Chris Carpenter, Cardinals (28.7)
6: Liriano, Twins (26.5)
0: Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox (24.0)
13: Roy Oswalt, Astros (23.7)
9: Joshua Johnson, Marlins (22.7)

Liriano had 12 relief appearances before moving to the rotation and Johnson had seven.

Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): St. Louis Cardinals (5th) @ Chicago White Sox (4th)

The 2005 World Series that could have been and a 2006 Series that could still be. The Cardinals are holding their own in the absence of Albert Pujols. Consider that before he went out, he had hit nearly half of all Cardinals home runs (45.5 percent)--a number comparable to Wally Berger of the infamous 1935 Boston Braves. Two weeks later, that number has slipped but he still has 38.5 percent of the team's home runs, the highest percentage in baseball. The next-highest figure belongs to Alfonso Soriano of Washington with 29.3 percent. Justin Morneau of the Twins (26.2 percent) is the only other player in excess of 25 percent.

Check out yesterday's TWiQ for some quotations on hitting batters, several of which are from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.

I've never understood this about baseball: you're supposed to drill a guy because he does his job? He beats you fair and square and that means you should bust a rock on his skull? What the %$&#? How about this: the next time a pitcher strikes a batter out a couple of times, how about the batter whips the bat at him on the last strike just so he isn't so comfortable out there? That's just the reverse of what pitchers do by throwing at batters, right? Fortunately, this isn't a part of the game anymore on the scale that it once was.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Pittsburgh Pirates (27th) @ Kansas City Royals (30th)

Was anybody else watching the Australia v. Brazil World Cup game on Sunday or was I the only one? For those of you that were, you saw a goal scored by a player named Fred. Just Fred. (He also choked on an easy shot a few moments later.) For decades, Brazilian players have been given single names for the sake of convenience. Radio announcers, tired of trying to wrap their tongues around multi-syllabic mouthfuls while calling games, helped create this practice. The most famous, of course, is Pele. (My favorite one-name was "de." de what? de where?) The names are usually musical and evocative of greatness. Not so Fred. That's the name of the guy that reads your meter or works in accounts receivable.

So, why not start shortening the names of Kansas City's famously lengthily-addressed players Doug Mientkiewicz and Mark Grudzielanek? If a world-class soccer player can be known simply as Fred, can't we call these guys Doug and Mark? It would make life easier for everyone. Speaking of the Brazilian team, I think I've figured out why Ronaldo is talking about coming to play in the United States some day. In case you haven't heard, Ronaldo has been taken to task for putting on some weight. He's not the best-looking guy in the world to begin with and, with the extra weight and the shaved head, he's looking much the way a young Fester Addams did when he was the striker for Weirdness F.C. Anyway, given the ever-increasing proclivity toward weight gain in the U.S., Ronaldo probably figures nobody here will notice he's getting a little puffy.

Gratuitous Matchup (chosen merely as an excuse to discuss something): San Diego Padres (13th) @ Texas Rangers (8th)

A rule change and a trend appear to be colliding to create a team record in Arlington. It's been more than three decades since the designated hitter became major league reality, but now, with the practice of carrying larger and larger pitching staffs having become commonplace, pinch hitting seems to be disappearing from the vocabulary of many bench-option-starved clubs. The 2006 Rangers are on their way to setting the record for fewest pinch hit plate appearances for a team. Even with the advent of interleague play reintroducing a handful of automatic pinch-hitting opportunities to American League teams, the Rangers still seem to be well-situated to take this record down hard.

It's not only them, either. Two other 2006 clubs find themselves approaching the half-way point of the season with a shot at the fewest pinch-hitting attempts.

PH PA  Year Team      Games   PH PA/162 G
----------------------------------------=
  6    2006 Rangers     71      14
 30    1993 Blue Jays  162      30
 32    1988 Brewers    162      32
 33    1973 Red Sox    162      33
 34    1978 Red Sox    162      34
 17    2006 Athletics   70      39
 27    1994 Orioles    112      39
 42    2002 Tigers     162      42
 19    2006 Tigers      71      43
 43    1986 Brewers    162      43
 43    2000 Blue Jays  162      43
 43    2005 Rangers    162      43
The projections for the 2006 teams are not quite as direct as they appear in the last column. The Rangers have six more games in National League parks this year while the A's have eight and the Tigers five. Even if the Rangers load up in those games, though, they've got a lot of play between themselves and the next-lowest team. One thing at play here is the fact that the Rangers haven't been especially good at pinch hitting over the past few years. None of their six attempts has resulted in a hit this year. Here are their standings since having the second-best pinch-hit batting average in the AL in 2002:

2006: tied for last
2005: last
2004: next-to-last
2003: third-from-last

This year's A's have been terrible as well. Their next pinch hit will be their first.

Is this actually a trend, though? The '73 Red Sox--one of the first two teams to employ a DH owing to scheduling that year--are on the list, as are another '70s Red Sox team, two '80s teams and two from the '90s. Looking at the National League, no team from our current age is anywhere near the top ten. The 2006 Giants are on pace to finish in the 20s. If this occurs, they'd be the first NL team since the '94 Expos to rank that high in fewest pinch hit plate appearances. The National League list is dominated by teams from the '60s and early '70s--a time when pinch hitting was limited not by managerial options and the designated hitter but by pitchers dominating and staying in games until the very end.

Related Content:  Tony Batista

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