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June 27, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Early Clincher

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Mets (3rd) @ Boston Red Sox (5th)

Like it or not, the Mets clinched their division on Thursday, June 15 with their win over Philadelphia. That extended their lead to 9 games and pretty much put an end to matters. The number of 9-game leads that have evaporated in baseball history is quite small. The fact that a few have (1951 Dodgers, 1978 Red Sox, to name the most famous examples) gives those chasing leaders with such bulges a sense of hope and creates a nagging paranoia in the leaders. It's an unfounded paranoia, however. Whenever a team opens up a gap like this, it's usually the exceptions listed above that are trotted out for consumption, not the rules. Nobody ever conjures the names of the many teams who held onto their sizeable holds on first place. (The lead is now up to 12 games.)

One of the problems with having such a lead is that it sucks the drama out of situations that should otherwise be fraught with it. For instance, on Sunday, the Blue Jays had the tying run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth and it just didn't quite seem like a crisis to me. That's the luxury of a big lead, I suppose: months of crisis-free living.

The story that's getting all the ink in this series is the return of Pedro Martinez to Boston, his pitching grounds of the previous seven seasons. This is by no means a unique situation, but it's rare enough that it merits attention. About once every three seasons on average, a pitcher of significance changes teams and comes back to his old stadium to face his former teammates. What follows is the list of pitchers who have the same basic parameters to their careers that Martinez has:

  1. A minimum of 200 career wins (not necessarily at the time of their return engagement)
  2. Spent at least all or part of seven seasons with their previous team (as did Martinez with the Red Sox)
  3. Made the return visit within a year of leaving the long-term team

Tom Glavine returns to Atlanta as a member of the Mets, May 24, 2003
3.1 innings pitched 8 hits 6 runs 6 earned runs 2 walks 0 strikeouts, lost 10-4

I happened to be at this game and it looked like free agent Armageddon for the Mets. Glavine took New York right out of the contest and appeared to be heading into the decline phase of his career with the Mets funding the skid. He turned it around a year later and hasn't looked back since.

Mike Mussina returns to Baltimore as a member of the Yankees, May 6, 2001
7 6 1 1 2 3, won 4-2

Mussina was the staff ace that year, but Clemens had the glitzy won-loss record and copped the Cy Young Award.

Randy Johnson returns to Seattle as a member of the Diamondbacks, July 20, 1999
9 8 0 0 0 10, won 6-0

Johnson had the stopover in Houston at the end of 1998 but this one counts as he got back to Seattle within a year with another team.

Roger Clemens returns to Boston as a member of the Blue Jays, July 12, 1997
8 4 1 1 0 16, won 3-1

The Rocket's return to Boston came in the midst of the best season of his career. (His VORP of 116.3 that year is the second-highest since 1960.) His 1997 RAA was 64, highest by far of his career:

64: 1997 with Jays
50: 1990 Red Sox
47: 1986 Red Sox
45: 1987 Red Sox
45: 2005 Astros

This nearly matched his RAA of the previous four seasons combined, so Boston fans were more than a bit frustrated by his rebirth in the uniform of another team.

Kevin Brown returns to Texas as a member of the Orioles, July 17, 1995
5.1 5 2 2 4 1, no decision; Orioles won 3-2 in 13 innings

I'm going to admit something here: I did not remember that Brown was ever on the Orioles. I think I know why this is, though. After the strike in '94, I gave major league baseball the cold shoulder for the year. I think they learned their lesson--they haven't struck since, have they?

Greg Maddux returns to Chicago as a member of the Braves, April 5, 1993
8.1 5 0 0 3 4, won 1-0

This one came on Opening Day--an instant painful reminder to the Cubs as to what they were going to miss for the next decade. Maddux had a shot at a second such game but did not pitch in Atlanta in 2004 when he returned to the Cubs.

Charlie Hough returns to Texas as a member of the White Sox, June 12, 1991
8 2 4 4 8 9, lost 4-2

That's right: eight walks. He had anther eight-walk performance on August 14 and walked seven on July 11. In the end, though, he walked a batter about every two innings--a typical year for Hough.

Frank Tanana returns to California as a member of the Red Sox, August 24, 1981
5.1 7 5 4 0 1, lost 8-6

Before his arm rebelled, Tanana was a heat-dealer of the highest order. When he was teamed with Nolan Ryan it seemed unfair that one club could have so much power pitching on one roster. This game came in the middle period of his career; the years between his early All-Star days and the final decade of his career in which he made a nice living as a Tigers mainstay.

Don Sutton returns to Los Angeles as a member of the Astros, April 11, 1981
4 6 8 8 3 3, lost 7-4

After 16 years in the Dodgers organization, Sutton became a free agent and signed with the Astros on December 4, 1980. Sutton's last two appearances in a Dodger uniform came against the Astros on the final weekend of the previous season. With Los Angeles needing three victories over Houston to force a playoff game, Sutton gave them an excellent start in the first game of the series and came on in relief in the third game, picking up a save. It was rendered moot when the Astros won the tiebreaker the next day.

Luis Tiant returns to Boston as a member of the Yankees, September 11, 1979
5.1 5 2 2 1 4, no decision; Yankees won 8-3

The Red Sox rescued El Tiante from career oblivion in 1972 and put him in their rotation in July. He almost won them the division. Over the next five seasons, he gave them a robust 1,300 innings. Understandably, there wasn't a lot left in the tank by the time he joined the Yankees in 1979.

Tom Seaver returns to New York as a member of the Reds, August 21, 1977
9 6 1 1 2 11, won 5-1

At this very moment, Dick Young is in Hell, having his heart broken over and over again in the Department of Ironic Punishments.

Catfish Hunter returns to Oakland as a member of the Yankees, May 10, 1975
9 2 0 0 0 7, won 3-0

Using the Bill James Game Score method, Hunter's return game is the best of its kind. Here are the Game Scores for all the games listed here:

Game Score Pitcher          Date
  90       Catfish Hunter 5/10/1975
  86       Roger Clemens  7/12/1997
  83       Steve Carlton  8/5/1972
  81       Randy Johnson  7/20/1999
  80       Tom Seaver     8/21/1977
  75       Greg Maddux    4/5/1993
  63       Charlie Hough  6/12/1991
  62       Mike Mussina   5/6/2001
  59       Early Wynn     5/18/1958
  54       Luis Tiant     9/11/1979
  48       Kevin Brown    7/17/1995
  38       Frank Tanana   8/24/1981
  37       Jim Kaat       9/9/1973
  23       Warren Spahn   5/20/1965
  20       Tom Glavine    5/24/2003
  18       Don Sutton     4/11/1981
Jim Kaat returns to Minnesota as a member of the White Sox, September 9, 1973
7 10 6 5 0 2, won 10-7

Kaat's opponent in this game was Bert Blyleven. They rank one-two among Twins all-time victory leaders. (Two-three behind Walter Johnson if you include the Washington years.) Brad Radke can render that statement false with eight more wins.

Steve Carlton returns to St. Louis as a member of the Phillies, August 5, 1972
9 5 0 0 1 7, won 5-0

One of Carlton's career-high eight shutouts that season. It's one thing to have a trade go instantly wrong. It's another to have the player you've traded post the second-highest VORP of the era:

Highest pitching VORP, 1961-1974:

99.5: Sandy Koufax, 1966 Dodgers
97.3: Steve Carlton, 1972 Phillies
92.8: Dean Chance, 92.8, 1964 Angels
88.9: Tom Seaver, 1971 Mets
88.8: Vida Blue, 1971 A's

Warren Spahn returns to Milwaukee as a member of the Mets, May 20, 1965
5 9 7 7 1 3, lost 7-1

Spahn's stint with the Mets produced one of my all-time favorite baseball quotes: "I'm probably the only guy who worked for Casey Stengel before and after he was a genius."

Early Wynn returns to Cleveland as a member of the White Sox, May 18, 1958
7 5 3 3 1 5, no decision; team lost 7-4

Wynn would go back to the Indians five years later sitting on 299 career victories. He had failed to get number 300 in his last three White Sox starts the previous season and was zero-for-three with Cleveland before finally getting the milestone against the A's. He started just one more game after that.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Milwaukee Brewers (21st) @ Chicago Cubs (29th)

I'm sure you saw the fellow with the big "Fire Dusty" sign behind home plate in last night's 6-0 Cubs loss to the Brewers. (How much do you want to bet that guy had to hide that one very well to get it into Wrigley Field or he made it on the fly in the men's room?) If it weren't for Ozzie Guillen blowing his Diplomacy merit badge yet again, there'd probably be a lot more heat on Dusty Baker right about now. Speaking of frustrated fans, did you see the wire photo of the four Braves rooters with paper bags on their heads the other day? I bet fans of the Cubs, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Clippers and St. Louis Blues saw that picture and said, "why those poor, poor fellows--how they must be suffering." Unless I'm missing the point and it was just a bit of ironic performance art.

By the way, who invented the bag-on-the-head gambit? Was it the Unknown Comic, fans of the New Orleans Saints, or somebody else entirely?

To my mind, though, the Brewers are a lot more disappointing than the Cubs. They were supposed to be the surprise team that wasn't going to surprise anybody this year. Instead, that role has gone to the Reds so far.

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

Looking back at the Biggest Mismatchups of the 2006 season so far, the underdog team has not fared too badly--especially when it wasn't the Kansas City Royals. Overall, the lesser team is 18-24 in these series. The Royals, a frequent visitor to this particular designation, account for 7-12 of that, meaning the other underdogs are nearly .500. This does include the opening week version of the White Sox, though, a team that was stumbling out of the gate but who swept the Tigers in their one appearance on the bottom end of the Biggest Mismatchup. This is the Pirates third incidence of Mismatchup bottomhood. They lost two to the Mets in early May in this capacity and two of three to the Cubs in mid-April, back when the Cubs were busy getting everybody's hopes up.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Philadelphia Phillies (23rd) @ Baltimore Orioles (24th)

The Orioles were beaten on a busted intentional ball last week when Miguel Cabrera slapped the errant offering for a hit. We were wondering how often this has happened. I recall Bo Jackson going after an intentional ball and getting enough on it to hit a long flyout to the warning track in right. My friend Mike Kopf says he remembers Vic Power doing it when he was with the Indians (which would put the occurrence between 1958 and 1961). Power, too, flied out. Anybody else know of any such instances?

If you younger fans are curious what baseball players used to look like--especially middle infielders of the 1960s--look no further than Brandon Fahey of the Orioles. Before there was extensive weight training, supplements and the miracle substances that make our modern ballplayers into the wide body chunks we've come to adulate, every team had more than a few guys who looked like Fahey, who is listed at 6' 2", 160 pounds. On June 16 he hit a ball into the gap at Shea Stadium and legged out a triple. As he was flying around second I began to think I was watching a 1969 World Series highlight film.

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