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July 7, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Vengeance

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings) : Boston Red Sox (3rd) @ Chicago White Sox (4th)

"La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid." (Revenge is a dish best served cold.)--Pierre Choderlos de LaClos

Or as cold as it can get before the schedulemaker says you get a shot at it, anyway. This is the 35th time that a team that was swept in the previous year's playoffs is meeting the team that swept them the following season, all--obviously--since the advent of playoff baseball in 1969. I believe these follow-up series need a name of their own. If the Germans played baseball, they would call them die Racheaktespiele, which works for me as long as I don't have to say it out loud. Die Racheaktespiele affords the sweepee their first opportunity to exact revenge on the sweeper.

The Astros, also swept by the White Sox last year, had die Racheaktespiele earlier this year, but came up short, losing 7-4 and 6-5 before winning the final game of the series, 10-9. The best vengeance came on these three occasions:

1998 Giants: San Francisco took advantage of the dissolution of the World Champion Marlins--who had taken them out in the NLDS in three games--to score convincing 8-0 and 8-2 victories, followed by a closer 10-9 contest.

1983 Braves: Victims of the Cardinals in the previous year's NLCS, the Braves evened things up with a three-game sweep--provided you believe that three regular season wins compensate for three postseason losses.

1981 Yankees: The Royals finally got some vengeance of their own in 1980 after tumbling to New York in the ALCS's of 1976, 1977 and 1978 by sweeping the Yankees in the playoffs. New York came back with three one-run wins the next year.

That's the sort of vengeance we've come to expect from countless action movies in which evil doers get their situations rearranged by good guys in a timely fashion. The reality of most vengeance seeking is something far more mundane, however. Vengeance-seekers have gone exactly 48-48 in these series with only those three getting the full measure of their licks in and two other teams--the '72 A's versus Baltimore and the '05 Padres versus St. Louis--taking three games out of four. The 1970 Braves won both games of their return engagement with the Mets and the '82 A's did same against the Yankees.

The '77 Phillies (Cincinnati) and '96 Reds (Atlanta) were swept in three-game series in their quest for revenge. The Texas rangers were swept in two-game series by the Yankees in both 1999 and 2000. The '96 Dodgers and '85 Royals lost two-game series to the Reds and Tigers respectively. All other die Racheaktespiele ended at 2-1, 1-2 or 1-1 save for one. The worst showing ever in die Racheaktespiele was by these very same Red Sox in 1996 when they met the Indians and lost all four games, getting outscored 32-9 in the process.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half) : Pittsburgh Pirates (28th) @ Philadelphia Phillies (25th)

The Phillies trail the Mets by enough that it will land the latter on the following list of largest All-Star break leads since the advent of three-division play:

Lead  Year Team         Won by
------------------------------
19:   2001 Mariners      14 games
13:   1999 Indians       21.5
12.5: 1998 Braves        18
12:   1995 Indians       30
11.5: 2005 Cardinals     11
11:   1998 Yankees       22
10.5: 2000 White Sox      5
10.5: 1998 Indians        9
 9.5: 2002 Braves        19
 9:   2005 White Sox      6
 8.5: 2003 Braves        10
 8:   2000 Cardinals     10
As you can see, the cushion was enough for all of these teams to prevail at the end of the day. Yes, a few had some slippage, but it was not enough to undo them--although last year's White Sox had a few moments where it seemed like their clubhouse was on fire. So, where to turn for B.C. Philadelphia? To the Wildcard, of course. (I capitalize to help illustrate its magnificence.) There are seven teams ahead of the Phillies on the wildcard food chain. While the 5.5 games between them and the top of eating order might not seem insurmountable, the sheer number of competitors almost certainly is. The more teams involved, the more likely one or two of them will put the spurs to it in the second half. The Phillies need to play about as well as the White Sox or Tigers have in the first half to grab the 'card, since it's going to take around 90 wins. That seems like a tall order for this team but with the way to the division title blocked by precedent, that's what they have to hope for.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings) : Toronto Blue Jays (5th) @ Kansas City Royals (30th)

It's about a toss-up between Toronto and Cleveland as to which team has had the best production out of the leadoff spot this year; Cleveland makes up for lost OBP ground with leadoff power that's usually associated with spots lower in the order. The Jays' top spot OBP is the best in baseball thanks in large part to the efforts of Reed Johnson. He's been the leadoff guy about half the time and has posted a line of .390/.467/.523 in that capacity. Alexis Rios has held his own in the one-hole as well, as has Frank Catalanotto in a handful of games. The only Jay who has not represented while leading off has been Russ Adams, getting on base just 20 times in 14 games.

On the other hand, the Blue Jays have the worst nine-hole hitters in the American League. Looking at their nine line, you would swear you were looking at the stats of a National League team. Jays ninth-placers are a combined .188/.240/.242. Only five teams are worse and all of them are in the other league, unsurprisingly. Among the four Jays with the most appearances in that spot, John McDonald has been the best at .250/.292/.267. For Aaron Hill, Adams and Edgardo Alfonzo, it gets worse from there. Adams has been especially pitcher-like in that spot, lining up at .123/.171/.169. Among players with at least 25 plate appearances out of the nine-hole, there are 23 pitchers with better lines than that.

If you've been following Nate Silver's pieces on ELO ("I love their "Mr. Blue Sky" Almost my favorite is "Turn to Stone" And how 'bout "Telephone Line"? I love that E.L.O." --Randy Newman), you'll know that it relies more heavily on a team's most recent persona than does our BP Hit List rankings. If we were more reliant on recent performance to determine the Matchups, the Royals would not find themselves on the gooey end of the Q-tip in this week's Mismatchup pairing. Since the Ides of June (not including last night's victory), they've gone 12-6, taking five of their last six series. Over the same period, the Jays are 10-8, so this is not going to be any bloodbath.

Best National League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings) : San Francisco Giants (16th) @ Los Angeles Dodgers (8th)

In the wake of the interleague unpleasantness, this is the only matchup in the National League this weekend that features both teams with .500 records. While contemplating that, consider what must go through the mind of a Giants fan whenever Francisco Liriano starts a game or Joe Nathan comes into relieve. Just on strikeout to walk ratio alone (including Boof Bonser's 27:12 showing so far), the A.J. Pierzynski deal must rankle like little else. The three would-be Giants are a combined 487:89 since going to Minnesota.

It has been a long time since the Dodgers led the league in scoring. Heck, it's been a long time since the Dodgers were anywhere near the top of the league in scoring. 1978 was the last time they had the most runs in the National League. They finished in the money in 1977 (third), 1978 (first) and 1979 (second). They had a third-place finish in 1990 and a fifth-place showing the following year. That's when things really began to get bad. The truth since then:

1992: 12th out of 12 teams
1993: 12th/14
1994: 6th/14
1995: 10th/14
1996: 12th/14
1997: 7th/14
1998: 12th/16
1999: 11th/16
2000: 8th/16
2001: 8th/16
2002: 9th/16
2003: 16/16
2004: 9th/16
2005: 12th/16

It's no secret that a team playing in Dodger Stadium was always at a disadvantage if its goal was to score the most runs. The Dodgers have never needed to lead the league in scoring in order to be good, however, provided they had the right pitching staff, which they sometimes have.

Yet here we are approaching the All-Star break and the Dodgers are leading the league in runs scored. What is more, they are leading the league in runs scored at home. True to form, they have allowed the fewest runs at home of any team in the league. On the road, they're a middle-of-the-pack team on both sides of the ball. One would think this would be enough to give them the division on a platter. Instead, they are struggling for supremacy with three other teams. They do have the best projected record in the division, though, so that 8-11 won-loss bit in one-run games is definitely holding them back.

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