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July 25, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Time Travel, BP Style

by Jim Baker

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Best National League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): San Diego Padres (14th) @ Los Angeles Dodgers (16th)

So it's come to this: the Best National League Matchup features a team that isn't over .500. In fact, they were in last place at the beginning of the series. The Dodgers bullied their way into Best Matchup honor by virtue of their run differential and Hit List ranking. Among teams within six games of the Wild Card (I capitalize it as I would my own name), they've actually got one of the better run differentials:

+28: Atlanta
+15: Colorado
+14: Los Angeles
-2: Arizona
-7: San Francisco
-10: Florida
-13: Cincinnati
-26: Houston
-65: Milwaukee

Not that the division leaders are putting them to shame, either. St. Louis is at +19, and San Diego at +2. The Braves, a team we've all kind of thrown on the scrap heap in the backs of our minds because they haven't looked quite like the Braves of the recent past, actually have the second-best shot at the Wild Card--according to BP's Postseason Odds Report--among teams not currently in first place. The Reds have a 27.5% chance of nailing down the Card, while the Braves are at 12.6%. The next-best chances all come out of the West, although the Dodgers aren't looking so good these days (4.2%). The Odds Report likes them a lot better as a division champion but only relative to their chances as a Wild Card team.

The Braves owe some of their predicament to a very naughty bullpen. It certainly hasn't helped their record in one-run games (an inappropriate 12-22). On the other hand, one could argue that the Reds bullpen is just as bad, yet their record in one-run games is 19-11. Winning the close ones is what has the Reds outperforming their run differential. Looking at the "close and late" breakdown on ESPN.com, we find the Reds have the third-best team OPS (unadjusted) in the league in those situations. The Braves are second-best but lead the majors with 27 home runs when it's late and close. Conversely, the Braves have the worst team ERA in the league in those situations. Again, the Reds aren't much better. One thing of note is that Bobby Cox has ordered more intentional walks in those situations than any other manager by far. The Braves have given 22 free passes close and late while the next-highest is just 15 (Dodgers and Astros). Of course, Cox has ordered the second-most overall, 46, behind the 55 called for by Washington's Frank Robinson. Almost half of his have come in high-leverage situations and, given the Braves record in the close ones, it's probably time for him to reassess that bit of strategery.

Much ado was made this past weekend about the Cardinals sweeping the season series from the Dodgers. "First time in 115 years!" shouted one headline. Anything that only happens once in 11 decades might be cause for taking note, but is it really that big of a deal? Had the Cardinals done this in 1949 when the teams met 22 times, or in 1968 when they met 18 times, or even in 1974 when they met 12 times--those would have been fairly notable accomplishments. This year, though, they met just seven times.

How easy is it to sweep a team in a seven-game series? If both teams are about equal--and the Cards and Dodgers are not remarkably different--the chances are about 1-in-128 according to calculations made by Clay Davenport. If the Cardinals enjoy a 60/40 edge, a claim that would be hard to prove given the similarity in their run differential, the chances drop to 1-in-35.7. A team enjoying a much greater quality advantage stands about a 1-in-12 chance, and that was not the case in this series.

This chart shows the chances of sweeping season series of various lengths. The first column shows teams of equal quality, the middle column gives the odds for the team with the 60/40 advantage, and the third column shows the odds for the team with a decided edge.

# Games    50/50       60/40       70/30
3             8         4.6         2.9
4            16         7.7         4.2
5            32        12.9         5.9
6            64        21.4         8.5
7           128        35.7        12.1
8           256        59.5        17.3
10        1,024       165.4        35.4
12        4,096       459.4        72.2
13        8,192       765.7       103.2
14       16,384     1,276.1       147.4
16       65,536     3,544.7       300.9
18      262,144     9,846.4       614.1
19      524,288    16,410.7       877.3
22    4,194,304    75,975.3     2,557.7

You can see how unlikely it was for a team to sweep an opponent in the 22-game set-up that was used from 1904 to 1961, even for clubs of diverse abilities. No team ever swept a 22-game series, although a couple came close. Competitive balance being what it was for a good deal of the period, there were some decidedly uneven matchups, but not even they could overcome the 1-in-2,557 chance of producing a sweep. The list that follows are the largest margins between first- and last-place teams from that period. The first column is the number of games that separated them in the final standings. The last count is the won-loss record between them:

67: 1906 Chicago (N) over Boston (N), 17-5
65: 1909 Pittsburgh over Boston (N), 20-1
64: 1942 St. Louis (N) over Philadelphia (N), 17-5
64: 1932 New York (A) over Boston (A), 17-5
63: 1939 New York (A) over St. Louis (A), 19-3
62: 1935 Chicago (N) over Boston (N) 19-3
60: 1954 Cleveland over Philadelphia (A) 18-4
59: 1927 New York (A) over Boston (A), 18-4

The '27 Yankees weren't as hard on the last-place Red Sox as they were on the seventh-place Browns, a team they took down 21 times in 22 tries. The 1909 Cubs--who finished in second place--mashed Boston 21 times as well. That means Boston's combined record against Pittsburgh and Chicago that year was 2-41.

The greatest disparity of the 162-game era came in 1962, when the Giants finished 60 1/2 games ahead of the Mets. They lost to them four times, however, while the Dodgers--the team they needed a playoff to beat--lost to them only twice. That same year, the Phillies beat the Colt .45s 17 times, the best record of the 18-game matchup era.

Who among us hasn't, at one time or another, wished we could go back in time to watch baseball of an era gone by? As it turns out, if you can find the shop where this Macedonian archeologist bought his watches, you too could be sitting in the grandstand for Babe Ruth's called shot. One thing that I'm wondering: if he can travel back in time as he claims in the story, why has he not been able to find the tomb of Alexander the Great? It seems to me that going back to the time Alexander died and then attending his funeral shouldn't be too difficult. The story's writer doesn't press him too hard, though. Personally, I'd demand to know where he got his magic time-bending watches so I could go back to September 2, 1909 and see the game that kept the Boston Doves from losing all 22 meetings with the Pirates.

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