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July 28, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Since the All-Star Break

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined won-loss records since All-Star break): Detroit Tigers @ Minnesota Twins

Probably one of the best series of the season right here-the Tigers, the story-of-the-year team, colliding with the hottest team in baseball. The only thing missing is a Francisco Liriano vs. Justin Verlander matchup. The two rookies have combined for a VORP of just over 95 so far, and heading into tonight's Liriano start, the pair rank 10th among rookie pitching duos since 1960 in that category. The next eight places are within easy reach, as the second-place pair totaled 103. The highest total is somewhat beyond that, but is still within the grasp for these two phenoms. Can you name the two rookie pitchers with the best combined VORP in the same season since 1960? I'll have the answer as well as the rest of the top ten list in Tuesday's column. By then, the 2006 pair will have moved up the ladder a bit.

The Twins bullpen has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any bullpen in the past five seasons. They're even better than the 2003 Dodgers, and nobody else has been close to them:

3.30: 2006 Twins
3.15: 2003 Dodgers
2.70: 2003 Mariners
2.67: 2005 Astros
2.66: 2004 Angels

Even without Eric Gagne's insane 137:20 ratio, the rest of the Dodgers relievers were one of the ten-best bullpens in this category. The worst of the last five years? If things stay the same, it will be this year's Braves at 1.29:1. That should come as no surprise. Minnesota relievers have been as stingy with walks as any bullpen of recent vintage other than the '02 Yankees and '03 Mariners.

Is it expensive to put together a bullpen like this? For the closer, yes, but not so for the rest:

Joe Nathan     $5,000,000
Juan Rincon    $  700,000
Jesse Crain    $  361,000
Matt Guerrier  $  344,000
J.D. Durbin    $  327,000
Willie Eyre    $  327,000
Dennys Reyes   $  327,000
Pat Neshek     $  327,000

Not included here is demoted starter Kyle Lohse and his arbitration-enhanced $3.95 million salary. On the other hand, also not included is Liriano's major league minimum covering his twelve-game stint in the pen, so we'll call that portion of the reliever corps a wash. It's interesting to watch teams kill themselves to add expensive relief help either by throwing money or traded players at the problem when it doesn't really have to be that way. We're bound to see more of that as the trading deadline approaches.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined won-loss record since All-Star break): Chicago White Sox @ Baltimore Orioles

The best thing about the White Sox's near-collapse last year was getting to read Ozzie Guillen's thoughts. Guillen lacks the mental mechanism that most people have that allows him to filter what needs to be articulated and what needs to be left in the brain as mere thought. This obviously makes him a very entertaining fellow, but many people who lack this mechanism don't keep their jobs long. Most of them have never won a World Championship, either. (And no, I will not succumb that line of BS that Fox was trying out at the All-Star Game when they referred to Guillen as the manager of the World Series Champion. Until another league arises that can challenge North American baseball's top level, let's leave it like it is. The winner of the WBC can be the one that gets the qualified nomenclature.)

So, while not especially rooting for the White Sox to fail, I anticipate some fun quotes if they do.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest won-loss difference since All-Star break): Washington Nationals @ Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodger Dive is befouling all those feel-good stories about all their wonderful rookies and the second chance of Grady Little and how getting rid of the evil egghead Paul DePodesta and replacing him with solid baseball guy Ned Colletti was such a great idea and the comeback of Nomar Garciaparra. And so on.

The dive has taken them to the edge of oblivion. At this point, BP's Playoff Odds report gives them about a five percent chance of making the playoffs, and that sounds about right for a team seven games out now headed into the last weekend of July with four teams ahead of it in their division. What is more, they're smacking into the hottest team in the league tonight, the blistering Nats of Capital City.

What teams trash the most baserunners? Without taking into consideration men thrown out trying to stretch or score, it's between the Nationals, Cubs, and Rockies. "Trashing" comes via double plays, sacrifice bunts, and times caught stealing. Yes, the latter two are often strategies employed to avoid the first, but we're looking for lost runners in toto here. The Rockies lead all of baseball in runners lost in these three categories with 178. The Nats are next at 168, and the Cubs are not far behind at 166. In terms of percentage of runners lost, it's too close to call between Chicago and Colorado with Washington third. (Runners counted for percentage are walks plus hits minus home runs and triples.) By spectacular coincidence, all three of these teams are either at or near the bottom of their respective divisions.

Closest Matchup (opponents with closest won-loss performance since All-Star break): San Francisco Giants @ Pittsburgh Pirates

Here's a positive note for Pirates fans: Pittsburgh leads all of baseball in games played.

Bucco hurlers have run into rough trouble on balls put in play. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings and the highest BABIPs, the Pirates are a little too well-represented:

.358: Andy Pettitte, Astros .350: Zach Duke, Pirates .349: Paul Maholm, Pirates .348: Carlos Silva, Twins .336: Ian Snell, Pirates

Any time you're on a list with Silva and hitting is involved, that's not a good thing. Those three represent their most-used pitchers this year. The Pirate with the fourth-most use is Victor Santos, and his BABIP is .346. Actually, no Pirate pitcher-regardless of use threshold-has a BABIP under .306. Unsurprisingly, the Pirates have the worst Defensive Efficiency record in the majors. More positive news for Pirates fans: given the nature of BABIP, there is no possible way that situation can get worse next year.

The Pirates have some seriously unlucky pitchers this year, probably more so than any other team among throwers with 75 innings or more. One thing they don't have, however, is a dichotomy between the luckiest pitcher on the staff and the unluckiest. I've always found this fascinating; how two pitchers in the same environment can be so divergently blessed and cursed. Using BP's LUCK rating, we can see the teammates who have found themselves with the most extremely-split wishbones (75 IP minimum):

9.68: Angels-Ervin Santana (6.73) and the departed Jeff Weaver. (-2.95)
8.92: Mariners-Joel Pineiro (2.33) and Jarrod Washburn (-6.59)
8.30: Athletics-Joe Blanton (2.31) and Dan Haren (-5.99)
7.53: Rockies-Josh Fogg (1.40) and Jason Jennings (-6.13)
7.08: Astros-Wandy Rodriguez (3.81) and Roy Oswalt (-3.27)

Quick, which Giants player ranks highest at his position in terms of offensive productivity? It's Ray Durham, currently third among all second basemen with a VORP of 26.3. Next is Barry Bonds, ninth among leftfielders and then Omar Vizquel, 10th among shortstops. That's a pretty decent showing from their aging middle infielders, especially relative to the rest of baseball. Here are the top five keystone VORP totals (both players must be in double figures to qualify):

68.5: Miguel Tejada (43.3) and Brian Roberts (25.2), Orioles
64.9: Derek Jeter (48.5) and Robinson Cano (16.4), Yankees
63.1: Chase Utley (46.1) and Jimmy Rollins (17.0), Phillies
53.6: Dan Uggla (32.9) and Hanley Ramirez (20.7), Marlins
47.4: Ray Durham (26.3) and Omar Vizquel (21.1), Giants

Unfortunately, the rest of the Giants positions are all ranked 21st or below. A team that gets a lot out of its keystone combo would seemingly have it made offensively. The Giants are, but don't. Their first base situation is infamously bad. An American League team whose first basemen have a sub-700 OPS can at least argue that they have the Designated Hitter going for them. And the Giants have a couple of the higher-ranked hitting pitchers in terms of VORP (Matt Morris, 10th at 3.1, and Jamey Wright, 12th at 3.0). But still…

The Vizquel deal has worked out much better than just about anyone outside of Brian Sabean and Vizquel himself may have thought, and even they are probably pleasantly surprised to some extent, so the Giants have managed to beat the odds that accompany signing a shortstop in his late thirties to a long-term contract. Had they managed to surround him with some quality players, they could be gunning for their second-straight division title.

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