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August 15, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The Loneliness Factor

by Jim Baker

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Kansas City Royals (30th) @ Chicago White Sox (4th)

Can I get an amen on something here? Are you as sick to death as I am of hearing the following bulls**t "statistic" trotted out on all occasions, whether about baseball or as baseball-themed homily applied to some other line of endeavor?

"You know, in baseball, even if you fail seven out of 10 times you're still considered a success."

If you had a dollar for every time you've heard that nonsensical canard you could afford to buy Baseball Prospectus subscriptions for all the poor unfortunates at the local orphanage. I heard this just the other day on a national telecast. Do you have any idea how much guys get paid to do national telecasts? I don't, actually--but I would imagine it is, on a per-game basis, about as much or more than a lot of us make in a month. That's for an afternoon's work--an afternoon filled with empty phrases like that one.

The seven-out-of-10 thing comes from the archaic belief that a .300 batting average was the threshold of greatness. It totally discounts getting on base by other means. Guys who fail to reach base seven out of 10 times are not much good to their teams unless they have a prodigious amount of extra base hits. Not so surprisingly, most of the guys whose failure rate is over 70 percent don't have a lot of those either.

Here are the players with the lowest OBPs (minimum 300 plate appearances). The two lowest figures are representatives of tonight's opponents:

Player            Team  OBP
---------------------------
Angel Berroa      KCA  .262
Juan Uribe        CHA  .271
Clint Barmes      COL  .273
Yadier Molina     SLN  .277
Ronny Cedeno      CHN  .279
Jeffrey Francoeur ATL  .283
Jeromy Burnitz    PIT  .293
Adam Everett      HOU  .293
Brad Ausmus       HOU  .296
Reggie Sanders    KCA  .296
Pedro Feliz       SFN  .296
Bobby Crosby      OAK  .297
Carl Everett      SEA  .297
Rod Barajas       TEX  .297
Ken Griffey Jr.   CIN  .298
Of these 15 men, only four have positive VORPs: Griffey, 8.8; Uribe, 3; Feliz, 1.4 and Barajas, 0.6. The next dozen, which includes everybody up to .309, add four more positives, the highest of which is Miguel Olivo of the Marlins at 12.3. In other words, if you're adhering to the cliché and failing seven out of 10 times, you are pretty much failing.

One could safely say, without fear of triggering a pedantic rant such as mine that, "In baseball, you fail six out of 10 times and are still considered a success." I'd rather you didn't, though. Just let it die.

Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Detroit Tigers (1st) @ Boston Red Sox (5th)

Curt Schilling meets Jeremy Bonderman tonight as approximate equals. Their DERAs are about the same as are their Stuff numbers. They're striking out about the same number of batters per nine innings and surrendering about the same number of hits. Schilling, as his is wont, has walked quite a few less. It's taken Bonderman three years to get to this point, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. His was a trial by lava and he's done well with his on-the-job training program.

So, similarities aside, they are 16 years apart in age at very different stages of their careers. Still, though, are we seeing a meeting of future Hall of Famers? Schilling's case is decent but not guaranteed. If he follows the path of other superstar pitchers of recent vintage and throws effectively to age 42 or 43, he should amass some more counting stats to impress the judges down the road. Another 20-win season--a possibility this year--is the kind of thing they like, too. Who knows--he might have already clinched the deal with the Night of the Bloody Sock in 2004.

At Bonderman's age, Schilling had five big league starts and was working full time as a reliever. For his part, Bonderman has vaguely approximated the career start of Greg Maddux only with a lot fewer innings pitched--which is a good thing for long-term survivability.

Closest National League Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Cincinnati Reds (16th) @ St. Louis Cardinals (15th)

It's time, once again, to trot out the Loneliness Factor. Loyal readers will recall that this is a thing I came up with a couple years ago that demonstrates…well, what it actually demonstrates is open to conjecture. Some might say it shows how unbalanced a team's attack is. Others might say it's a demonstration of how much more productive a team's best player is as opposed to his teammates. Good and bad teams can end up on both ends of the spectrum, so it's not necessarily an indication of team quality. I would suggest that it could help sway a Most Valuable Player argument, provided the player in question has the proper credentials above and beyond a high LF. It is derived by subtracting the team's second-highest VORP from the highest and dividing the remainder by the third-highest. In cases where the second- and third-highest do not equal the highest, you go to the fourth-highest or, heaven forbid if it's your favorite team, the fifth-highest.

Here are the five highest offensive Loneliness Factors through Sunday's games.

Player, Team: Loneliness Factor
Lance Berkman, Astros: 3.26
Albert Pujols,  Cardinals: 2.69
Frank Thomas, Athletics: 2.25
Carlos Guillen,  Tigers: 2.19
Miguel Tejada, Orioles: 2.11
One of the inherent flaws in this method of accounting--and probably the main reason it has not gotten me the fellowship at the Sorbonne that I would otherwise so richly deserve--is that it can juxtapose players in dramatically different situations. On the list above, Pujols is followed immediately by the Big Hurt when their circumstances are quite different. Pujols has a VORP that is about triple that of Thomas, but Thomas is nearly as lonely, given the sad state of the A's offense.

Pujols' LF was over 2.00 last year as well, as his 2005 VORP of 88 was double that of the team runner-up, Jim Edmonds. Conversely, their opponents tonight, Cincinnati, currently have the team leader with the lowest Loneliness Factor--just barely over 1.00. (The league average is about 1.50.) Here are the lowest Loneliness Factors:

Player, Team: Loneliness Factor
Scott Hatteberg, Reds:  1.00
Omar Vizquel, Giants: 1.05
Jim Thome, White Sox: 1.06
Brian McCann, Braves: 1.09
Manny Ramirez, Red Sox: 1.11
A low LF number is great when the player keeping it low is second on the team with a VORP over 50, like David Ortiz of the Red Sox or Jermaine Dye of the White Sox. The Reds' situation is less advantageous--above and beyond the inherent problem of having Scott Hatteberg as their leader.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Milwaukee Brewers (24th) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (28th)

While we're on the subject, let's look at the Loneliness Factors for pitchers. It so happens that one of our Worst Matchup clubs has the lowest LF in this regard:

Player, Team: Loneliness Factor
Mike Gonzalez, Pirates: 1.01
Rafael Soriano, Mariners 1.03
Mike Mussina, Yankees: 1.05
Joel Peralta, Royals: 1.05
Johan Santana, Twins: 1.06
Pedro Martinez, Mets: 1.06
Again, there is a world of difference between the Pirates presence on this list and the Twins. Pittsburgh is in that unenviable minority of teams whose pitching VORP leader is a reliever. In addition to the Mariners and Royals, who also made this list, the Nationals, with Jon Rauch leading the way, are the four clubs who qualify for this dubious distinction. These, then, are the clubs with the lowest VORPs by their leading starters:
VORP: Player, Team
 6.8: Mark Redman, Royals
14.4: Ramon Ortiz, Nationals
19.4: Paul Maholm, Pirates
23.4: Jarrod Washburn, Mariners
25.2: Brett Myers, Phillies
Maholm won't go in this series, but he and Gonzalez are very close, so it's likely the Pirates will eventually fall off the short list. The Royals, Nats, Bucs and Mariners are all out of contention which brings up the question, is it possible for a team to be competitive when its leading pitcher is a reliever? It has happened in recent memory, but it's not a highly-recommended course of action. The 2004 Yankees won their division with just such an arrangement, although they had two relievers--Tom Gordon (38.9) and Mariano Rivera (37.9)--leading the team while their starting staff, save for the misfortunes of Jose Contreras, were all in the 20s.

The highest Loneliness Factors for pitchers:

Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks: 4.15
John Smoltz, Braves: 3.84
Erik Bedard, Orioles: 3.03
Chris Capuano, Brewers: 2.63
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals: 2.63
This should be a familiar situation for Diamondbacks fans. In 2004, the team's leading pitcher--Randy Johnson--had a LF of infinity. The total of all the other Snakes pitchers combined (without even accounting for the 13 guys who were below replacement value) was lower than his VORP. 71.1 to 69.1. Webb, this year's leader, accounted for over a third of that 69.1. The Giants and White Sox are also near the top so far this year. Jason Schmidt is keeping the team close while Jose Contreras--the albatross of the '04 Yankees staff mentioned previously--is the leader for Chicago.
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