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August 30, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The Year of Magical Rookie Pitching

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Detroit Tigers (1st) @ New York Yankees (2nd)

Didn't we see this last year with Chicago and Cleveland? Didn't Chicago wake up in time to hold off the Indians? BP's Postseason Odds report still has the Tigers installed as an 85% chance to win the division, so it's a good bet they'll hold off the Twins. Minnesota has done a remarkable job to get this far--especially considering they grabbed the starter's pistol at the beginning of the race and shot themselves in both feet with it. So, what that means is that this will not be a preview of the first round unless the Athletics can slip by the Yankees in the overall standings in the next month. It could be a preview of the American League Championship Series, though.

With Francisco Liriano's immediate future up in the air, Justin Verlander is in a position to amass the highest VORP of any rookie pitcher. He's not going for the bait, though. I can't remember which telecast I was watching last night (there were nine games on simultaneously), but someone asked their broadcast partner just how sorry he thought the state of pitching was in the majors. To my surprise, the partner said he thought it was looking very hopeful what with the wonderful crop of rookie pitchers that had arrived this year. This was no idle chit-chat. The 2006 rookie pitchers stack up very well to their predecessors of the previous decade. Looking at the cumulative VORP of the 30 top-ranked rookie moundsmen, this is what we get:

2006: 611.6 (through August 28)
2005: 555.2
2004: 500.9
2003: 602.9
2002: 560.0
2001: 531.9
2000: 595.4
1999: 688.5
1998: 526.7
1997: 565.3

Our current crop of lads has a decent shot to overtake the upstarts of '99, a group that included leaders Freddy Garcia, John Halama and Tim Hudson along with the Rangers' dynamic bullpen duo of Jeff Zimmerman and Mike Venafro. Roy Halladay was in his first year in Toronto and a young John Rocker was just getting started in Atlanta. All right, so they all didn't pan out, but they wouldn't be pitchers if they did.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Chicago Cubs (27th) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (28th)

Think the Cubs have used a lot of rookie starting pitchers this year? On Sunday night I was watching Les Walrond, the eighth rookie to whom they have given a start in 2006, and wondering if they were on to something. Then I remembered that roster excesses--especially ones that can save a team money--are usually Connie Mack's bailiwick.

In 1915, the Philadelphia A's used 18 different rookie starting pitchers. Dusty Baker would pretty much have to double the size of his pitching staff using entirely rookies and throw one of them out there every third day to come close to that record. Mack essentially used the '15 regular season as an open tryout camp. Of the 18, only half ever pitched in the majors again and most of those for not very long. These were the most active post-'15:

  • Earl Myers made his big league debut in the second game of a doubleheader on the last day of the season and threw a two-hit shutout, striking out 12 Senators. He went on to throw another 1,093 innings with a career record of 55-72.
  • Dana Fillingim reemerged with the Braves three years later and went on to amass a 47-73 record in his 1,039 remaining innings.
  • Tom Sheehan had the misfortune to be around for lots of punishment the next year when he went 1-16. He threw 505 more innings after '15, mostly with the '16 A's.
  • Jack Nabors is infamous for having the worst single-season and career won-loss records for any pitcher that managed to win at least one game. He was 1-20 in 1916 when he threw the majority of his remaining 215.2 innings. He finished 1-25 for his career.

The rest combined for 144.1 innings. Let's recount Mr. Mack's record with the Class of 1915--or the "Class the Roof Fell On" as they should be known:

No stars.
Two journeymen.
Two historic losers.
Three men who threw under 100 more big league innings.
One with 2/3 of an inning more.
Nine who never breathed big league air again.

So, here's the proposition: will the rookie starters the Cubs have used this year pitch more innings after 2006 than the A's rookie starters of 1915? The target is 3,006.1 innings. Place your bets.

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

There isn't a lot separating Johan Santana and Roy Halladay right now in what is shaping up to be a two-man race for the American League Cy Young Award. Halladay's main advantage is that he is one game closer to the 20-win plateau, a milestone that could sway voters looking for something, however meaningless in the real world, to separate the two. Santana's advantages are a much more accomplished strikeout rate and the fact that he's in the thick of a playoff chase. While voters seem to take being in contention much more seriously when it comes to the Most Valuable Player Award, it certainly wouldn't hurt Santana's chances if he went 4-1 or 5-0 the rest of the way while Minnesota was battling with Chicago for the wildcard spot or, in the unlikely event of a complete Tigers collapse, grabbing the division. A big win in the season's final series against the White Sox would also do wonders for his candidacy.

Of course, I'm talking like somebody who assumes the voters also look at VORP, a category in which Halladay and Santana have no peer in the American League. That is well beyond naïve of me because Santana had no peer last year and he got all of three first-place votes. He should be gunning for his third consecutive Cy right now, but the voters saw fit to reward Bartolo Colon's 21 wins and…well I'm still not sure what else except that Colon pitched for a division winner and the Twins were well out of it last year. No such excuses this time around: they're in it aorta-deep and Santana is bound to eclipse the 16 wins he got in 2005, a number well down the list of important qualitative measures everywhere but in the hearts of the 17 Cy Young voters who deferred to Colon.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings) : San Francisco Giants (15th) @ Atlanta Braves (17th)

Prior to last night's games, these were the chances of the wildcard pursuers according to the BP Postseason Odds Report:

18.0% Phillies
17.7% Reds
15.8% Padres
9.3% Giants
8.7% Marlins
4.4% Diamondbacks
2.9% Braves
2.8% Astros

So much for hyping this matchup.

What is this strange urge to hype the wildcard I'm having? I, who have railed against it since well before it became reality. I've said this before but one of the many problems with the wildcard system is the inability of the schedule maker to attempt to manufacture any drama because there is no way of telling which teams will be in it. Looking at the list above, these are the remaining series between the five teams with the best postseason odds. All dates are in September unless otherwise noted:

Reds at Padres: 1-3
Phillies at Marlins: 7-10
Giants at Padres: 8-10
Padres at Reds: 12-14
Marlins at Phillies: 22-24
Reds at Marlins: 26-28
Phillies at Marlins: 29-October 1

Of course, this hype would be a lot more effective if their cumulative record wasn't just one game over .500.

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