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September 8, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Pitcher for MVP?

by Jim Baker

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Best National League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Los Angeles Dodgers (6th) @ New York Mets (3rd)

Just what the Dodgers needed at this juncture: a collision with the most lucid team in the National League. Even in cruise mode, the Mets are pushing all comers to the side. They've won 16 of their last 20 and are getting outstanding starting pitching from nearly every manjack to whom they give the ball--and there have been a lot of them. Even when Steve Trachsel starts, they still manage to win.

The Dodgers best opportunity for a win comes Saturday when Greg Maddux meets the unpredictable Orlando Hernandez. (Although Sunday's Mark Hendrickson vs. Trachsel matchup will, no doubt, come down to a battle of the bullpens.) So far this year, El Duque has produced the following Game Score sequences:

71/19/19/55
58/24/57
74/21/63
60/-1/69

That's probably no more erratic than a lot of pitchers, but El Duque continues to surprise. In Houston last Sunday he allowed a season-low one hit and a season-high six walks.

It would seem that Ernie Banks' record is going to stand the test of time. With the doubling and then quadrupling the number of playoff teams since the tail end of Banks' career, it has become tougher and tougher to have a lengthy go in the majors without ending up in the playoffs at least once. Banks famously amassed 2,528 games played without ever appearing in the postseason. Of the 13 men who played in 2,000 games or more without tasting October sweetness, only two played their entire careers in the multi-division era: Buddy Bell (2,405 games played--if you count his unfortunate managerial turns, he blows way past Banks) and Toby Harrah (2,155). Ron Santo, Joe Torre and Don Kessinger and, to a lesser extent, Banks, had a portion of their playing time come when the number of playoff teams doubled in 1969. Most will not need to be prompted to guess what three of these players had in common.

The active leader is about to tender his resignation from this dubious distinction, far short of Banks' total. In fact, no player--active or otherwise--whose career overlapped the eight-team postseason (1981 excepted) is within 800 games of Banks. What follows is a list of the players active through 2005 who had played at least 1,000 games without having been to the postseason. They are ranked by career games played through yesterday. In the case of those no longer in the majors, they are listed with their last team.

Player                           06 Team   thru '05  '06  total
Carlos Delgado  Mets        1567    125   1692
Jeromy Burnitz  Pirates     1583    105   1688
Jason Kendall   A's         1402    122   1524
Jeff Cirillo    Brewers     1427     94   1521
Damion Easley   D'backs     1427     75   1502
Todd Helton     Rockies     1279    123   1402
Matt Lawton     Mariners    1323     11   1334
Mark Kotsay     A's         1155    114   1269
Deivi Cruz      '05 Nats     1234      0   1234
Tony Batista    Twins       1179     50   1229
Phil Nevin      Twins       1088    116   1204
Mike Sweeney    Royals      1148     47   1195
Sean Casey      Tigers      1081     91   1172
Mike Lieberthal Phillies    1107     59   1166
Delgado will climb to the low 1,700s before turning over his crown to Burnitz, a player whose career has taken on a Flying Dutchman quality. Number three man Kendall is looking pretty good to jump ship, too. His teammate Kotsay will also surrender his place on this roll, provided his back holds up. Further down the list, Nevin and Casey were delivered by providence into the thick of pennant races, greatly increasing their chances of taking a powder from this gathering. (Ironically, it was the removal of fellow listmate Tony Batista that helped elevate the Twins into contention, paving the way for Nevin's opportunity.) If Mike Lieberthal's Phillies can grab the wildcard, then he too will happily depart as well.

That's over a third of the list with an immediate opportunity at getting off the list, further illustrating how difficult it is to avoid the playoffs when over a quarter of the teams are eligible for inclusion. The one player with an outside shot at Banks is Todd Helton. He would have to remain a regular through age 40--another eight seasons--averaging 139 games per year. At that, there is no telling where he might end up. If the Rockies don't deliver him into October, one could easily picture him at 38, coming off the Red Sox or Yankees bench in the 2012 playoffs.

Best American League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Detroit Tigers (2nd) @ Minnesota Twins (5th)

Joe Sheehan did an excellent job of previewing this series on Thursday.

Last time out, we discussed the American League MVP race and the relative paucity of big seasons from which to choose a candidate. As reader Austin Davidson wrote, "Why confine the MVP race to only hitters? Johan Santana has 9.7 WARP1 right now, miles ahead of Travis Hafner, Derek Jeter, or anyone else."

Why, indeed? I've always been wary of giving the MVP to pitchers--especially when there are viable position players available. "The pitchers have their own award" is a trite excuse not to vote for a pitcher for MVP, though. With the reduced workloads of modern times, however, it is not often that a starter (or, even more so, a closer) is MVP material--that's my main gripe with the practice. As Austin points out, this is one of those years. Rejiggering the American League WARP1 leader list to include pitchers, we are faced with this:

9.7: Johan Santana, Twins
8.2: Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
7.9: Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
7.9: Travis Hafner, Indians
7.9: Derek Jeter, Yankees
7.5: Mariano Rivera, Yankees
7.4: Joe Mauer, Twins
7.3: Miguel Tejada, Orioles
7.2: Francisco Liriano, Twins
7.2: Jermaine Dye, White Sox

I have recently ranted about Santana's hosing in last year's Cy Young Award race, so I'm not convinced he will be recognized properly in any regard. With the Red Sox season in tatters and Papelbon's day-to-day status, we may have all forgotten how incredible he was before it all went wrong. Will a pitcher pull it out? While it's possible the Cy Young will go to a pitcher without 20 wins, I think it would require a 22- or 23-win season to get a starter in line for the MVP Award, a mark that neither Santana nor Halladay is going to reach this year. (As a side note, the highest-ranked National League pitcher is Bronson Arroyo of the Reds. He's currently fifth with a WARP1 of 7.9.)

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Philadelphia Phillies (16th) @ Florida Marlins (18th)

You know, if the Marlins keep this up, they're going to give other teams notions about stripped-down, rookie-laden rosters.

It's time for a little contest. The Marlins and Phillies have nine games remaining this year--a spectacular amount when you consider the season only has three weeks to run. It is upon these nine games that the fate of the wildcard may well hang. Here's what you have to predict: what will be the final won-loss record in those nine games? As a tie-breaker (since there are only nine possible outcomes), please include a guess at the run total. Your email to me should look like this:

B.P. Reader
Pastimeville, New York
PHI 5-FLA 4; PHI 51-FLA 49
The winner will receive the honor of being acknowledged in front of his or her peers.

Ryan Howard is not the youngest player to hit 50 home runs in a season. Six others got theirs in their 25th year or younger. What Howard nearly did, though, was become the player with the fewest career home runs to embark on a 50-homer season.

Career HR prior to first 50-HR year: 23: Ralph Kiner
24: Ryan Howard
31: Cecil Fielder
49: Babe Ruth
65: Willie Mays

The player with the most career homers at the commencement of his first 50-homer season was Barry Bonds with 494. Second-most was Jim Thome with 282 followed by Mark McGwire with 281. Prior to Howard, the median had been 137.

Second-Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): San Diego Padres (13th) @ San Francisco Giants (15th)

It's too bad for the Padres that Brian Giles is having the worst year of his career. Had he been playing up to last year's specs, the Pads would be about four games better. That would put them in control of the division and, if the Dodgers were to make a rush, in a much better position to hang onto the wildcard if second place were their fate in the National League West.

San Diego's most-active player (11.4% of the team's plate appearances) is riding an EqA over 35 points below his career average. Since becoming a regular with Pittsburgh in 1999 he has played at or near Hall of Fame-caliber ball just about every season. He's hit double figures in WARP3 three times (my personal definition of a Hall of Fame-caliber year) and broken 9.0 twice, including last year when he pretty much carried the Padres into the playoffs. He has arguably been one of baseball's best-kept secrets, at least to the mainstream media. Apart from 2003-04 when he didn't deserve consideration, it was only last year that his MVP vote tally reflected his actual worth:

Year: MVP   VORP
      Rank  Rank
1999: 19th   4th
2000: 19th   6th
2001: 24th   10th
2002: 13th   4th
2003: none   33rd
2004: none   22nd
2005:  9th   8th
I hate to lay blame at the feet of one of my favorite players, a talent who deserved a much better fate than having to wait until age 27 to become a regular, but that's just the way it is this year. (To be fair, though, a little production out of third base earlier in the year would also have the Padres in first place.)

The nice thing about a flatlining league like this year's Senior Circuit is that a team can reinvent itself the following year and get right into the hunt. While the Giants BP Playoff Odds for this year are a life-support-like 12.4%, the paucity of a dominant team outside of New York gives them--and everybody else all the way down to the Cubs--a chance to storm back into the thick of things with an intelligently-executed offseason.

With this in mind, how long can the Giants continue to trod veteran ground? Yes, Ray Durham has been excellent this year as has Omar Vizquel. Durham, at 34, is the youngest player in a Giants quintet which includes Barry Bonds, Steve Finley and Moises Alou along with Vizquel. They have combined to make 41.9% of the team's plate appearances and have carried the offense. If San Francisco is to take advantage of the fluxing that is sure to come in 2007, they can't continue to count on aging types to carry them indefinitely. Youth is eventually going to have to be served and no--Pedro Feliz (.241 EqA at age 31) and Randy Winn (.239 at 32) don't count.

Related Content:  The Who,  Hit List,  Wildcard,  Ernie Banks

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