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September 12, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

A Rare Occurrence

by Jim Baker

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Thanks to everybody who signed up for the Phillies-Marlins Nine-Game Showdown Contest. The Marlins are up two games to one with six left to play. On to the thoughts for the day…

A rare occurrence

The 2001 Mariners didn't do it. The 1998 Yankees didn't do it. The 2006 Mets, though, could. New York has a shot at doing something very rare this year, something that's only happened twice since the Expansion Era began in 1961. After last night's bomb out in Florida, they stand 33 games above .500. There are currently six other teams above .500 in the National League. All together, those six teams are 27 games on the plus side. The Mets are playing higher above break-even than all the best teams in the league combined.

There was a time when this was not a rare accomplishment. In eight-team leagues, the best club would, quite often, be much further over .500 than the rest of the positive clubs. For instance, from 1902 to 1918, it happened six times in the National League alone. Since the number of teams began increasing, however, it's become much harder to duplicate. Only one team did it during the 10-team league era of the 1960s and one during the 12-team league era. Since leagues expanded to 14 and 16 teams and--of no small importance--three divisions, no team has managed the trick.

With 19 games remaining, it is by no means a fait accomplis that it will occur. If the Mets win 100 games, the goal for the other teams will be 38 games which doesn't sound unreachable, especially if the Mets use the remaining portion of the schedule to rest their regulars. On the other hand, two of the .500 teams--Philadelphia and Florida--will wipe out six games in head-to-head competition.

These are the clubs that did it:

1968 Cardinals, 32 to 24: The defending World Champions outpaced the Giants ("The Official Second-Place Club of the 1960s") by nine games. Only the Cubs (plus-six) and Reds (plus-four) got over the hump. The Cards were up 20-10 by July 4. One team that bears mentioning because they at least came close was the 1966 Baltimore Orioles. They ended up in a 34-34 tie with their pursuers, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago.

1975 Reds, 54 to 51: The Reds won their division by 20 games. The second-place Dodgers were 14 over as the only other West Division team to win more than it lost. The Pirates won the East with 23, 6 ½ games ahead of the Phillies, who were 10 games over. The Mets and Cardinals were both two games over. On September 16, the Reds trailed the other plus-.500 clubs 55-45. By September 22, they had narrowed the game to 52-49. They then won their last five games while the other clubs went 13-14.

The Future Starts Whenever You Wish It

This has been puzzling me for a couple of weeks now. Let's see if it makes your head spin as well. You've got these three players available at one position:

Player A: .304/.341/.488
Player B: .260/.323/.349
Player C: .232/.317/.429

Looks like Player A has the upper hand, right? His VORP is 11.9. Player B's is -0.3 and C's is 0.1. Player A has less playing time than Player C (201 Plate Appearances to 178) and even less than Player B (372 PA).

Now, let's throw these considerations into the mix:

Player A: 23 years old. First-round draft pick.
Player B: 36 years old. Lifetime EqA of .247.
Player C: Also 36 years old. Lifetime EqA of .258. Last qualified for the batting title in 2001.

If these were your choices, who would you play?

For their part, Bob Melvin and the Arizona Diamondbacks are choosing "all of the above." Player A is Stephen Drew. Player B is Craig Counsell and Player C is Damion Easley. Now, ESPN.com lists Drew as "day-to-day," but he was healthy enough to steal home on Sunday, so how much time should he be giving away to these other two at this stage of their respective careers? Forgetting for a moment that Drew has played better than the other two, this is September! If not now for Drew, when?

New York over all?

What do the Yankees have to play for at this point? Aside from the academic act of clinching the division, there is the matter of beating out the Mets for the best record in baseball or--should the Twins continue to roll, the Tigers reverse course or the White Sox put on the gallop--the best record in New York. Since 1991, they have had a better record than the Mets in every year but one, 2000--the season they beat them in the World Series. This marks just the second time both of these particular New York clubs had a realistic chance at the best record baseball. In 1985, they finished with the third- and fourth-best records in baseball. Both teams were over .600 but neither won their division.

The Yankees continue to dominate the rivalry. Apart from a mini-flurry in the early '70s, in which the Mets finished ahead of the Yankees three years in a row by a combined total of 7 ½ games and the 1984-1991 run, the Yankees have had the upper hand.

Decade: Season Tally / Exceptions
1960s: Yankees 8 Mets 1 / 1969
1970s: Yankees 7 Mets 3 / 1971-73
1980s: Mets 7 Yankees 3 / 1981-83
1990s: Yankees 8 Mets 2 / 1991, 2000
2000s: Yankees 5 Mets 0 / none

Of course, none of this will factor into the Yankees planning over the next three weeks. In fact, posting the best record, at least in their own league, will win the Yankees a ticket to play the wildcard team. Finishing with a worse record than Oakland--which isn't looking like a strong possibility at this point--will land them with the American League Central winner as it also seems highly unlikely the A's will finish with a higher winning percentage than the Central's winner. The upshot is, there is no way the Yankees will draw the A's in the first round.

The Mets' first-round fate is completely in the hands of others. Well, nearly completely. Of their remaining 19 games, 14 come against non-playoff entities Pittsburgh, Washington and Atlanta. The other five are against Florida.

Related Content:  The Who,  Best Games

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