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September 22, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Five Teams for Four Spots

by Jim Baker

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Today we'll drop the usual conceit and focus on the five series that feature teams that haven't locked up their divisions according to the Postseason Odds Report yet have significantly more than a 3% chance of making it, unlike say, the Chicago White Sox or Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. There are no head-to-head encounters between teams with realistic chances this weekend.

Arizona Diamondbacks @ Los Angeles Dodgers
Dodgers' division title odds: 38.7%; Dodgers' wild-card odds: 24.5%; Dodgers total postseason chances: 63.2%

If you get any of the e-mails from MLB, you'll know they're hyping the end of the season as being just short of something for the ages. The truth is, though, that only one of the five teams that haven't nailed something down but still have a good chance will be eliminated. In other words, it's not exactly The Long Walk. If the attendance at Dodger Stadium last night is any indication (don't be fooled by that 48,567 figure), folks are not buying into the urgency of the situation. Perhaps they have internalized that a consolation prize is waiting the club that doesn't quite put it together in the coming 10 days. This is but one of the many sacrifices made on the altar of the wild card.

In man's continued desperation to assign order to a chaotic world, there is the inevitable talk of a Dodger letdown after their spectacular comeback win over San Diego on Monday night. That the Dodgers lost their next two games to Pittsburgh might seem like a sign that coming back as they did was simply too draining. Had they won the next two games, of course, those bent on ordering the universe would have attributed that to the emotional boost they got from blasting their way back from four runs down in the ninth. On the other side of the coin, the Padres happened to win their next game against Arizona--clearly a sign that blowing a big lead late was a wakeup call to the team to buckle down and get things done. Had they lost their next two to Arizona--instead of going W-L-W--we would have heard that they were completely demoralized.

Instead, what we have are two relatively similar teams in terms of quality playing teams of similar quality. One went 2-1 and the other went 1-2. That's nothing like significant.

Minnesota Twins @ Baltimore Orioles
Twins' division title odds: 42%; Twins' wild-card odds: 57.3%; Twins' total postseason chances: 99.3%

It will be interesting to see what gets prioritized by the Twins and Tigers in the final week of the season: winning the division or getting their houses in order for the playoffs.

Again, we are presented with a situation that is far less exhilarating than it would appear. It's come down to this in the American League Central race: who gets to play the Yankees or A's and what they get to write on the oversized novelty pennant they paint on their stadium next year. Oh, the A.L. Central winner could also end up with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, too, so there's always that. I don't know how much drama that actually adds to a series, though.

Speaking of championship pennants, is there anything sadder than one that reads "wild card?" There should be a rule that you don't get to place a flag for anything less than a divisional title. If a wild-card team doesn't go on to win the league title or the World Championship, they don't get to acknowledge that season within the confines of the stadium playing area. Wild-card teams that lose the LDS or LCS should not be allowed to place a marker in their ring of champions or whatever they call the place where they acknowledge their seasons of postseason glory. Come on--there has to be some penalty for being the runner-up other than a loss of home-field advantage.

It's great to see Justin Morneau getting his career back on the proper arc. After posting a .282 EqA in 2004, predicting a .307 mark in 2006 probably seemed like a natural progression. That there was a .258 mark in between was unexpected and he's recovered marvelously from it. He has been one of the main reasons the Twins are where they are. He is not, however, the American League Most Valuable Player, as some have suggested. All other candidates aside, he is not even the MVP of his own team. That person, barring a great upheaval between the two players, is Joe Mauer. In an offensive vacuum, Mauer's VORP is about five points higher than Morneau's. Taking the vacuum away and placing them in their defensive realities, it really becomes no contest.

By now, one would assume that the differences between the defensive contributions of a catcher and first baseman would be well understood. Such does not appear to be the case. Looking at WARP1--which includes defense, for the uninitiated--Mauer is at 8.1 while Morneau is at 7.1. What percentage of real voters will consider such matters? Probably less than five, I would imagine.

Mauer's real handicaps are two of the three points on the Triple Crown. While he may yet win the batting championship, he has just 11 home runs and 79 RBI. That's not going to set well with the voters when compared to Morneau's 33/125/.325.

It's just an award, though. The real winners are the Twins and their fans. Anytime you can have an argument about the MVP credentials of two players from the same team you've entered golden territory. When those players are just 23 and 25 respectively, you've really got it made.

Florida Marlins @ Philadelphia Phillies
Phillies' wild-card chances: 53.6%

With their own postseason hopes all but dashed, the Marlins can concentrate on taking the only course of action left to them: undoing the hopes of the Phillies.

There's something curious about committing to a youth movement and having it succeed beyond your wildest expectations, yet having in your starting rotation an aging veteran who is, by far, your worst starting pitcher. That's just what the Marlins have done and are doing with Brian Moehler. Three-fifths of their rotation is comprised of pure rookies: Scott Olsen, Anibal Sanchez and Josh Johnson (Ricky Nolasco has also seen lots of work there). Dontrelle Willis has pitched well and, as a four-year veteran, he probably seems grizzled next to the rest of them, although he's only 24. Willis has been undone by a .316 BABIP as well as the worst run support among the Florida starters if not among most starters in general:

6.15: Nolasco 5.85: Johnson 5.23: Moehler 5.13: Olsen 4.69: Sanchez 4.11: Willis

So Moehler, who pitches tomorrow against Jon Lieber, has had decent support and has mostly failed to deliver. While we all predicted grave things for the Marlins and their $15 million payroll, it's interesting that their one nod to a veteran presence in the starting rotation (he makes about 10% of the team's combined salary) has been the least productive.

Pittsburgh Pirates @ San Diego Padres
Padres' division title odds: 59.8%; Padres' wild-card odds: 17.5%; Padres' total postseason chances: 77.3%

The Pirates continue to cut a wide swath across the land. Milwaukee, New York, Los Angeles--all have felt the cool steel of the Buccaneer cutlass emptying their entrails onto the blood-slickedů Sorry, just a bit of hyperbole left over from Talk Like a Pirate Day. (Something that occurred to me a long time ago when I found myself in Disney World on the decidedly joyful Pirates of the Caribbean ride: will the passage of time allow our distant descendants to make equal innocent fun of the evil doers of the 20th Century? Will 24th Century theme parks have rides that feature SS death squads cavorting about? Will September 19, 2306 be designated "Talk Like a Terrorist Day"?) In any event, after taking two of three from the Dodgers, we'll find out this weekend if the Pirates are equal opportunity heartbreakers.

One player you won't see mentioned on any Rookie of the Year ballots but whose debut season should not pass without notice is the Pirates Matt Capps. He's got an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio of 54/12 and is among the top 10 in relief innings pitched in the majors. He and teammate Salomon Torres have been the busiest bullpen tandem in the National League this year. Here are the leading pairs:

176.1: Scott Proctor (98) and Ron Villone (78.1), Yankees 167.1: Torres (89.2) and Capps (77.2), Pirates 160.0: Scot Shields (83) and Hector Carrasco (77), Angels 159.1: Aaron Heilman (83) and Darren Oliver (76.1), Mets 151.1: Ruddy Lugo (79.1) and Shawn Camp (71.2), Devil Rays

Detroit Tigers @ Kansas City Royals
Tigers' division title odds: 58%; Tigers' wildcard odds: 41.9%; Tigers' total postseason chances: 99.9%

One thing the Royals accomplished this year was this: no team has ever lost 100 games three years in a row and gotten worse each year. Had Kansas City lost 107 games in 2006, they would have been the first. That is absolutely out of the question now. Still, though, they have to play .500 ball in their remaining 10 games to avoid losing 100 games again. Given that all their remaining games are against the two playoff-bound teams from their division, is this as tall an order as it seems?

The gambling line on this series has the Tigers as decided favorites. At this point, Detroit and Kansas City are meeting as relative equals, though. Since August 9, the Tigers are 15-26 and the Royals are 18-21. Since the White Sox have excused themselves from pennant race duty, though, there is really no spoiler role at play here. In its own way, this series is only slightly more significant than a Royals-Tigers series of 2004-2005 vintage.

Related Content:  The Who,  Rookies Of The Year

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