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September 29, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The Weekend of Death!

by Jim Baker

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Houston Astros @ Atlanta Braves

One of the problems with our sports culture is that its language does not contain enough hyperbole. For instance, the next three days should be widely billed as "The Weekend of Death." Instead, it doesn't have a name at all. The World Cup always has a "Group of Death." I understand that baseball and death are usually not found in the same thought process, but still: don't wipe the hype, people.

Whether it's a Weekend of Death or merely a Weekend of Mild Coronary Thrombosis, you hate having to face it with Matt Albers as one of your pitchers, as the Astros are doing. Of course, nobody has stepped into the four-five breach in the "Oswalt/Clemens/Pettitte/the rest don't get it" rotation, so what is to be done? Wandy Rodriguez? Albers had an impressive 2.17 ERA at Double-A Corpus Christi this year, but it is a bit illusory--his RA was about a run higher. He strikes some people out, though, and hasn't given up many homers as a pro. Conveniently, the Braves are countering with Lance Cormier in the second game.

It's a miracle of circumstance that the Astros are still in it at the end of a season in which they've had to expend 52 starts on Rodriguez, Taylor Buchholz and the mostly ineffective (so far) Jason Hirsh.

Philadelphia Phillies @ Florida Marlins

Here's a question: was last night's Phillies-Nats rain-delayed contest the latest start ever for a single game? There have been second games of doubleheaders that started later, but an evening of baseball getting underway just before midnight?

The Marlins chuck the Phils a bone tonight in the person of Scuffy Moehler. He's made just four starts in September, and none of them can be defined as quality in the traditional sense. This is Philadelphia's chance to get the weekend off to a flying start. His opponent, Jamie Moyer, has been running hot and cold since moving to the Phils, almost alternating between quality and non-quality starts. The good news is that if he keeps to that schedule, this one is supposed to be of the quality variety.

Milwaukee Brewers @ St. Louis Cardinals

Don't think of what has happened to the Cardinals over the last ten days as being a collapse. Think of it as something that happens to all mediocre teams in the course of a 162-game schedule, and make no mistake, the 2006 Cardinals have been mediocre for most of the season. The lack of a serious challenger in the division for most of the year has created the illusion that they were better than reality should dictate.

Consider this: is their recently-snapped, seven-game losing streak really that much more germane to their overall failure to lock down a weak division than the eight games in a row that they dropped back in June, or the eight-game schneid they experienced in late August? Of course not. This is what teams that win in the low eighties do. It's just unfortunate for the Cardinals that their number came up at such an inopportune time, and that it has coincided with another mediocre team getting its scales balanced.

In the eighth inning of last night's series opener, the Cardinals announcers wondered, "is it 9-2 or 3-2?" St. Louis was rallying and Ned Yost was pulling out all the stops, playing matchup ball and generally treating the proceedings with all due seriousness. For this, he should be commended. If the MLB entity wants us to buy into their pennant races, then everyone needs to be on board with the concept that if they're playing a team that's still in it, and they need to treat it as something other than an excuse to trot out their minor leaguers. Yost's not letting up on an opponent that was seven runs down is just the sort of thing the Commissioner's office should be encouraging by directive or otherwise.

San Diego Padres @ Arizona Diamondbacks

If the Padres can manage a sweep in Phoenix they still won't get to 90 wins, leaving just the Mets as the only 2006 National League team to make that plateau. How does the league stack up against previous loops in terms of mediocrity at the very top? With the Mets coasting to a mid-90s victory total, this is not going down as one of the more memorable congregations at the top of the standings, but it is by no means unique in the 162-game era. However, it is the first of the 16-team leagues to show up on the list below, covering some of the other least-notable showings since 1961. The column marked "Most W" shows the number of wins for the team with the best record. "Teams 90+" is how many teams won 90 or more games. The column headed "comb. 2 best" is the combined win total of the two teams with the most wins. These, then, are the nine league seasons of the 162-game era (strike seasons excluded) that have a decided lack of participation at the top end:

               Teams  comb.
Year/Lg Most W  90+  2 best
1982 NL   92     1     181
1983 NL   91     2     181
1974 AL   91     2     181
1968 NL   97     1     185
1989 NL   93     2     185
2006 NL  94-96   1   180-186
1991 AL   95     2     186
1966 AL   97     1     186
1993 AL   93     2     189

There were two other leagues that had just one 90-win team, but those teams won a lot of games: the '84 Tigers notched 104 wins, the '70 Reds 102. There were also leagues where the win leader won in the low 90s, but was joined by two or more others at 90 victories or more. In the unlikely event that both San Diego and New York get swept and the Dodgers (currently at 85 wins) win just one game, the 2006 National League would have the lowest total for its two-best teams. Regardless of what happens over the weekend, the 2006 edition of the senior circuit has already earned its way onto this list.

Los Angeles Dodgers @ San Francisco Giants

It's not that I want the Giants to have to travel to St. Louis on Monday, or that I'm pulling for any particular team to come out of this thing alive, it's just that I don't want the regular season to end, so I'm up for anything that keeps it going. I'm sure the Giants don't share this sentiment.

With his big day in Denver yesterday, James Loney jumped his stuff from a non-descript .258/.317/.452 to a much more noticeable .286/.340/.571. One of the more impressive things about Loney's record had actually occurred before yesterday: he had five triples in his first 85 plate appearances this year. Since hitting his last one on September 3, he had only started one game; had he hit one yesterday, just his second start in over three weeks, he would have hit for the cycle. The last guy I know of who hit that many triples that early was, unfortunately for comparison's sake, Butch Davis of the 1983 Royals. I'm guessing there are others who have done it since, but it's Davis that comes immediately to mind. His career went immediately to ruin after that--the next season he had about the same number of plate appearances, and he didn't hit any triples at all. It was nearly another decade before he managed to best his playing time in his initial, season and he finished with fewer career plate appearances than it would take to qualify for a single-season batting title.

The big difference between Loney and Davis is that the latter was 25 when he hit six triples in his first 109 plate appearances, whereas the former is only 22. The other good news about Loney is that, after struggling for three seasons after his initial minor league success, he seemed to be back at it in Triple-A this year, where he hit .380/.426/.546. Admittedly, that was in swinger-friendly Las Vegas, but it's still a move upward from where he was.

In the end, Loney's triple outburst is probably just one of those things, and that he won't turn out to be the new Sam Crawford. Still, though, it beats not having five triples.

Others:

Cincinnati Reds @ Pittsburgh Pirates: Alive though the Reds may be, their Playoff Odds are down in the one-in-a-thousand range. You might not want to listen to reality in the midst of what may be one of the most significant race changes ever, though.

Chicago White Sox @ Minnesota Twins: It was strange to hear the Twins announcers hyping Justin Morneau for the Most Valuable Player Award the other night without bothering to mention Joe Mauer at all. They've been watching these games, haven't they? I'm not saying Mauer is the MVP, I'm just saying that if you're going to hype a Twin, Mauer's the guy to hype. I suppose there's always the possibility that the Twins broadcast team understands that, among actual voters, their best hope lies with Morneau, and they were acting accordingly. But to give credit where it's due, Mauer's VORP is the best by any American League catcher since 1960, and Mauer's WARP1 is now 8.9 to Morneau's 7.1.

Kansas City Royals @ Detroit Tigers: The Tigers advantage for the division title in the postseason odds is a direct result of the quality of their final weekend opponent. Happily for the Motor City Kitties, after ascending to the level of troublesome mediocrity, the Royals have rediscovered their early-season form down the home stretch. With their 950 runs allowed so far, the Royals are challenging those 2000-01 Ranger staffs for late-model promiscuity. Figure the Tigers will plate at least five per game in this series.

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