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October 3, 2006

Playoff Prospectus

Dodgers vs. Mets

by Jim Baker

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With the division title on the line on the last day of the 2006 season--not to mention the possibility of avoiding the New York Mets in the first round--the Dodgers opted to field a lineup comprised largely of backup players. That they won anyway (as did eventual division champion San Diego, rendering the situation somewhat moot) is beside the point. Are we to assume from their laissez faire attitude regarding the identity of their first-round opponent that they think no better of the Mets than they do of the Cardinals, one of the worst teams ever to qualify for the postseason according to BP's third-order wins?

While the difference between the Mets and Dodgers isn't all that great, the gap between the Mets and Cardinals is--unless Los Angeles feared the possibility of seeing Chris Carpenter twice in a short week. Probably, there's no conspiracy here, and the Dodgers simply wanted to give their regulars a day off after they had clinched a postseason berth the day before. Still, with their number one starter shelved for the duration, the Mets do not appear to be as intimidating as a team that ran off with its division in June should be.

The last time the Dodgers and Mets hooked up in the playoffs (not including as a betting prop for Harvey Keitel in 1992), it served as a springboard for the Dodgers' last championship (and one of baseball's iconic moments in the ensuing World Series) while starting the Mets down the road to ignominious non-achievement for most of the next decade. One would assume there is no such crossroads of destiny here. For one thing, the winner might not even go onto the World Series, let alone the championship. For another, both teams are fixed well enough--financially in the Mets' case, geographically in the Dodgers'--that oblivion is not beckoning anytime soon. Los Angeles is never down for long. In fact, they've only had consecutive losing seasons on two occasions since the Great Depression began to clear up.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Mets

SS-B Jose Reyes (.300/.354/.487/.294/57.7)
C-R Paul Lo Duca (.318/.355/.428/.277/26.5)
CF-B Carlos Beltran (.275/.388/.594/.327/67.6)
1B-L Carlos Delgado (.265/.361/.548/.307/34.4)
3B-R David Wright (.311/.381/.531/.313/53.3)
RF-L Shawn Green (.277/.344/.432/.268*/9.1)
LF-L Cliff Floyd (.244/.324/.407/.263/0.9)
2B-B Jose Valentin (.271/.330/.490/.283/23.1)

* Mets only

Dodgers

SS-B Rafael Furcal (.300/.369/.445/.280/49.1)
CF-L Kenny Lofton (.301/.360/.403/.280/27.6)
1B-R Nomar Garciaparra (.303/.367/.505/.292/29.1)
2B-R Jeff Kent (.292/.385/.477/.291/34.2)
RF-L J.D. Drew (.283/.393/.498/.299/36.8)
C-R Russell Martin (.282/.355/.436/.271/19.8)
LF-L Marlon Anderson (.297/.354/.513/.363*/20.2)
3B-B Wilson Betemit (.263/.326/.469/.252*/13.2)

* Dodgers only

New York has a very effective offense, one that ranked third in runs scored in the league, behind only Philadelphia and Atlanta. They did so with a healthy mix of power and speed, clubbing 200 home runs and leading the league in steals (with the best success rate, no less). Their table setters aren't on base that much more than league average, though. When Jose Reyes is hitting .300--as he did this year--he goes a longer way toward justifying his manager's faith in him as a leadoff hitter. He also made a great leap forward this year in his discipline, doubling his walks in fewer plate appearances. Paul Lo Duca made for a curious choice as a number two hitter, but I suppose all's well that ends well--and end well it did for Lo Duca for a change. Everyone in New York was holding their collective breath waiting for his clockwork-like second-half slump, but it never came. In fact, he got better after the All-Star Game, going .338/.369/.450 as opposed to .302/.343/.409 before. Still, though, Joe Mauer batting second makes sense--but a catcher with 24 walks in 551 plate appearances in the two hole?

In an attempt to solidify a shape-shifting corner outfield picture, the Mets got Shawn Green from Arizona in August. Unfortunately, he had as many homers on May 23, 2002 as he did during his entire 33-game stint with New York. The continuing injury saga of Cliff Floyd keeps the other corner in flux. With a three-four-five of Beltran-David Wright and Carlos Delgado, though, what are the struggles of a couple outfielders?

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are especially hard on lefties, generating an 802 OPS from them, third-best in the league. What is especially surprising is that the Dodgers have the best home offense in the National League--and that's unadjusted. Our perception of Dodger Stadium would not place them at the top of a list headed by Colorado, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. Without looking, most of us would probably guess they'd be down at the bottom with San Diego and Washington. For their part, the Mets have one of the best road offenses in the league, so perhaps we can expect some fireworks in the Dodger Stadium games.

This is a far cry from three years ago when Los Angeles couldn't rub two hits together. Compared to that time, this year's Dodgers have tacked on 250 runs worth of offense and posted the best team OBP in the league this year. They've managed to do all this without the presence of a scary monster in the lineup. Among regulars, only Nomar Garciaparra nosed his slugging average over .500 (.505); he and J.D. Drew tied for the team lead in home runs with just 20. Only two other teams in the bigs had leaders with fewer this year, and both of them lost 100 games.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Mets

1B-R Julio Franco (.273/.330/.370/.254/1.3)
UT-R Chris Woodward (.216/.289/.311/.217/-8.6)
OF-L Endy Chavez (.306/.348/.431/.275/14.8)
OF-L Michael Tucker (.196/.378/.321/.273/0.1)
C-R Ramon Castro (.238/.322/.389/.252/0.9)
C-R Mike Difelice (.080/.233/.120/.101/-3.8)

Dodgers

OF-L Andre Ethier (.308/.365/.477/.283/20.5)
1B-L James Loney (.284/.342/.559/.293/6.8)
C-R Toby Hall (.259/.286/.406/.284*/-1.3)
INF-R Julio Lugo (.278/.341/.421/.195*/21.8)
OF-R Jason Repko (.254/.345/.377/.255/2.6)
1B-R Olmedo Saenz (.296/.363/.564/.303/16.5)

The Mets and Dodgers had two of the three lowest pinch-hit batting averages in the National League this year, so there's that to look forward to. Except that pinch hitting comes in such small sample sizes, there's nothing to say that both teams won't go all Gonzalo Marquez in the LDS. Chavez spiked like nobody's business in 2006, and will be on call if Floyd can't answer the bell. Castro was one of the better backup catchers in 2005 but was slowed by injuries this year, and is just now getting back. Tucker does not inspire coming off the bench, and Woodward went from replacement level last year to well below it this year. No Met had a lower VORP than Woodward, other than the departed Kazuo Matsui. However, he owns a lot of different gloves, which will usually keep a fellow employed. Franco is always fun, although his EqA this year was his lowest since 1992. At this rate, he won't be able to play much past 55.

It wasn't so long ago that big things were expected from Toby Hall. While stardom never arrived, you can't beat him as a backup for the playoffs, as he's been devastating in limited duty with Los Angeles. Not so former Raymate Julio Lugo, who left his bat in St. Petersburg. Olmedo Saenz is the holder of the Manny Mota emeritus chair. He destroyed lefties this year, as is his custom. He'll play hell on the Mets southpaw bullpen contingent. Loney had a great month in Denver last Thursday. He's been decent otherwise, though. It will be interesting to see how Little handles the leftfield situation. Ethier has done good work there only to be usurped somewhat by 3-Day Blinds Player of the Month Marlon Anderson. Memories of Cesar Cedeno's late 1985 run with the Cardinals were conjured by Anderson and his .363 EqA after coming to Los Angeles. We're listing him as the starter, but it could just as easily be Ethier.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Mets

RHP Orlando Hernandez (4.66, 162.1, 4.1)
LHP Tom Glavine (3.82, 198.0, 5.0)
RHP Steve Trachsel (4.97, 164.2, 2.9)
RHP John Maine (3.60, 90.0, 2.4)

Dodgers

RHP Derek Lowe (3.63, 218.0, 6.2)
RHP Greg Maddux (4.20, 210.0, 4.4)
RHP Brad Penny (4.33, 189.0, 4.6)
LHP Hong-chih Kuo (4.22, 59.2, 1.2)

If there is a positive to having Pedro Martinez taken permanently off the board, it is this: now the Mets will not be tempted to put him in to see if he can work some magic, only to have him get hammered like he was at the end of the regular season. An outing like he had in any of his last three starts would go a long way to putting the Mets down a game. There is one other positive: hundreds of thousands of media words will not be expended on speculating as to his availability. That gets very old very fast.

The downside is that Steve Trachsel gets to wade knee-deep into the action. Trachsel is a 14-year veteran with 380 career starts but, at age 35, has never made a postseason appearance. How this fits into the veteran presence/experience uber alles construct is a mystery. Everything else aside, he has one of the most disturbing K:BB ratios of any starting pitcher in the 2006 postseason. What the Mets can hope for in his turn is what often occurred during the regular season: he pitches just well enough to keep the team from getting blown out while his mates support him like an ex-husband with a guilt complex over running off with the counter girl at the Krispy Kreme. Tom Glavine's Stuff was the best it's been since 1998, as his K rate was easily the best of his four-year Mets tenure.

El Duque is the anti-Trachsel in that he's never not been in the playoffs. In all that time he's only had a full complement of starts once in his career, his 33 in 1999. The 29 starts made between Arizona and New York in 2006 was his highest total since 2000. He was mostly acceptable in his Mets tenure, even compiling the best K-rate of his free world career (9.1 per nine), but when he was bad, he was rotten. His five worst starts as a Met (a quarter of his total) looked like the handiwork of Jose Lima, as he had an ERA of nearly 15.98 in those games, and averaged three baserunners an inning. If that version of Hernandez shows up in the playoffs, the Mets would do just as well to trot Martinez (or even Lima) out there. John Maine gave up a ton of home runs in his 90 innings (15) but had a fairly decent strikeout rate. He'll be the only Mets playoff starter with a DERA under 4.00 in 2006.

The Dodgers would like to get a lefty in to face the Mets, but don't have one among their big three of Maddux, Lowe, and Penny. As a team, New York reached southpaws for a 738 OPS--one of the worst figures in the league. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, they are decidedly short on lefties, but Kuo threw six shutout innings at the Mets last month, striking out seven. Manager Grady Little might be excoriated in the press for giving a start to a pitcher with a 1-5 record, but when Kuo pitches, people strike out. Won-loss record aside, his DERA of 4.21 is right there with Tom Glavine's. Besides, the thought of a Mark Hendrickson start in the playoffs should set off enough shuddering to impact the San Andreas Fault. Even with that, Los Angeles has a slight edge in starting pitching.

Bullpens (ERA, IP, WXRL)

Mets

LHP Billy Wagner (2.24, 72.1, 5.9)
RHP Aaron Heilman (3.62, 87.0, 3.3)
RHP Chad Bradford (2.90, 62.0, 1.8)
RHP Roberto Hernandez (3.11, 63.2, 0.0)
LHP Darren Oliver (3.44, 81.0, 1.4)
RHP Guillermo Mota (4.53, 55.2, 0.7)
LHP Pedro Feliciano (2.09, 60.1, 1.3)

Dodgers

RHP Takashi Saito (2.07, 78.1, 5.5)
LHP Joe Beimel (2.96, 70.0, 2.4)
RHP Jonathan Broxton (2.59, 76.1, 2.3)
RHP Brett Tomko (4.73, 112.1, 0.1)
RHP Elmer Dessens (4.56, 77.0, 0.2)
LHP Mark Hendrickson (4.21, 164.2, 0.2)
RHP Aaron Sele (4.53, 103.1, -0.1)
RHP Chad Billingsley (3.80, 90.0, -0.1)

The Mets had the best bullpen in the league in 2006, although San Diego might challenge that claim. Their long man, Heilman, would be a starter if he were the property of many other organizations. They survived the loss of the very effective Duaner Sanchez without missing a beat. In fact, just about everybody they brought in was effective. The few who weren't won't be around for October anyway.

There isn't much separating Billy Wagner from Trevor Hoffman as both had nearly identical WXRLs at the top of the league. But found money Takashi Saito wasn't very far behind for the Dodgers, either, placing third in the National League in that category. Joe Beimel has pitched badly for bad teams (2003 Pirates), badly for good teams (2004 Twins), and well for bad teams (2005 Devil Rays). This year, for the first time, he has pitched well for a good team. As the most-effective lefty on the team, the Dodgers are going to need him, too. He held opposing lefthanded hitters to one baserunner per inning in 2006. Broxton is the other bullpen standout--he and Beimel were both in the NL top 20 in WXRL, and a lot of the men ahead of them were closers. In the end, only the Cubs bullpen struck out more men than did Dodger relievers in '06.

Defense

The Mets had the third-best Defensive Efficiency Rating in the majors this year, while the Dodgers were 20th overall (the worst mark for any of the eight playoff-bound teams). They're ranked a little closer in team Fielding Runs Above-Average. The Dodgers had the second-worst ROE in the National League with 74. The Mets had 56, so the difference between them works out to about one baserunner every nine games; gauging how much that will matter in a short series is a bit problematic. Both teams were about equally proficient in stopping enemy basestealers, nabbing a quarter of them, which was right around league average.

Anytime Endy Chavez (16/8 FRAR/FRAA) is on the field--especially if he's out there alongside Carlos Beltran (31/15)--the Mets are a better defensive team. Green and Floyd's numbers barely register. Not only did Jose Valentin solidify second base with his bat, he had a nice 31/16 showing in the field as well. Wright (24/10) is the other Mets defensive standout. While Reyes and Rafael Furcal had similar offensive seasons, Furcal and his gun get the big nod on defense, 29/8 to 6/-15. Russ Martin also takes the prize at catcher, besting Lo Duca 32/11 to 15/-7. Kent (26/10) and Drew (23/13) are solid but Lofton (5/-8) has slowed mightily. Garciaparra (-2/-9) plays first more like a converted DH than a converted shortstop. Betemit (-1/-5) and Ethier (2/-5) did not distinguish themselves, either.

Managers

Grady Little is now two-for-three in his brief big league career: three seasons and two trips to the postseason. How much of that you want to lay at his feet depends on your attitudes about managerial worth in general. This was certainly a different gig than Boston. No ace and no monster to speak of were waiting for him in Los Angeles. (And what a relief it will be for him not to have to have to watch that ace pitch for the other team in this series.) As noted above, the Dodgers rarely stay on the mat for more than a season at a time, so chances are they would have bounced back regardless of who was skippering, although that's presupposing to a certain extent. Besides, this was no gigantic leap like the Tigers took. The Dodgers went from about 74 third-order wins to 88. That's not exactly a miracle.

Coming up against a manager who has made the most second-guessed in-game decision in recent postseason history is Willie Randolph, a man with the sort of personality that seems to deflect controversy. In a city where every move is watched by hordes of fourth estaters, Randolph always seems to be above the fray. As Willy Loman was fond of saying, it's not enough to be liked, you have to be well-liked. And well-liked Randolph has been; as a player, as a coach and now-- most difficult of all--as a manager. That's the toughest point on the staying-liked triple crown. He's bought a lot of good will by all but clinching the title in June. Tanking in the first round would undo a lot of that in a hurry.

Randolph likes to run, but, one hopes, only because he's in charge of a group of men who are the best in the business. He bunts right around the league median. Usually, he lets the guys with the truncheons take care of business. Batting Lo Duca second remains his most curious move to date.

Prediction

After spending most of the season on a different planet than the Mets, the Dodgers ended up not so very far away in terms of overall quality. For a while there in the summer, it seemed as though the Mets should get a bye into the World Series based on the play of the rest of the league. In September though, San Diego and Los Angeles both ratcheted it up to a point where the Mets could take neither for granted as a first-round opponent.

If the Dodgers can catch the Mets starters flatfooted, the series is theirs for the taking. Of course, that could be said for any of the eight playoff teams in any given year. The Mets starting pitching is their one real weakness, though. While the Dodgers' starters aren't all that much better, it's good enough to hold down the fort if the offense can get to work early. The deeper into the game it goes, though, the harder it becomes to score off of New York. The Mets have been on cruise control for a month now, going 15-15 in September while resting people and doing things like letting Julio Franco play third base. When they put the foot back on the pedal, they're still the team to beat which is why we're saying Mets in five.

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