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April 20, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

The Weekend Threesome

by Jim Baker

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Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest discrepancy between their won-loss records): Minnesota Twins @ Kansas City

One of the fun things about the early going is that extremes have yet to be softened up by the passage of time. Take the quality of pitchers faced by batters. Without having been around the league a few times, it is possible for batters on a given team to have faced overwhelmingly generous or overwhelmingly stingy pitchers. It is also possible that those pitchers are showing up that dominant or ineffective in no small part because they have faced those particular batters.

Which leads us to the Royals. In MLB, 212 batters have been to the plate at least 40 times so far this year, and four Royals find themselves ranked 208th, 210th, 211th, and 212th in terms of Opponent Quality OBP. In descending order, that's Mike Sweeney, Alex Gordon, Ross Gload, and Mark Teahen--meaning Teahen has faced the stingiest arms in the league. A fifth Royal, David DeJesus, is 204th. The spread throughout baseball for this particular accounting currently ranges up from Teahen's .278 to Ryan Howard's .364. By the end of the season, that will have compressed considerably, of course; in 2006, the final spread of batting title qualifiers was .328 to .344. As I said, it's much more fun to look at in the early going when we can ask if the Royals have been unfairly burdened by fate by facing more than their share of tough pitchers, or if they have helped skew the success of those pitchers through their own shortcomings.

The Twins have succeeded on their first 16 stolen base attempts so far this season. At this rate, they'll go 173-for-173. What's that? It's more complicated than simply extrapolating what they've done so far over the course of 162 games? Very well then, let's do this instead: What have those 16 steals gotten them so far?

Game 1: In the fifth inning against Baltimore, Jason Tyner pinch-ran for Jeff Cirillo and stole second. He advanced to third on a bunt hit, and scored on an error by Miguel Tejada, putting the Twins up 7-4, which would prove to be the final score.

Game 2: Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, Torii Hunter led off with a walk and stole second; he advanced to third on a groundout. With two outs, he scored on an infield single by Luis Castillo. In the seventh, with the score still tied at two, Tyner pinch-ran for Rondell White and grabbed second. He scored what proved to be the winning run on a single by Jason Bartlett, who then stole second but was left stranded. Castillo and Joe Mauer also stole bases but were left on.

Game 6: Trailing the Yankees 5-0 in the fifth, Hunter singled with one out and stole second. He then scored on a single by Jason Kubel who was, in turn, wiped out on a double play, ending the inning.

Game 8: With the Twins tied with the Yankees 1-1 in the eighth, Castillo led off with a walk and copped second. Mauer sent him around with a single and advanced on the throw to the plate. He and two others scored to make the final 5-1.

Game 10: With no score in the bottom of the second, Hunter singled off of Scott Kazmir of Tampa Bay and stole second. With two outs, he was driven home on a single by Luis Rodriguez. The Twins would go on to lose, 4-2.

Game 11: Neither base thief in this game eventually scored. Bartlett got as far as third on a groundout in the fourth, and Hunter stole third after doubling home a run in the fifth.

Game 12: With one out in the fifth and the score tied 1-1, Jason Kubel singled and stole second. After another out, he was singled home by Bartlett. The Twins eventually lost 4-2 to Tampa Bay.

Game 14: Leading the Mariners 3-0, Tyner and Mauer pulled a double steal with one out in the second. After a Mike Cuddyer fielder's choice eliminated Tyner, Mauer and Cuddyer scored on a single by Justin Morneau to up the lead to 5-0. The Twins would need it, as the game ended with the tying run being thrown out at the plate in the person of Adrian Beltre.

Game 15: The Twins pulled off their second double steal in as many games against Seattle. This time Alexi Casilla and Mauer did the twin copping, but both were left stranded when Morneau struck out with two outs in the fifth.

A case can be made that at least six or seven of these runners would not have advanced home had they not stolen. It's a beautiful thing when it works, and around baseball these days, it's working more and more. Overall success rates are creeping up. From 2000 to 2002, the percentage was 68. In 2003 it bumped up to 69 percent and stayed there in 2004. In 2005, it moved to 70 percent and then to 71 last season. So far this year, would-be base thieves are making it 73 percent of the time. At this rate, nobody will be caught stealing by the year 2041.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined won-loss records): Washington Nationals @ Florida Marlins

On the topic of stolen bases, there's been a drastic change of approach in Washington. Under old (in every sense of the word) manager Frank Robinson, the Nats led the league in attempts last year, trying 185 times. This year under Manny Acta, they've only gone four times in 16 games, which puts them at lowest in the league, tied with Pittsburgh. Yes, it's early, and the Nats haven't had an abundance of baserunners, but it's a big jump down from over once a game down to just twice a week.

Doesn't it jar your mind whenever you see a veteran getting at-bats or innings with the Marlins? What is Aaron Boone, 34, doing on this team? He's one of only four current Marlins over 30. The other three are Lee Gardner (32), Matt Treanor (31), and Jason Wood (37). None figure prominently in the team's day-to-day action, and all except Boone are making right around minimum, the same as most of the youngsters. In fact, only seven Marlins have salaries above $400,000: Miguel Cabrera leads the way at $7.4 million, followed by Dontrelle Willis at $6.45 million. The unfortunately-acquired Jorge Julio is at $3.6 million, followed by catcher Miguel Olivo ($2 million), Boone ($925,000), hurler Kevin Gregg ($575,000), and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who makes a bit more than the minimum for a second-year player at $402,000.

This is essentially how all team payrolls would be configured if a salary cap were in place. A majority of the money would go to a couple of stars and the rest of the roster would be at the minimum in order to compensate. That's why the presence of Boone (who makes almost three minimums) and the acquisition of Julio (between nine and 10 minimums) seem so incongruous. They are odd choices to belong to the above-minimum minority group.

Best Matchup (opponents with best combined won-loss records): Atlanta Braves @ New York Mets

The Mets are leading the league in runs scored, and are currently fielding a lineup that boasts a majority of players getting hits in a third of their at bats. It has been their good fortune, however, to meet mostly struggling opponents thus far. Aside from losing two of three to the Braves earlier this year, they have played a quartet of teams that have opened the season at a collective 21-39. There's a certain amount of chicken-and-egg at this time of year, in that it can be argued that the records of St. Louis, Philadelphia, Florida, and Washington wouldn't be so bad if they hadn't run into the most loaded lineup in the league, but watching those four teams play independent of their games with New York shows they are quite capable of losing games, regardless of the quality of their opponents.

At this writing, Tom Glavine is scheduled to face John Smoltz in Sunday's game, and that gives one pause: what would the race in the National League East look like had Glavine chosen to return to Atlanta this year instead of re-upping for another tour with the Mets? Something else to ponder as they enter the game nearly 100 career wins apart is how much closer would they be had Smoltz's career not taken a divergent path.

By the time Smoltz showed up in Atlanta in July of 1988, Glavine was already in the rotation, but owing to youthful shortcomings and playing for a fairly miserable team, he only had five career wins. It was a slight edge over Smoltz, but one he would never surrender. By the end of the 1990 season, Smoltz trailed 33-28, at which point the Braves got very good and Glavine tore off three straight 20-win seasons while Smoltz was winning 15, putting the score at 95-72. That's about how the gap stayed until Smoltz went down for the count, missing the 2000 season. Glavine's lead stood at 187-157, and it was at this juncture that it ceased being a contest. (If, in fact, it ever really was one. Glavine, after all, had started 399 games to Smoltz's 356 through 1999.) While Smoltz spent the year on the DL, Glavine had one of his three best seasons, and upped his lead to 51. When he returned, he was soon turned into the team's closer, one who through a peculiar combination of effectiveness and usage patterns managed to not log a single victory for two seasons running in spite of 135 appearances in that time.

Since returning to starting chores, Smoltz has moved one victory closer to Glavine. It's not unreasonable to speculate that if he had started instead of closed from 2001 to 2004, he would have approximated the number of victories Glavine had in that time; figure about 50 or so. That would put him at around 245 to 250 wins as he approaches age 40, making 300 wins an incredible longshot, even under ideal circumstances.

This leads to an interesting question: did Smoltz's jump to the bullpen give him a better shot at the Hall of Fame than he would have had if he had returned to the rotation after his lost year? I think it does. Because successful hybrid careers are so rare--ones where the same pitcher is both an elite starter and an elite closer--their ambiguity adds to their allure. The most successful hybrid career of all time is Dennis Eckersley, and he waltzed into Cooperstown. Smoltz's switch to closing brought comparisons to Eckersley, which can only work in his favor when it's his turn on the ballot.

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