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May 1, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Power to the People's Player

by Jim Baker

Best Matchup (teams with best combined won-loss records): Arizona Diamondbacks @ Los Angeles Dodgers

Have you ever wondered about a guy like Jeff Kent; someone who has admitted he doesn't really like baseball? Does that rankle your mind a bit? Should it? Isn't Kent like the majority of Americans, though? How many people truly love the industry they're in? Sometimes people end up in a job simply because it's a job and they can get by in it. Sometimes people excel in a field that they would rather have avoided, but one has to make a living, so what else is one supposed to do? It just so happens that Kent is particularly good-one of the best ever at his position, in fact-at something he doesn't especially like. In a way, that makes him a lot more like most fans than like his fellow baseball players. Irascible and aloof though he may be, in his attitude about his job at least, Kent might really qualify as the People's Player more than we realize.

Are we in for a fun ride in the National League West? Not only have four of the five teams gotten out of the blocks fairly well (Colorado being the exception), they've each outscored their opponents so far. Usually in a four-team logjam, there's at least one team that's showing signs that it's playing way over its head. The team that most closely fits that description among the quartet is Arizona, up four games from what we'd expect.

You might think that Arizona (17th) and Los Angeles (19th) rank a little low in terms of the overall league placement of their players with the highest individual VORP, but there are quite a few teams with lower-ranked leaders than Orlando Hudson and Russell Martin, though. Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy is 25th, St. Louis's Chris Duncan is 26th, Cincinnati's Alex Gonzalez is 28th, and Pittsburgh's leader is Jason Bay, and he's 42nd. The scariest is Houston's-it's Mike Lamb (4.3) at 58th, and he's only got 31 plate appearances. How lean has it been for the Astros so far? Brad Ausmus is fourth on the team at 2.0.

Biggest Mismatchup (teams with most diverse won-loss records): Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim @ Kansas City Royals

Here's a bit of extrapolatory fun regarding the Royals: they have a shot at the American League team record for most times getting hit by a pitch. With 20 plunks received in 26 games, they have built a good foundation for a run at the 1996 Blue Jays, a team that was pasted at the plate 92 times. The Indians are also getting hit at an accelerated rate so far, 15 times in 22 games. That's also a rate that would give them the record. These are the most black-and-blued teams of the 21st century to date:

95: 2006 Phillies & 2005 Pirates
90: 2004 Blue Jays
89: 2006 Pirates & 2001 Astros

The National League record belongs to the 1898 Baltimore Orioles, a team that got smacked 148 times in only 149 games. If you had played against John McGraw, you would have probably wanted to chuck a couple at his head as well, except that he was just fifth on that team in plunks, with 10. The big contributors were Hughie Jennings with 46 and Dan McGann with 39. Jennings had a spectacular plunking run between 1896 and 1898, taking 51, 46, and 46 HBPs. Ron Hunt is always credited as the single-season painmaster with 50 in 1971, but it's really Jennings who holds the record. [Ed. note: for those of you hung up on 19the century stats.]

The key for the Royals so far has been Alex Gordon who, while not flashing any of the power we've been expecting just yet, has stopped six pitches with his flesh in addition to drawing 11 walks. That's a nice supplement to an otherwise grim start for the game's top prospect. Of course, what will happen is that this will prove to be just one of those things, and Kansas City will finish with 78 HBP. It's a shame, really, because wouldn't it be nice for them to have something to pursue this year?

Worst Matchup (teams with worst combined won-loss records): New York Yankees @ Texas Rangers

Looking at the May Day standings, it seems to me that there aren't a whole lot of surprises right now in the American League, save for the Yankees, and to a lesser extent the Rangers. Everyone else is in their approximate zone of anticipated performance (or AZAP, as if we needed another acronym), and New York is the one true exception. Usually at this time of year we've got some headstrong team playing way above its station, and kudos are raining down on the reputations of all involved. It's kind of pleasant not to have to hear that sort of thing, really.

Everywhere Alex Rodriguez has played, he's racked up the best seasons in the history of those franchises. First, it was Seattle where he posted VORP figures of 111.8 in 1996 (highest mark in Mariners history) and 102.2 in 2000 (second). He also has the fifth-best VORP in franchise history with an 87.0 in 1998. Then, it was on to Texas where he played three seasons and, not coincidently, posted the three highest VORPs in franchise history: 103.7 in 2001 (tops), 88.4 in 2003 (second), and 86.8 in 2002 (third). This includes the team's time Washington, DC, a period that saw Frank Howard post the next four highest Senators figures (Hondo's high was 70.1, though).

This brings us to Yankees, a team with a much more storied past than either the Mariners or Senators/Rangers. Surely Rodriguez can't crack the top of this particular heap? Actually, given his start, he can-at least in the era for which we have data. Since 1960, Rodriguez has already posted the third-best Yankee VORP ever, as his 91.0 in 2005 ranks behind just Derek Jeter's 108.7 in 1999 and Mickey Mantle's 97.8 in 1961. Obviously, A-Rod's April ratio of a point of VORP for every game played is not sustainable, but his start does make a 110-VORP season seem like a possibility. If he plays as well as he did in 2005 from here on out (about 15 points of VORP per month) he can take down Mantle, but not Jeter. He's going to need to play just a little bit better than that the rest of the way to do it. If he can manage to pull it off, that would make for a pretty heady legacy: the best seasons for three different franchises.

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