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May 4, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Baseball's Balancing Acts

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Boston Red Sox @ Minnesota Twins

One quick way to see if both of a team's pitching units are contributing is to combine their ERAs (ERA Sum) instead of looking at just the overall ERA. For instance, the A's have the best team ERA in the American League right now, but there is a big disparity between the starters' contribution (2.60) and that of their relievers (4.61)--the biggest gap in the league. Obviously, if a team can get a 2.60 ERA out of its starting pitchers for an entire season they could get away with a sextet of shaved chimps in the bullpen. When that normalizes, the A's number won't be looking as sweet.

Not that balance is always a good thing. The Devil Rays, for instance, have a gap of just .52, which fairly approximates the league average of starter/reliever disparity. This suggest their current performance is sustainable. The problem is, they also have the highest ERA Sum in the league (11.66).

Much has been made of the Red Sox starting staff, but it is their relievers who have especially gone above and beyond so far this year. Boston seems to have a relatively large gap (1.29), but remember that the league as a whole has a half-run difference in favor of the bullpen. They do have the lowest ERA Sum in the league (6.11), but that's bound to rise. As with the A's starters, it's not likely the Boston bullpen is going to maintain a 2.41 ERA for the rest of the year. It is possible that their starters can maintain a 3.70 ERA, though, so even if the bullpen ERA rises by a full run, the Sox could well have the best ERA Sum at year's end. ERA is a primitive accounting method, but all else considered, an ERA Sum in the low sevens would pretty much guarantee Boston the division.

One final observation about the Curt Schilling sock silliness: Let's say a major league pitcher really wanted to pull a false heroics scam like soaking his sock in paint to make it look like he was bleeding. Would someone at that salary level really have to settle for paint? Of course not! He could have some of his own blood extracted or he could buy blood from a hobo or he could use animal blood. The last thing he would have to do is resort to paint.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Houston Astros @ St. Louis Cardinals

I still don't know why writers ask players and executives about the eventual landing pad for Roger Clemens, when he himself doesn't know what he's going to do. If I were the Astros, I'd be giving him a deadline rather than waiting around to hear what he has to say. Last year, he pitched brilliantly upon his return, and Houston came close enough to besting the Cardinals to make one wonder how they would have done if Clemens had showed up for work earlier than June. Had he started his minor league tune-ups a month earlier and gotten into the rotation on May 22 instead of June 22, what then? Well, the Astros probably wouldn't have scored enough to support him anyway, but if he had made Taylor Buchholz's starts on May 26 and May 31, the results might have been just different enough to make the final standings change to Houston's greater good.

The notion that Clemens is a box office boost is a bit deceptive, too. He made 11 home starts last year, and attendance was better at his games than in other games, but how much better, really? Like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Astros are a solid draw under just about any circumstances. Consider Houston's 2006 home attendance:

35,423: Before Clemens
40,425: Clemens on mound
37,396: Clemens on team, not pitching

We can say that Clemens improved their attendance by about 3,000 fans per game, in that they drew better overall in the latter part of the season as opposed to the early going. Overall, it might be 4,000 per game. How much is that in ticket revenue? Considering that the high-dollar seats are sold anyway, and that the attendance difference is taking place in the further reaches of the park--probably not a lot. Figure maybe between $1 million to $1.5 million in additional revenue, and that's at $30 per ticket--possibly a gross overstatement because upper deck seats at Minute Maid usually come cheaper than that. There would be some ancillary money coming in from concessions and merchandise, but certainly not enough to justify the cost of Clemens' salary.

I bring this up to point out that a team does not go the Clemens route because he is a novelty act--they get him because he's effective. This is especially true if he ends up on the Red Sox, who would sell out if they started the ballboy. Where he could impact finances is if he helps a team to the postseason--something he can't do when he's still in contemplative mode.

Which brings me back to my original point: the sooner he arrives, the sooner whichever team he so chooses will start getting better. Of course, he knows that, and he knows that the teams know that, but waiting around for him to make up his mind is not doing the Astros--or the Yankees--any good.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Washington Nationals @ Chicago Cubs

When a pitcher improves greatly after moving from another team (especially in the early going when sample sizes are small), kudos flow to the new pitching coach and all the wonderful work he's done. Dave Duncan of the Cardinals has certainly been the recipient of this kind of praise on numerous occasions. So how come this phenomenon never seems to work in reverse? Take the case of Jason Marquis--under Duncan's tutelage, and especially last year, he was a picture of sub-mediocrity. On the Cubs this year, he's actually earning the contract that I--and just about everybody else on the planet--thought was pretty crazy. He's currently eighth in the National League with a 13.2 VORP, and has won four of his five decisions. How come nobody ever says something like, "What did Duncan miss last year?" I'm not saying that would be valid criticism, just like I wouldn't be too hasty to ladle out praise on the other end. I'm just wondering why the criticism/praise scale is nothing like balanced in these cases.

What is different about Marquis this year? The biggest change (and it's just six starts, remember) is that he's kept the ball in the park. He gave up a homer about every five or so innings last year. This year, only two balls have left the park in 38 2/3 IP. The other thing is that he has an insanely low BABIP in 2007. At .207, he's the seventh-lowest in baseball (teammate Rich Hill is second-lowest at .189).

Those numbers are simply not going to stand. Only one pitcher in the last 40 years has had a BABIP that low for an entire season, and that was Dave McNally of the Orioles in the magic pitchers' year of 1968, and he finished with a .205 BABIP. You have to look much further up the list for pitchers of a more recent vintage:

Lowest BABIPs of the post-strike world:
.232: Chris Young, 2006 Padres
.238: Derek Lowe, 2002 Red Sox
.238: Pedro Martinez, 2000 Red Sox
.239: Damian Moss, 2002 Braves
.239: Kevin Millwood, 1999 Braves
.239: Tim Wakefield, 2002 Red Sox

Something to keep in mind before getting too excited about Hill and Marquis, certainly.

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