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May 25, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Where To Get Your Vicarious Baseball Thrills

by Jim Baker

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Best National League Matchup (Best combined chances of making the playoffs according to the BP's Postseason Odds): Milwaukee Brewers @ San Diego Padres

You've got to like a team that understands that maintaining early success is not a given, and has a willingness to change on the fly. Understanding that their weakest offensive link has been third base, the Brewers have called up slugging corner infielder Ryan Braun from Triple-A Nashville. There are a lot of teams out there that would ignore the fact that Craig Counsell (.231/.360/.308) and Tony Graffanino (.187/.261/.234) haven't been cutting it. These teams would keep them in place because they have over 20 years of combined big league experience and can be counted on for "veteran presence." In 2005 and 2006, Braun played about a full season's worth (700-plus PA) below Triple-A and produced a .308/.367/.549 line. He's been even better at Nashville this year, going .342/.418/.701. Even with time for adjustment, he's going to be worth a win or two over Counsell/Graffanino the rest of the way.

Moves like this make the Brewers more and more likeable. If your favorite team has taken an early hall pass out of the playoff hunt in 2007, you could do a lot worse than getting behind Milwaukee as your source for temporary vicarious baseball thrills.

Braun arrives with enough time left in the season to mount a Rookie of the Year campaign in the NL. Among the positional candidates with the highest VORPs, Hunter Pence of Houston, Chris Young of Arizona, and Josh Hamilton of Cincinnati (now injured) have gotten increased playing time, but none of them have made a case that can't be bested by a four-month blitz from a later call-up. No strong candidates have emerged among rookie pitchers, either; Chris Sampson of the Astros, already 29, is probably the only pitcher worth mentioning for the time being. A number of rookie middle relievers have been effective, but their efforts have come in such small IP samples that it's hard to start touting them just yet.

If Braun is to have an Rookie of the Year run, fate couldn't have picked a worse place for him to start it. The Padres missed out on the Year of the Pitcher, 1968, because they didn't start operating until the following season. Apparently, they're trying to make up for it at Petco Park this year. As a team, they have a 648 OPS at home in 2007, but the good news is, their guests have generated an even more abysmal 541. Visitors have hit only five home runs in San Diego and are barely getting on base a quarter of the time. Not that Pads pitchers haven't been stingy with the dingers on the road, too--they've surrendered just 16 in away games, third-fewest in the bigs. It's been a while since a team allowed fewer than 100 homers in a season; 1994 was the last time, with extenuating labor-related circumstances. The last time before that was 1992, when four teams did it. Even with some slippage, San Diego has a decent shot at keeping out of triple figures. (The Dodgers do as well, but don't have as much wiggle room.)

Best American League Matchup (Best combined chances of making the playoffs according to the BP's Postseason Odds): Cleveland Indians @ Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have been doubling up a storm, and if they continue in the exact fashion they've maintained so far (I'm trying to avoid saying "pace"), they will break the all-time team doubles record of 373, jointly held by the 1930 Cardinals and the Red Sox of 1997 and 2004. Four of their players are already doubling in double figures, including Curtis Granderson (16), Carlos Guillen (13), and Craig Monroe (12); three others have nine. Leading all of baseball is their own Magglio Ordonez with 23. One thing I immediately assumed about the Tigers is that they were landing lots of balls in the gaps of their accommodating home park. Actually, though, they're doubling at a higher rate on the road, 2.6 per game to 2.2.

Ordonez' early doubling tear makes him this year's recipient of the semi-annual " Earl Webb Had Better Watch Out" Award. Mr. Webb is the gentleman who holds the single-season doubles record with 67, set in 1931 with the Red Sox. Ordonez could surpass that at the rate he's going, but Webb's record is often challenged in the early part of the season without anybody ever having finally gotten there. David Ortiz of Boston and Chase Utley of Philadelphia would tie Webb at their current rates of doubling.

Can Ordonez keep this up? No, not that he should be expected to. He's running at about 750 percent of his 50th percentile PECOTA right now, and expecting anyone to maintain that kind of performance is expecting too much. The good news for Ordonez and the Tigers is that even as he adjusts downward, he's still in an excellent position to have his best season since 2003.

Jhonny Peralta's bounceback season would be even more impressive if he could play above replacement level on the road. There's currently a 550-point difference in his home and road OPS. Peralta's Marginal Lineup Value was -15.3 last season, while this year he's at 7.3 so far. Even with his early struggles away from Cleveland, he's bound to approximate his 2005 showing of 30.7.

The Indians' starting rotation is split into two distinct camps: the decidedly good, and the decidedly not so, with no in between so far in '07. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they're getting the three guys in the decidedly good camp this weekend: Paul Byrd (8.8 VORP), C.C. Sabathia (13.2), and Fausto Carmona (17.3). the Red Sox will get a shot at the gentlemen in the other camp: Cliff Lee (-3.0) on Monday and Jeremy Sowers (-7.9) on Tuesday, before Byrd comes back around on Wednesday. Jake Westbrook (-8.9) remains shelved on the DL.

Carmona is Sunday's starter, and many are probably wondering if they should allow themselves to catch Fausto Fever, or if he can keep up his early success in light of his low strikeout rate. Since 1959, about 200 pitchers have posted at least 162 innings while striking out 3.5 batters per nine (or fewer); Carmona is currently at 3.25. Only 20 of those 200 have come since 1991, so, in these times of heightened whiffiness, there isn't a lot of recent precedent for Carmona's success. Chien-Ming Wang's 2006 season should be Carmona's greatest inspiration, but there are a handful of others that suggest this can be done under the right circumstances:


VORP: Pitcher, Team                   K9/IP
55.3: Mark Gubicza, 1995 Royals       3.42/213
54.6: Chien-Ming Wang, 2006 Yankees   3.14/218
50.0: Ricky Bones, 1994 Brewers       3.01/171
41.5: Carlos Silva, 2004 Twins        3.37/203
38.9: Kirk Rueter, 2002 Giants        3.36/204
38.4: Carlos Silva, 2005 Twins        3.39/188
37.6: Ricky Bones, 1995 Brewers       3.46/200

Including all such pitchers since 1959, Gubicza's season ranks sixth, and Wang's ninth. This list isn't very inspiring, and is even less encouraging. Gubicza had just one-plus season left in his career after '95, representing a total of 21 starts. Bones only made another 39 starts after 1995, and Silva has been no fun to watch for the past season-plus.

The difference is that this is probably just one of those things. Carmona certainly had a healthier K rate last year in his big league debut (6.81/9), and he whiffed a batter an inning in his last, brief Triple-A stint. He's also only 23, so there's a good chance his rates will improve as he gets older. The highest VORP including all pitchers since 1959 belonged to Bob Shaw of the '59 White Sox. He was 26 at the time, and showed marked improvements in his K rates throughout the rest of his career.

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