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June 15, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Opponent Experience Factor

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim @ Los Angeles Dodgers

I still say that interleague play destroys the mystique of a natural rivalry World Series. We saw it in 2000 when a nation yawned as the Mets played the Yankees, having already seen them do so six times that year and six times the year before, and knowing they would be able to see it six times per season in perpetuity. Given their respective chances of making the playoffs, the Angels (70.2 percent) and the Dodgers (58.6) could well meet in the 2007 World Series. Had such an event occurred in the 1980s, it would have had a lot more juice than it would now. In other words, the groom has seen the bride in her dress before the ceremony--and without it, too many times to count.

The counter-argument to that is this: why wait around for one of these infrequent natural rivalry World Series to occur? Actually, the real counterargument from MLB would be this: Who cares what you think, jerk? We don't give a damn that the positives of interleague play are far outweighed by the negatives--we're doing it anyway.

The closest these two teams have gotten to being in a World Series together occurred three years ago, when both won their divisions. Between them they won only one playoff game, though, so it was only a realistic idea for the brief time that elapsed between them clinching their titles and the LDS to start.

One record that could fall this year is the best combined won-lost percentage between these two clubs. They're currently at 80-53, for a .602 combined mark. These are their five best tandem efforts prior to 2007:

2002: 191-133/.590
1962: 189-138/.578 (Do the '62 Angels get enough historical ink? That a second-year team finished in third place, 10 games over .500 with the strictures placed on expansion clubs back then is one of the great achievements in baseball history.)
2004: 185-139/.571
1985: 185-139/.571
1978: 181-143/.559

So, if one or both get waylaid on the way to the Series, they at least have a shot at that.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half) : Chicago White Sox @ Pittsburgh Pirates

At this juncture, these teams have fairly similar records: 28-38 for the Pirates, and 27-35 for the White Sox. Since they are coming from two different places--the White Sox from above, the Pirates from below--we would anticipate that they will separate and go their separate ways as the season goes on. Our natural inclination is to think the White Sox are going to play better the rest of the way, while Pittsburgh will continue to be Pittsburgh.

As reader Scott Long pointed out in response to the White Sox sporting a Rumsfeld Number of nearly 50 percent, the decline of the offense has been pretty amazing. Scott is right--while it's not unreasonable for a group that averages over 31 years of age to slow down a bit, the White Sox regulars are going down en masse. Consider their career EqAs as opposed to their 2007 EqAs marks:

Player              Career  2007
C A.J. Pierzynski    .269   .243
1B Paul Konerko      .289   .277
2B Tadahito Iguchi   .274   .261
3B Joe Crede         .259   .207
SS Juan Uribe        .244   .229
LF Rob Mackowiak     .260   .244
CF Darin Erstad      .270   .246
RF Jermaine Dye      .280   .254
DH Jim Thome         .327   .362

These are the nine most-active White Sox players. Among them, only Thome is surpassing his career EqA mark. He's also the oldest in the group, for whatever that's worth. The differences are actually slightly more pronounced in that the career mark includes 2007, which means it's been dragged down a bit in all cases but Thome's. And yes, Erstad's .246 is a much better reflection of who he is now than the .270 he amassed based largely on things that happened a long time ago.

The question is: can this be sustained? My thinking is no: some or most of the White Sox will move closer to their career norms or be replaced. If the starting pitching holds up, they should be able to play .500 ball the rest of the way, putting a bit of space between them and the Pirates, but not that much. A .500 record the rest in the remainder of their games still leaves them in the low 70s in the win column, though. Oh well. White Sox fans can console themselves by carrying around a laminated picture of the 2005 World Series trophy. It's more than most teams of recent vintage have.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings) : St. Louis Cardinals @ Oakland Athletics

Not to oversimplify things here, but there is something to be said for clear-cut organizational goals. Looking at walks since the turn of the century for instance, we find the same four teams finishing at the top of the American League over and over again: New York, Boston, Oakland, and Cleveland. If we were to assign points based on top-four finishes on a sliding scale (four for first, three for second, two for third and one for fourth), Boston and New York would have 18, Oakland would have 16, and Cleveland would have eight since 2001. All other teams combined would score 10. From 2001 through what has elapsed in 2007 so far, these four teams have taken 23 of the top 28 spots. This is not a case of small sample sizes: this is real life.

Looking at all American League teams, the Yankees have walked the most in the 21st Century, with 4,045 free passes drawn; the Tigers are last at 2,813. The median for the league is 3,311. The seven teams above it have combined to win nearly 500 more games than the seven below. Does that sound like a lot? Maybe that's gilding the lily on the argument too much. It works out to about one game per team per season.

Kip Wells' sixth Disaster Start of the year put the Cardinals in fine shape against Kansas City yesterday. At the rate he's going--provided he can somehow stay in the rotation through all this--Wells can lose 25 games. It's all about maximization of opportunities. Because he has so many no-doubt-about-it outings, Wells has managed to come away with a decision in all but one of his 14 starts. That's not easy to do in this day and age, but getting your team way behind early on--the very essence of a Disaster Start--has put him in a place rarely found in the modern game. The last time somebody had as many as 22 losing decisions was in 1974, when Bill Bonham went 11-22 for the Cubs in spite of being nowhere near the worst starter on their staff. Only two men in the expansion era have lost more: Jack Fisher of the '66 Mets and Roger Craig of the '62 team both lost 24 games. To find a pitcher with more losses than that, you have to go all the way back to 1935, when Paul Cantwell logged 25 defeats for the Boston Braves.

Sorry to delve into the arcane world of pitching losses--a stat I have to confess I'm barely acquainted with anymore--but when a pitcher gets to 11 big L's by Flag Day, attention must be paid. We won't see Wells get a chance to approach Craig, Fisher, and Cantwell--or even Bonham and the other 22-game losers (Dick Ellsworth '66, Roger Craig '63, Robin Roberts '57, etc.)--but he is doing exactly what needs to be done to get there, and would do so if the decision to proceed was not in the hands of his employers.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings) : New York Mets @ New York Yankees

You know what would be cool? How about a car that ran on human sweat or one that ran on positive thoughts transferred from your brain via a crystal worn on your forehead which interfaced with a larger crystal connected to the driveline. Wouldn't that be beautiful? Yes, you'd have to concentrate more on your driving, but the air would be cleaner and the only strife in the world would be over who gets to control the places where the crystals come from. What would really be cool, though, is a system that calculates the relative strength of a team's opponent at any given moment in a season. For the moment, let's call it the Miracle Braves Rating.

As you no doubt learned in summer school, the 1914 Braves stumbled out of the gate and hobbled around the first turn. On June 8, their record stood at 12-28. They played .500 ball for the next month and improved somewhat to 26-40. Then they smoked the league (19-6 in August and 26-5 in September) and won the pennant by 10 games. "Miracle" is probably too strong a word, but "Turnaround Braves" doesn't have a much of a ring to it. Obviously, playing those Braves early in the season was a different experience than playing them later on. For instance, when the Reds met them on May 13, Boston was 1-8-1 in their last 10 games, surrendering 49 runs against 29 scored. When they met on September 23, the Braves were 8-1-1 over their last 10 with a run ratio of 55-32. For the Reds, these were two diverse playing experiences. Is there a way to quantify that? Can we assign a value to a victory based on the opponent has done in the last five games? The last 10? Furthermore, how relevant is this?

As we know, previous performance does not guarantee future performance, but it would still be interesting to see the immediate quality of a team's opponents over a course of a season. A team might be at full strength in one meeting and decimated by injuries in another.

All that would be left would be to assign a value to each win. For instance, a victory over a team that had an equal amount of runs scored and allowed would be worth one full point. A victory over the early version of the '14 Braves might be worth 0.5. A victory over the late-season version might be worth 1.5. We could decide it might not be that simple, that the quality of the opponents that led to that record would have to be taken into account as well. The quality of the starting pitchers could also be taken into account. After all, it is possible for a team to miss the meat end of a rotation in a given series or, conversely, face the brunt of it. The ballparks where the previous games were played would also have to be considered. So as not to skew the numbers too much, extreme blowouts could be tossed out of the accounting. These are all details that can be worked out later. The important thing is that we take our nation's best minds and gather them in one location and let them labor on it unhindered by budgetary restrictions until they've got it all figured out.

Its relevance to this series is this: the last time the Mets played the Yankees, they were facing an opponent that had gone 4-6 with 38/38 RS/RA in the previous 10 games. This time around, they're 9-1 and 71-30. I've often wondered if there was some poor team out there that happened to spend the majority of its season mostly playing clubs that were at their very best. I think that's more likely now than it was in antiquity, when teams only had seven opponents. These days, a National League team faces 19 or 20 different clubs in a season. I'm sure that, in most cases, things even out in the end, but it would sure be interesting to see if there have been clubs who have had extreme opponent experiences. In fact, Opponent Experience Factor might be a better name for this than the Miracle Braves Number.

Related Content:  The Who

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