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June 27, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Sacrifices and Spark Plugs

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Oakland A's @ Cleveland Indians

The A's have allowed the second-fewest runs on the road this year, while the Indians have scored the most at home. The odds of seeing a sacrifice bunt in this series are pretty low, as these are the bottom two teams in baseball in that department. Is it a coincidence that the Best Matchup features the teams that rely on the sacrifice the least? Looking at the team leaders and trailers in that department over the past five years--top four and bottom four for each year--this is what we find:

    Aggregate record of American League teams with most sacrifices, 2002-2006: 1553-1687 / .479

    Aggregate record of American League teams with least sacrifices, 2002-2006: 1758-1480 / .543

To get rid of some skew, let's toss out the 2003 Tigers, a team that led the league in sacs and lost 119 games, and the 2002 Yankees. At 103-58, they had the best record of any of the sacrifice-averse clubs. Without them, the gap narrows to .538 to .491. As much as I'd like to be able to say as much, it is not possible to speak in absolute terms and say that good teams don't sacrifice a lot and bad teams do. There are two World Champions (2002 Angels and 2005 White Sox) on the high list and three other 90-win teams. However, there are also nine 90-loss teams (out of 20) and only two 90-loss teams in the low group.

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

Something occurred to me last night watching John Kruk on Baseball Tonight: the concept of the spark plug player predates the very invention of the spark plug. It was Kruk's comment that the main problem with the 2007 White Sox was the absence of Scott Podsednik from the lineup that made me realize that baseball men have been enamored with the firestarter-type player for a long, long time, to the point that they are obsessed with the concept above and beyond specific achievement. What I mean by this is that players who do the sorts of things that spark plug types do--hustle, try to steal bases, go full bore--create the illusion of their necessity to those around the game whether or not those things lead to meaningful results. This isn't to say a spark plug player isn't useful; they are, provided they do concrete things to help a team, like get on base frequently, steal at a high percentage, provide a modicum of power and work the count.

Podsednik's absence in 2007 would seem like a hindrance in that the White Sox are 6-5 when he starts and 24-37 when he doesn't, but when an entire offense is floundering outside of the designated hitter, that's pure coincidence. Remember that he was a full win below replacement level last year, and that the Sox would have won the division by five games in 2005 if they'd replaced him with a replacement-level outfielder.

The White Sox have a team road OBP of .298. No American League team has been below .300 since the turn of the century--not even the 2003 Tigers. They've also got the worst stolen base percentage in the league.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Kansas City Royals @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

All-Star teams, based purely on VORP:

National League: Russell Martin, catcher; Prince Fielder, first base; Chase Utley, second base; Miguel Cabrera, third base; Jose Reyes, shortstop; Matt Holliday, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., outfield. (As of this writing, Hunter Pence has a slight lead on Griffey, but it's the kind of lead that can vanish in two at-bats, so I went with the known commodity.)

American League: Jorge Posada, catcher; Kevin Youkilis, first base; Brian Roberts, second base; Alex Rodriguez, third base; Derek Jeter, shortstop; Magglio Ordonez, Ichiro Suzuki and Vladimir Guerrero, outfield. At last report, Guerrero had 50 percent more votes than the next-highest outfielder, so he's looking like a lock.

The thought that the Angels could come up with Alex Rodriguez in the offseason has got to be a daunting one for the A's, Mariners and Rangers. Plugging him in at third base would represent an improvement of about six games, given a 20 VORP from the position this year and a modest projection of 80 for Rodriguez in 2008. Modest in that, if he repeats his first half this year, he'll finish with a VORP of about 110--the highest for a Yankee in the expansion era. Using MLVr, it would still be the best modern Yankee season:

.612: Rodriguez, 2007
.610: Mickey Mantle, 1961
.556: Mantle, 1962
.553: Paul O'Neill, 1994
.524: Mantle, 1963
.453: Bobby Murcer, 1971
.449: Rodriguez, 2002
.448: Jason Giambi, 2002
.444: Mantle, 1964
.443: Derek Jeter, 1999
Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Toronto Blue Jays @ Minnesota Twins

Frank Thomas hit his 499th career home run on Sunday. If he's like most of the other 500 Club members, we won't have long to wait to see him join their ranks. So far, he's batted five times sitting on 499. Here's what his predecessors did in his situation:

Next at bat: The first man in is the only player to have done this so far. Babe Ruth hit number 499 in his last at-bat in Cleveland on August 10, 1929 and led off the second inning the next day with number 500.

One game: Three players hit their 500th on the second at-bat after 499: Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Mark McGwire. Eddie Mathews and Barry Bonds did it in their fourth at-bat after 499, also in the very next game. Mike Schmidt and Frank Robinson were next-gamers, too; Schmidt in six at-bats with two walks, Robinson in seven. Robinson's 499th and 500th came in the first and second games of a doubleheader.

Two games: Reggie Jackson hit his in the second game after 499 on the sixth official at-bat. He had also walked twice. Mel Ott pinch-hit in his first game after clouting number 499 on July 31, 1945 in the first game of a doubleheader. He hit number 500 the next day. Thomas could join them with a homer tonight.

Three games: Willie McCovey took eight at-bats and a walk and Ernie Banks took nine with a walk.

Four games: Rafael Palmeiro had 10 at-bats and three walks while Hank Aaron had 14 with one walk. Sammy Sosa hit his 499th on the last day of the 2002 season. He hit number 500 in the fourth game of 2003 in at-bat number 12. He also drew seven walks in the interim.

Six games: Eddie Murray took 22 at-bats (with two walks) and Ken Griffey, Jr. took 23 at-bats with four passes.

Eight games: Mickey Mantle got his on the 29th attempt, with five walks thrown in.

14 games: What nobody wants for Thomas is what Harmon Killebrew endured, sitting on 499 for what is likely the longest stretch before nailing 500 on his 41st official at-bat. Killebrew did draw 15 walks during this period.

I don't have complete data on Jimmie Foxx, but he hit number 499 on September 4, 1940 and number 500 on September 24. It is possible that his in-between drought was longer than Killebrew's.

Thomas has a .287 unadjusted EqA, which is decent enough. The 39-year old on the Blue Jays who really deserves some attention, though, is Matt Stairs. Here's a player who didn't get his first big league at-bat until he was 24, his first real playing time until he was 28 and his first full season until he was 30. Mostly what he has done in his life is hit. At an age when most men with his basic physical configuration are reaching for their blood pressure meds, he's got an EqA of .312 and remains a very potent left-handed half of a platoon.

Thanks to Rob Neyer for research help.

Related Content:  The Who,  Hit List,  Baseball Prospectus 2002

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