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July 6, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Activate Theo Epstein

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (Best combined plain, old, unadulterated won-loss records): Boston Red Sox @ Detroit Tigers

According to the latest BP Playoff Odds, Boston's chances of making the playoffs stand at 98.7 percent. What, then, is to be done the rest of the way to alleviate ennui? Here are a couple ideas:

  • Old-Timers' Day: Not a pre-game three-inning contest, but fielding an actual lineup of Red Sox greats of the past. Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Carlton Fisk, Wade Boggs, Bill Lee, Yaz--bring 'em all in and see how they do.
  • Activate Theo Epstein: It's about time these pointy-headed intellectuals got a taste of the real leather. Get 'em out from behind their desks and stick a bat in their hands and see how they like it. Let's see how they fare without their precious computers and cell phones to fall back on.
  • "Play Like a Champion" Day: In order to raise money for the Jimmy Fund or some other such charity of their choosing, the Sox auction a spot in the starting lineup to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to said charity. It would be anti-climatic if, say, Manny Ramirez were the highest bidder, although he is among that small percentage of people in the world who could afford to make a significant offer. Obviously, players from other teams would be prohibited from bidding.

As for the Tigers, Jim Leyland's team is averaging 6.2 runs per game on the road. No other American League team is over five, although two National Leagues teams are--Philadelphia and Atlanta. How does this stack up historically? In terms of very recent history, it's the best. Since the turn of the century, only one other team has cracked six road runs per game. Not surprisingly, it was the 2001 Mariners at 6.01. The decade before that saw it happening quite a bit, however. The best of the '90s:

6.77: 1994 Yankees
6.50: 1996 Mariners
6.31: 1996 Orioles
6.28: 1999 Indians
6.17: 1996 White Sox

Seven other teams got over six runs as well. The '94 Yanks only played 56 road games, so you can dun them for not getting a chance to normalize. Mid-sixes were routine for league leaders in the 1930s, with the Yankees going above and beyond that three times, most notably in 1936 (7.35), 1930 (7.58) and their remarkable 1939 season in which they scored 7.8 runs per game en route to a .730 road winning percentage. It's interesting to speculate that the Tigers could be scoring even more if they were getting a more typical offensive performance out of their first basemen.

Closest Matchup (Closest combined plain, old, unadulterated won-loss records): Philadelphia Phillies @ Colorado Rockies

The last time I wrote about da Rox, I was extolling the virtues of their remarkably viable (for them) 17-16 road record. Naturally, they lost nine of their next 10 road games and fell to a more typical Roxian 18-25 in that department. The chances that they'll play eight games over .500 on the road the rest of the way and come away with a plus-.500 record there are pretty slim, so forget whatever I wrote on the subject, provided you committed it to memory in the first place. They're laying in wait for the Phillies, as the Rockies are firmly ensconced at home with one of the best local records in the league.

Let's take a look at the all-time Rockies single-season team by position, as judged by VORP:

C: Jeff Reed, 1997        19.4
1B: Todd Helton, 2003     88.5
2B: Eric Young, 1996      33.9
3B: Garrett Atkins, 2006  62.7
SS: Juan Uribe, 2001      18.0
LF: Ellis Burks, 1996     67.6
CF: Preston Wilson, 2003  38.6
RF: Larry Walker, 1997    95.9
SP: Jason Jennings, 2006  50.6
RP: Gabe White, 2000      40.4

The good news for Colorado is that they have three players lined up this year to break onto this all-time team. With a decent second half, Matt Holliday (currently at 39.0) can move past Burks in left, Troy Tulowitzki (13.0) has Uribe in his sights, while Jeff Francis (28.6) could challenge Jennings' 2006 effort. The bad news is that Atkins has pancaked after rushing past Vinny Castilla's 1998 season last year. Catching remains a soft spot for Colorado. Neither of their current backstoppers are in any danger of challenging Reed, as both Yorvit Torrealba and Chris Iannetta are below replacement level. Reed's 1998 season (17.1) is the only other double-figure effort from a Rockies catcher in franchise history. Since the Rockies came into the league in 1993, only the Cardinals and Expos/Nationals have a catcher's best season that is worse than Reed's best; the last time a Cardinals catcher got into double figures in VORP was Todd Zeile in 1990.

The Jimmy Rollins/Aaron Rowand All-Star selection controversy isn't quite as absurd as it's being made out to be. Both have identical VORPs of 25.6 as of this writing. Their WARP3s are about equal as well. In terms of positional context, Rollins actually ranks lower in a more crowded field than does Rowand.

Worst Matchup (Worst combined plain, old, unadulterated won-loss records): Tampa Bay Devil Rays @ Kansas City Royals

This series works a lot better if you look at it as a showdown between the two players who were No. 1 Baseball Prospectus prospects in the last two years. Delmon Young of the Rays was the top guy in 2006, bumped to third by Alex Gordon in this year's book. Having said that, the hype would be easier to generate if one or both were tearing stuff up, but that's not the case. Young showed a little more power in June than he did in the first two months of the season, but he has been essentially the same player throughout the first half of 2007: a slightly above-average outfielder with occasional glimpses of what could be. Gordon has gone a different route--because of his poor jump, he has had the luxury of looking much better in comparison to his earlier self, not that I'm recommending that approach as a matter of course. After a solid June (.327/.383/.500), his July has not gotten off to a great start (one hit in 15 at-bats), but it's just four games.

One thing that Gordon is doing that you haven't seen much of around Kansas City over the years is that he's a low percentage of his OBP has been generated by his batting average. The Royals are well-known as a club that has never placed any particular stress on plate discipline. Because of this, Gordon's relatively modest figure of 71.5 percent would rank him 12th all-time on the team. (71.5 percent of his .323 OBP is represented by his .231 batting average). The all-time Royals single-season record in this regard belongs to John Mayberry at 65.4 percent in 1974; Mayberry actually has three of the top four team spots.

Two things about Gordon "excelling" in this area: First, when his average improves--and it will--he'll have a pretty nice OBP. Second, that's provided that he starts drawing more walks and/or somehow manages to keep getting plunked with great frequency, because he's currently leading the league with 12 soakings. Is this latter point a sustainable goal? Looking at the most-frequently plunked rookies since the turn of the century, we find that most have not been hit as much in the time since they entered the league with a crunch. This chart represents the rookies since 2001 with the highest HBP totals, regardless of number of plate appearances. The frequency of their smackings is registered in the column marked "Freq":


                  Rookie Year      Seasons since
Player           HBP   PA Freq    HBP    PA Freq
David Eckstein    21  664  31.6    89  3331  37.4
Reed Johnson      20  457  22.9    51  1575  30.9
Angel Berroa      18  635  35.3    30  1722  57.4
Keith Ginter      17  415  24.4     7   593  84.7
Jonny Gomes       14  407  29.1    11   599  54.5
Mark Teixeira     14  589  42.1    27  2349  87.0
Lew Ford          13  658  50.6    22   941  42.8
Kenji Johjima     13  542  41.7     6   263  43.8
Ryan Doumit       13  257  19.8    15   358  23.9
Nick Johnson      12  441  36.8    36  1976  54.9
Prince Fielder    12  648  54.0     8   366  45.8
Rickie Weeks      11  414  37.6    24   667  27.8
TOTALS           178 6127  34.4   326 14740  45.2

As you can see, only Lew Ford, Prince Fielder, and Rickie Weeks have increased their rate. Weeks and Fielder are more recent rookies who don't have a lot of post-rookie playing time to make the numbers especially meaningful. In general, this is a very small sample size, but it does show a tendency toward decline. That said, Gordon can grab the 21st century rookie record from David Eckstein if he keeps getting in the way of offerings at his first-half rate, but don't necessarily look for him to sustain that level of plunking participation.

Biggest Mismatchup (Largest disparity in combined plain, old, unadulterated won-loss records): Milwaukee Brewers @ Washington Nationals

J.J. Hardy's inevitable cool-down has been nicely countered by the arrival of Ryan Braun. Prior to Braun's arrival, Hardy was moving along at a .311/.353/.595 clip, but since Braun checked into the lineup on May 25, Hardy has gone .239/.326/.376.

One thing the Brewers have been able to count on that most National League teams have not is offensive support from their catchers. The credo of the backup catcher should be that of the physician: first, do no harm. Many do, though. Not so Damian Miller, up to this point. Combined with Johnny Estrada's second-best VORP among NL catchers, they're one of the more productive tandems in the senior circuit:

Dodgers, 24.5: Russell Martin (27.0) and Mike Lieberthal (-2.5)
Mets, 16.9: Paul LoDuca (9.3) and Ramon Castro (7.6)
Brewers, 15.5: Estrada (11.0) and Miller (4.5)

Tomorrow's a big day in the close-knit Idiot-American community. In countless hamlets and warrens across the land, the foolish will be rushing off to buy lottery tickets in hopes of cashing in on the inherent luck of living through a day with the numerical assignment of 7-7-07. How I envy these simple folk their delusions! In their honor, I am making the following predictions:

Two or more teams will score exactly seven runs.
Five or more pitchers will go exactly seven innings.
Three or more pitchers will strikeout seven batters.

What can I say, I like to live large on such matters.

Related Content:  The Who,  Rookies Of The Year

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