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July 20, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

The Bully End

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Mets @ Los Angeles Dodgers

If this were really the Best Matchup, would these two teams have played such a sloppy opener last night? The starting pitchers--Tom Glavine and Derek Lowe--combined to surrender 20 hits, four walks, and 14 earned runs in five innings of work. The Met defense was messy at best, and Nomar Garciaparra defied the logic gods by almost getting nailed going first-to-third on a single with two outs and his team trailing by four runs in the bottom of the 8th; if Carlos Beltran had gotten anything on the throw, he would have been quite out. Instead, Beltran bounced a two-hopper, and the second hop hung up in the air long enough to keep David Wright from getting the tag down in time. As it turned out, Garciaparra was left stranded, but you have to wonder how he had decided that one base mattered at that moment.

It's not like Garciaparra has a lot of margin for error these days. He's playing at about the 10th percentile of his PECOTA projection; considering that he has a negative VORP, that shows how pedestrian PECOTA's expectations were for him. You hate to see a once-great player enter his decline phase so early, especially when the other two members of the Big Three--Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter--are going strong. His Hall of Fame credentials were built on an excellent foundation of five Cooperstown-worthy peak seasons, but another couple of seasons like this one and he'll be done for good without piling on the kinds of numbers that would catch the eyes of voters. Still, though, how many players are there who were predominantly shortstops in their careers who carry slugging averages over .500? Just two, actually: Garciaparra (.527) and Rodriguez (.577). That's going to count for something when the time comes to decide Garciaparra's Hall of Fame fate. Just how much, though, is open to debate.

Of the 93 men in baseball history with career slugging averages over .500, a number of others spent some time at shortstop but are not considered members of that position's fraternity. They are, with the number of games they played at short: Rogers Hornsby, 356; Ed Delahanty and Gary Sheffield, 94 apiece; Chipper Jones, 48; Kevin Mitchell, 25; Mike Schmidt, 24; Troy Glaus, 18; Alfonso Soriano, 10; Mickey Mantle, 7; Dick Allen and Jeff Kent, 3; and Albert Pujols, two innings. Ernie Banks just misses the cut-off with his .4995 career slugging average.

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

The team leaders in VORP in the National League average 10.4 percent of their team's plate appearances, which is right around what you'd expect. These are guys like Miguel Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Ken Griffey, Jr., Derrek Lee, Albert Pujols and Chase Utley. Then there are the Pirates and Astros. Consider the lowest percentages of a team's plate appearances by its VORP leader:

5.6: Ryan Doumit, Pirates
8.4: Hunter Pence, Astros
8.7: Chipper Jones, Braves
8.9: Barry Bonds, Giants

Think about that: a guy who comes up a little more than once per game is the Pirates' VORP leader. You'd like to think that Jason Bay will come hard charging the rest of the way and displace Doumit at the top. Right now, he's playing at about the fifth percentile of his PECOTA projection. On the other hand, PECOTA did not expect last year's other leading Pirate, Freddy Sanchez, to reach the same heights again. He's tracking at about his 40th percentile. Because of the mercurial nature of his 2006 rise, in order to repeat last year's outstanding showing, he would have had to reach the 90th percentile.

Houston's star, Lance Berkman, is in a situation similar to Bay's. He's currently playing around his 10th percentile. Were he up to his usual standards, there would be no opportunity for a rookie who spent the first month of the season at Triple-A to be leading the team.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Chicago White Sox @ Boston Red Sox

Here we have a showdown between the World Champions once- and twice-removed, and it inspires me to play that cruelest of games, the one in which we determine how many players on the lesser team would make the starting lineup of the better.

Catcher: Jason Varitek gets the starting nod, but A.J. Pierzynski would make the squad as his backup.
First base: This is a very close call as both teams' players are currently showing a VORP of 24.7. Moving to WARP3, Kevin Youkilis has a 7.5 to 6.6 edge over Paul Konerko. Konerko would get credit for having done this before, while Youkilis is in his breakout season.
Second base: Dustin Pedroia (22.9) is all over Tadahito Iguchi (6.1).
Third base: Considering that none of the White Sox trio of Joe Crede, Josh Fields, or Pablo Ozuna has a positive VORP, Mike Lowell--an All-Star no less--gets this in a walk.
Shortstop: Not a lot happening here for either team. The lesser of the three evils between Julio Lugo, Juan Uribe, and Alex Cintron is Lugo, with a 3.4 WARP3 to Uribe's 2.6. None has a positive VORP.
Left field: Manny Ramirez by a near forfeit.
Center field: A month ago this might have been more of a battle, but Coco Crisp has come on enough of late to vault himself into a positive VORP situation. That's more than Darin Erstad, Jerry Owens, or Luis Terrero can boast.
Right field: Jermaine Dye and J.D. Drew have both been disappointing. Drew has a slight offensive edge, but Dye comes out on top if we move over to WARP3.
Designated Hitter: The White Sox throw their most-productive hitter into the ring here in the person of Jim Thome, only to find the Red Sox countering with theirs, David Ortiz--Boston wins. By my counting in the starting lineup, that's eight for Boston and one for Chicago, and that one is very, very close.

Starting pitching: A best-foot forward combination of the two teams' rotations would include Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez, and Jon Garland from the White Sox, and Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka from the Red Sox.

Bullpen: Looking at WXRL, you have to go through six Red Sox relievers before you get to a White Sox pitcher. That would be closer Bobby Jenks, who is aced out by Jonathan Papelbon. Then, before you get to Boone Logan, you've got Boston's Javier Lopez. Not to be too reliant on one stat, but an all-Boston pen appears to be in order here.

This might make Boston fans feel that their front office did a better job of post-championship maintenance than Chicago's did, but right now, they still have to beat this team. Boston was also on the bully end of the Biggest Mismatchup earlier in the week, and lost two of three to the Royals. Taken with last night's loss in the opener of this series, that's three of four losses in games they should be expected to win.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Seattle Mariners @ Toronto Blue Jays

In Tuesday's column, I had a list of how teams differed in their Hit List rankings from the same time last year. I inadvertently left the Mariners (37 points better) and Red Sox (up 36) off the list. It was fixed later, thanks to some readers calling attention to the oversight. What do the Mariners need to do to stay at this level? Last year, Raul Ibanez and Richie Sexson were worth about six combined wins over replacement level. This year, they've about zeroed out. The Mariners have managed to improve over last year with no significant contribution from their main first baseman and left fielder. Looking at that entire end of the defensive spectrum, they're one of the less-productive teams in the league. These are the combined VORP of teams' first basemen, left fielders, and designated hitters:

96.0 Red Sox
52.8 Indians
45.3 Tigers
43.5 A's
43.4 Devil Rays
30.5 Angels
27.7 Blue Jays
27.3 Rangers
26.1 Yankees
23.4 Twins
16.1 Mariners
 9.0 Orioles
-0.6 White Sox
-6.0 Royals

There's a difference between putting good players in there, and having them perform below previous norms--as has happened with the Mariners--and putting lesser players in there and hoping for the best, which is the case with the Royals and Orioles. You'd like to make the grand statement that second-half rebounds by Ibanez and Sexson can keep the Mariners relevant in the pennant race, except that Seattle is really only a game or game-and-a-half off of league-average production from these three positions. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are six games above average.

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  The Who

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