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September 11, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Stuck in the Middle

by Jim Baker

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Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Yankees @ Toronto Blue Jays

It's looking like another third-place finish for the Jays, a team that exists in an orderly universe not of its own design. Not rich (or clever) enough to compete with the resident monsters in its division, yet too clever to allow itself to be cast down among its dregs, Toronto lives a sort of half-life in between. If not for a single foray upwards (2006) and downwards (2004), the Jays would have a complete monopoly on the middle ground. In fact, since the arrival of Tampa Bay in 1998, creating the alignment from which we have come to expect such great regularity, Toronto has not won more than 88 games or fewer than 67. This is not historical or unique (the Red Sox, Orioles, and Devil Rays have trod a narrower band over the same period of time), but it is an indication of the sort of purgatory in which the Jays find themselves.

What hope is there for this franchise? There is always relocation to Vancouver and with it a petition to join the American League West. That isn't a sarcastic suggestion--until such time as Red Sox management takes a turn for the incompetent and both Boston and the Yankees run out of money, what else can Toronto do but beg out of the impossible fray?

The Yankees have an outside shot at becoming the highest-scoring team of the young century. If they maintain their current rate, they'll end up at 956, making them the eighth team to crack 900 runs since 2001. These are the highest run totals of the 21st Century to date:

961: 2003 Red Sox
956: 2007 Yankees (projected)
949: 2004 Red Sox
930: 2006 Yankees
927: 2001 Mariners
923: 2001 Rockies
910: 2005 Red Sox
903: 2003 Braves
897: 2004 Yankees, 2002 Yankees, and 2001 Indians; the 2007 Tigers have a shot at breaking 900 as well.

Even if New York's scoring drops off, this year's edition is still going to be the most prolific Yankees team of the 21st Century. Looking at it another way, since the end of World War II, only two Yankee teams have scored more runs on a per-game basis. The 1998 team that won 114 games scored 5.96 runs per game. The 1950 team (which actually scored 113 fewer runs than second-place Boston that year) scored 5.93 per game, and this year's edition is currently at 5.90. Considering that they were averaging barely over five per game on May 28 (at which point they were only 22-29 despite of outscoring their opponents), this is an impressive accomplishment--provided you think a very talented team finding its true level is impressive.

Best National League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Atlanta Braves @ New York Mets

How much has Andruw Jones' poisoned walk year cost the Braves? Right now, their chances of winning the wildcard are down to under two percent according to the BP Postseason Odds report. For his part, Jones has posted a VORP of 6.8--less than a victory above a replacement-level center fielder. Looking at his previous five seasons, we find an average of 42.8. I think we can conservatively say that had Jones given a typical Jones performance in 2007, the Braves would be three wins to the good. It wouldn't get them the division title, but it would have them in a better position for the Wild Card.

Watching the Mets' Moises Alou launch 465-foot homers and rip doubles over third base during the last few weeks got me to wondering about bat-speed guys. At 41, he seems to have lost none of his ability to get his bat from behind him to in front of him on the double quick. The same can be said for Gary Sheffield, another aging (38) bat-speed merchant. What I am wondering is this: at what point do their swings fall back to normal major league levels? My thought is that they never will--at least while we can see it. Other parts of their games and/or bodies will preclude them from continuing their playing careers long before their ability to unlimber faster than all other humans does.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Tampa Bay Devil Rays @ Boston Red Sox

Carlos Pena would pretty much have to lose his way to the stadium for most of the rest of the season to not have the best year ever by a Devil Ray (relative to peers at his position around the league). With his VORP sitting at 54.1, he is just a couple hits away from ousting the 2003 version of Aubrey Huff from the franchise's all-time single-season top spot.

As if you needed further proof of the dichotomy between these clubs, consider that Pena's VORP gets him just about as close to the Red Sox team leader as any Devil Ray has ever been:


VORP Leaders (Overall Rank)
Year Red Sox                        Devil Rays
2007 David Ortiz, 68.9 (4th)        Carlos Pena, 54.1 (18th)
2006 David Ortiz, 76.8 (6th)        Carl Crawford, 41.1 (48th)
2005 David Ortiz, 75.8 (4th)        Julio Lugo, 42.5 (39th)
2004 David Ortiz, 61.2 (17th)       Aubrey Huff, 40.0; (43rd)
2003 Manny Ramirez, 67.9 (9th)      Aubrey Huff, 54.2 (22nd)
2002 Manny Ramirez, 75.6 (7th)      Randy Wynn, 41.4 (43rd)
2001 Manny Ramirez, 66.0 (20th)     Fred McGriff, 31.0 (65th)
2000 Nomar Garciaparra, 95.7 (3rd)  Greg Vaughn, 22.0 (108th)
1999 Nomar Garciaparra, 88.9 (3rd)  Fred McGriff, 52.9 (32nd)
1998 Nomar Garciaparra, 79.5 (6th)  Fred McGriff, 19.5 (111th)

The only other season in which the two team leaders were this close was 2003. Overall, the average Red Sox team leader has averaged an eighth-place finish and a VORP of 76.5; the Rays' leaders have averaged 39.9 VORP and a ranking in the low fifties. The good news for the Rays is that their third-ranked player in 2007--Carl Crawford--is sitting at number 42, the place around which their highest players usually reside.

When will a Tampa Bay team leader top a Boston leader? It could be as early as next year. I'm not counting on Pena to pony up again--which is not to say his 2007 season is a fluke. It's not, but it could still prove to be the high water mark of his career, given his age (29). My money is on current number two man B.J. Upton.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): San Diego Padres @ Los Angeles Dodgers

Jake Peavy takes the mound tonight against Esteban Loaiza, this time on a full complement of rest. His brief experiment with the short store-up resulted in a disaster start; that's not to say short rest can't work for him, just that it didn't. In spite of that sidestep, Peavy is wrapping up to what will prove to be the second-best season ever by a Padres pitcher. In 39 years of history, only Kevin Brown's 1998 VORP (81.9) betters Peavy's 2007 effort (65.6 and counting). In fact, this is Peavy's fifth full season and he has already posted three of the top eight VORP figures for Padres pitchers all-time. His 2004 ranks sixth and his 2005 ranks eighth.

The Dodgers have the second-best projected record in the National League, but the BP Postseason Odds report is saying their chances of participating on the field past September are not good. They have a better shot at the Wild Card than they do the division, and would help that particular cause greatly if they swept the Padres in this series, as San Diego is the Wild Card frontrunner according to the Odds Report:


Chances  Team
33.3     Padres
26.5     Phillies
17.6     Diamondbacks
13.3     Dodgers
 5.9     Rockies

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