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September 21, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Straight to the Top

by Jim Baker

Best, worst, closest: these things matter not at this juncture. What we're after from here on out is relevancy to survival. With that in mind, here the matchups that can still impact the standings at the top of the National League, and--although it's really not germane to what awaits in October--the American League East as well.

National League East
Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals
New York Mets @ Florida Marlins

Having an 81.7 percent chance of winning the division with two weekends to go in the season sounds like a pretty sweet deal, unless you consider that less than a week ago, that was a 98.5 percent chance. Watching the Mets play of late, especially last night, when they blew a three-run lead in the ninth, makes 81.7 percent seem generous. Remember, though, that in order to get to this place, the Mets and Phillies have had to have extreme results (1-6 and 7-1 respectively) and that these are not necessarily sustainable on either end.

When last the Mets fell on their faces--getting swept in a four-game series with Philadelphia as part of a five-game losing streak in late August--they rebounded by winning nine of 10. A 1-6 record in their last seven games does not guarantee more of the same the rest of the way; the same goes for the Phillies. What is more likely is a reversion to form, which would suggest a 6-4 record for them and 5-4 for Philadelphia to close out the season. If the Mets can manage to go 6-4 in their final 10 games, the Phillies would have to go 7-2 to catch them. That's 7-2 on top of a 7-1 run to close out the season 14-3. It's been done before, so it isn't impossible, but it's a tall order. If the Mets can only manage a 5-5 record from here on out, then the Phillies can catch them with a 6-3 showing (Philadelphia owns the tiebreaker in a big way with a 12-6 head-to-head against New York this year). Somehow, that sounds possible and, given the way the two teams have been playing of late, probable. That's just the problem, though: allowing recent events to cloud our vision of the future is not the best way to operate. BP postseason odds still has the Mets winning the division 817,589 times out of a million tries in its simulations. That's not a guarantee, mind you--no more than their 98.5 percent chance was a guarantee last week--but it does help illustrate how hard it is to overcome something as seemingly small as a one-and-a-half-game lead.

This discussion would probably be moot had the Mets held their 7-4 lead over the Marlins and the Nationals had clung to their 6-2 lead over the Phillies. In Washington, the difference was the bullpens. Six Phillies relievers were called on to bail out Kyle Lohse in the wake of his disaster start (six runs allowed in two innings) and they put up a line worthy of a number one starter. In seven innings, J.D. Durbin, Kane Davis, Clay Condrey, J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon, and Brett Myers combined to allow no runs on two hits and four walks while striking out seven. That would count as a Game Score of 76. (Meanwhile, the Nats bullpen allowed five runs on four hits and three walks in three innings.) A Game Score of 76 would just sneak into the Phillies' top 10 this year. Cole Hamels has four better or as good (86, 80, 78 and 76). Lohse has three (85, 78, and 77), and Jamie Moyer (77), Jon Lieber (92) and J.D. Durbin (77) have one each. Adam Eaton, Freddy Garcia and Kyle Kendrick don't have any that high. If the Phils do manage to prevail in the divisional race, their domination over the Mets would have to be one of the major factors, but let's not let this outing by a sextet of relievers go forgotten.

National League Central
Pittsburgh Pirates @ Chicago Cubs
Milwaukee Brewers @ Atlanta Braves

Why are the Cubs getting the overwhelming odds love from the Postseason Odds report? Some of it has to do with the scheduling. The Cubs get the Pirates, Marlins, and Reds in their final three series (all in the twenties in the BP Hit List rankings) while the Brewers take on the Braves (10th), Cardinals (22nd) and Padres (seventh).

It is very possible that we are witnessing the bulk of Pittsburgh's Nyjer Morgan's major league career this month. He's a 27-year-old rookie who hasn't exactly torn it up with the bat in his first big league trial, but years from now, I'd like to remember him, if only for the catch he made against the Astros a week ago. Think of how many players come to the bigs and don't do anything nearly as spectacular--and that was one spectacular catch. If nothing else, he'll always have that, and that's more than a lot of people can say.

National League West
Los Angeles Dodgers @ Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies @ San Diego Padres

There is an outside shot that no team in the National League will win 90 games this season. According to the simulations done for the Postseason Odds Report, the average wins by position for the first-place teams in each division are 90.4 for the East, 85.1 for the Central, and 91.0 for the West. The chances of it happening in both the East and the West seem remote--at least one or both the Padres and D'backs should get there--but it brings up the question: has this ever happened before? Putting aside seasons with extremely shortened schedules (American League 1901-1902, both leagues 1918-1919, 1981, and 1994) it has happened on just four occasions, none of which has come since the advent of the 162-game schedule: the 1926 Cardinals, 89-65; the 1944 Browns, 89-65; the 1945 Senators, 88-65; and the 1959 Dodgers, 88-68. The Dodgers finished their schedule with just 86 wins, and then swept the Milwaukee Braves in a best-of-three tiebreaker.

How much of a miscalculation was the Juan Pierre signing by the Dodgers? I was looking at Cubs center fielders and their lack of production and started compiling a quick reference list of all the National League teams and the combined OPS of their center fielders, thinking the Cubs would come in last. My assumption was wrong: their .692 mark was higher than the Marlins (.688) and the Dodgers (.682), where Pierre has gotten 98 percent of the playing time. In a way, the first year of the five-year, $45 million deal is turning out even worse than its harshest critics could have imagined--with a WARP3 of 3.3, Pierre is headed for the lowest-rated season of his seven-year career.

Think about this: Pierre is performing at a level usually reserved for players who are paid the kind of money most owners keep in their socks for trips downtown. Clustered around Pierre in the National League center fielder VORP rankings (where he is at 14.6 in spite of having 40 more plate appearances than his nearest competitor) are such players as Willy Taveras (the downwardly mobile person's Pierre), rookie Chris B. Young, Ryan Spilborghs, and Norris Hopper. Would you pay any of them $9 million a year? Non-prospect Rajai Davis of the Giants has produced nearly as much in one-quarter of the at-bats as Pierre. Can we make the assumption that this money spent elsewhere would have the Dodgers playing relevant baseball at this late date rather than hoping to act as spoiler against the Diamondbacks? That's a stretch, but you'd like to think for $9 million they'd at least be getting a league-average performance. Conservatively, I would say that Pierre has cost them two games in the standings; not quite enough to catapult them into the playoff mix, but still, a shameful waste of money.

American League East
Toronto Blue Jays @ New York Yankees
Boston Red Sox @ Tampa Bay Devil Rays

There's nothing at stake here really other than historical continuity--he Red Sox want to disrupt it, and the Yankees want to sustain it. A second-place finish for New York will snap a streak of nine consecutive first-place finishes. The Braves hold the record with 11 from 1995 to 2005, unless you're not counting 1994, in which case it's 14. If you are counting 1994, that would make 15 consecutive years finishing in either first or second place. The Yanks have already locked up second place this year, which would also give them 15 straight years finishing either first or second. They have never done this before as a franchise, owing to a few seasons where they fell to third place during otherwise good extended runs: 1930, 1940, and 1959. Had they finished second instead of third in 1930 and 1940, they would have had such a stretch going from 1926 to 1943. A second-place finish in 1959 would have given them a 16-season ride from 1949 to 1964. Whether they catch the Red Sox or not, this run that began humbly with a second-place finish in 1993 is an impressive one.

Earlier this season, it appeared as though James Shields was going to challenge for the title of best season ever by a Rays pitcher. He's going to come up short, but he and tonight's starter, Scott Kazmir, are poised to finish two-three all-time behind Rolando Arrojo's showing in the team's inaugural year. Since the Rays came into being, the Red Sox have seen eight pitching seasons of a higher VORP than Arrojo's team-best 59.0. If Josh Beckett, Kazmir's opponent tonight, fares well in his last two starts, he'll make it nine.

That's the most in the American League. Here's how many pitchers other teams have had best Arrojo since the inception of the Rays: Twins (7), Mariners and A's (5), Blue Jays (4), White Sox (3), and then the Angels, Orioles, and Yankees (2). The Indians will have their first two this year, provided C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona hold it together during their last couple of starts. Three teams have had zero: the Tigers (highest was Brian Moehler with 51.3 in 1998), the Royals (Jose Rosado, 50.6 in 1999), and the Rangers (Kenny Rogers, 45.7 in 2000).

If you're a Rays fan (and that's what you'll officially be called starting next year, when they drop the bedeviled portion of their name), you've got to be embiggened by the fact that the second- and third-best seasons are happening right now.

Related Content:  Philadelphia Phillies,  The Streak

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