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September 28, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

The Matchups That Matter

by Jim Baker

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Do you ever watch any of those science programs that describe the universe and its infinite vastness? What happens in your brain when they start throwing around the number of stars that exist in our own galaxy? What about when they start talking about how many galaxies there are and how each has its own multitude of stars? I know what happens to my brain when it tries to get a grip on those numbers-it starts to seize up. There is friction among the moving parts causing a great grinding noise and not a little bit of smoke.

Much the same thing happens-albeit on a smaller scale-when I try to comprehend the many possible permutations of the National League playoff picture heading into this weekend. Fortunately for my overheated lobe, the chance that five teams will finish with the same record is off the books. That only alleviates some of the confusion, however. Perhaps it's best to let it all play itself out, and not concern ourselves with the whys and the wherefores. In the end, someone of authority will let us know what has happened and whether or not we need to call in sick on Monday to watch a tiebreaker game or two.

Nonetheless, this is going to be some weekend. Here are the five matchups involving teams that still have relevancy in the Postseason Odds Report. The numbers in parentheses indicate each team's chances of winning its division, the wildcard, and of making the postseason.

Washington Nationals @ Philadelphia Phillies (50.3 - 8.7 - 59.1)

It will be interesting to see how N.A.U.S.T.-The National Alliance of Unaligned Spoiler Teams-plays its part this weekend. Washington and Florida have already been up to some mischief this week, while Cincinnati was losing three straight to fellow also-ran Houston. Tonight's starter for the Nationals, Tim Redding, had a nice outing against the Phillies in his last start and is having a decent enough comeback. Tomorrow's starter, Matt Chico, is usually an accident waiting to happen, but Sunday's starter Jason Bergmann is not, although he has shown some home run susceptibility in his brief career, which is not the best tendency to have heading into Philadelphia.

I know a good number of fans of both the Mets and Phillies. As you can imagine, the former group is pretty frustrated at the moment. One phrase I keep hearing from them is "this team doesn't deserve to win." It's true, they haven't played like a team that is earning its way into the playoffs, while the Phillies have gone 11-3 over the last two weeks. One thing I haven't heard any Phillies fan say is this: "This team doesn't deserve to win after the start it had." It's hard to remember now, but the Phillies were 3-10 after the first couple weeks of the season, and it appeared as though manager Charlie Manuel's days were numbered. (In hindsight, I'll bet the Phillies are glad they had a couple rainouts during that stretch, games which were moved to a part of the season in which they were playing much better.) It's a very hard concept to grasp, but the games in April count as much as the ones this weekend. Had the Phillies played .500 ball in the season's opening fortnight, they'd have the postseason clinched by now. I'm just saying…

Prediction: Phillies take two

Florida Marlins @ New York Mets (49.7 - 8.8 - 58.5)

One magic autumn, there was a magic number fluttering next to a team whenever it appeared in the standings. Then, magically, that magic number vanished as though it had never been there in the first place!

Of the seven teams still in contention, New York has the easiest assignment this weekend in terms of the pitchers it's facing. Byung-Hyun Kim goes for Florida tonight; he's had one quality start in five tries since returning to the rotation at the beginning of this month. In all, he's given up 25 runs in 25 1/3 innings pitched in September; he pitched much better as a starter in his first go-round with the Marlins earlier this season. Tomorrow's starter is rookie Chris Seddon, who has made three starts lasting 15 2/3 innings, and in which he's allowed 14 runs on 26 baserunners. Sunday's choice for the Marlins is Dontrelle Willis, who is 11-3 lifetime against the Mets, but who is capping the worst season of his career.

Of course, this isn't really the issue for the Mets. Prior to last night's shutdown against Joel Pineiro, they had torn off a sequence of scoring that looks like this: 8, 8, 7, 9, 7, 7, 4, 9, 6. Given average pitching, a reasonable expectation for a scoring run like that would be to go 7-2, losing the four- and six-run efforts. (Although you might expect to go 8-1 as well, since an average pitching effort should result in a win if six runs are scored to support it.) Perhaps one blowup might cost a team one of the seven-run games, dropping the record to 6-3. Instead, the Mets went 4-5 over this span, allowing the Phillies the opportunity to tie them for the lead heading into the last weekend of the season. So, even if we assume Kim and Seddon will perform exactly as they have of late and Willis will not repeat his mastery over the Cubs from earlier this week, the Mets still have to get something out of their pitching staff that they haven't gotten much of lately in order to stay relevant and avoid achieving the second-greatest collapse in history. If they can't beat Kim, Seddon, and Willis, then the Mets will have earned their place in the history books.

Prediction: Mets take two

Arizona Diamondbacks (63.8 - 19.1 - 82.9) @ Colorado Rockies (16.0 - 17.9 - 33.9)

One hundred and three runs. That's the differential that separates these two clubs. The Rockies are 92 runs to the good, and the Diamondbacks are 11 runs to the bad. The Rockies have a slight edge in head-to-head meetings this year, outscoring Arizona 69-64 while taking eight of 15. The D'backs are looking pretty after holding Brandon Webb back a day and getting an outstanding performance from Micah Owings in Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon. Webb now faces Jeff Francis tonight in the most intriguing pitching matchup of the 21 contests that involve contending teams this weekend.

If someone had told a Rockies fan that his or her team would have a 33 percent chance of making the postseason heading into the final weekend, they'd consider the year a success, right? I would have to say that of the seven teams still in it, the Rockies are the one club that won't have to kick itself if it comes up short. There were already-high expectations for each of the other six teams. Even if the Rockies get swept, this is already their best season ever. Small consolation? Not hardly.

It is quite likely that all four American League playoff qualifiers will have more wins than the best National League team. Since the transition to the three-division format this has not occurred before. If we look at the win rankings of the eight playoff-bound teams and seed them accordingly, the American League is one through four this year, while the National is five through eight. If we add the total of the seeds, the AL is at 10 (1+2+3+4) and the NL is at 26 (5+6+7+8); 26-10 is the most extreme count there can be.

We can get a very rough accounting of the seeding in the Wildcard Era by looking at this, an accounting of the seeds for each season:


Year  AL    NL
2007  10    26
2006  13.5  22.5
2005  14    22
2004  19    17
2003  17.5  18.5
2002  14    22
2001  13    23
2000  24    12
1999  23    13
1998  15    21
1997  18.5  17.5
1996  17    19
1995  15    21

That makes just four out of 13 seasons that the National League had an edge, with a significant one in only 1999 and 2000. We know that seeds don't amount to much when it comes time to playing the actual postseason games. This is not very scientific, but it does show how the top end of the American League has been getting over of late. The NL held down the last three spots in both 2005 and 2006.

Prediction: Diamondbacks take two

Chicago Cubs (92.9 - 0.0 - 92.9) @ Cincinnati Reds

The Cubs have drawn the second-toughest pitching opponent of any of the contenders in the person of Aaron Harang, who starts tomorrow for the Reds; only Brandon Webb, tonight's starter for Arizona against Colorado, qualifies as a tougher mark. Of course, the Central race could be over by then, making that observation moot.

With the Cubs so close to the postseason again, I suddenly just started wondering how many people have dressed as Steve Bartman for Halloween since 2003. Bartman exists as a living example for those trying to instill cautionary skills in their children. In every child's room there should be a poster of Bartman-pictured in his acute obliviousness to circumstances-bearing the admonition: "Think Before You Act." I suppose there should be another poster hanging next to it which also pictures Bartman but reads, "Forgiveness is a Virtue."

Prediction: Reds take two

San Diego Padres (20.2/45.4/65.6) @ Milwaukee Brewers (7.1/0.0/7.1)

One of the recurring themes in sports journalism is how players and teams respond to distractions. When there is something going on in our lives apart from the task at hand, are we constantly flashing to that other thing in our minds? Are we to believe that Padres players are repeating a "Milton Bradley…Milton Bradley…Milton Bradley…" mantra over and over in their heads to the point that it obfuscates all other thought? Considering that the Padres have won three of four since the Bradley unpleasantness, probably not. This means that they are overcoming distraction, right? You can believe one of two things:

  1. Distractions cause teams to lose.
  2. Distractions cause teams to focus more and win.

Or, you can suspect what I do, which is this-professional athletes can tune out distractions and continue to play at about the same level they did without the distraction.

I wonder if the Pads will be tempted to use Jake Peavy on short rest on Sunday, if it comes to that. The last time he tried to push himself like that, things went seriously a cropper. On the other hand, Peavy on hand to pitch a tiebreaker on Monday is a nice thing to have, and would certainly give the Padres an upper hand that no other team could match.

An interesting question came up in my chat last night, the answer to which demands more attention. Does Troy Tulowitzki deserve the National League Rookie of the Year Award over Ryan Braun? The argument is, Tulowitzki has played the entire season, while Braun was called up in the midst of the fray. Having touted Braun as the main candidate upon his call-up, I should probably be leaning toward him, but the question about Tulowitzki is a valid one. The Equivalent Averages of the three leading candidates are these: Braun .325, Hunter Pence .306, and Tulowitzki .271. Braun leads in VORP, 52.8 to 40.6 for Pence and 35.9 for Tulowitzki. Where the worm turns is on defense, however-the Rockies shortstop is at 44/22 in FRAR/FRAA, while Pence is at 14/2 in the outfield, and Braun a regrettable -8/-17 at the hot corner. This tells mightily in their WARP3 stats, where Tulowitzki is at 10.3, Pence is at 6.8, and Braun is at 5.4.

I still think the voters are going to go for Braun, but we can give Tulowitzki-who is only 22 years old-the Most Likely to Succeed Award as a consolation prize.

Prediction: Padres take two

Related Content:  The Who,  The Call-up

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