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July 15, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Today's Game to Watch, the All-Star Game

by Caleb Peiffer

Matchup: National League (103-149) at American League (149-103), 8:00 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (123 IP, 2.93 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 108 K) vs. Cliff Lee (124 2/3, 2.45, 1.04, 106)
Pythagorean Record: NL, 100-152 (1014 RS, 1249 RA); AL, 152-100 (1249 RS, 1014 RA)
Rankings: NL, #2; AL, #1
Prospectus: Tonight the two leagues meet for the fourth and final time in the House that Ruth Built. This year's All-Star Game features 28 first-timers who will participate in the last midsummer classic to ever be hosted at the old Bronx baseball cathedral. Playing on home turf, the American League will attempt to lengthen its reign over the senior circuit. In the last 11 years, the AL has beaten the NL 10 times-the lone exception being 2002's 7-7 tie, which prompted the slogan "this one counts," and begat the controversial decision to award the winning league with home-field advantage in the World Series. The most recent National League victory came on July 6 of 1996, when both Ken Caminiti and Mike Piazza homered in a 6-0 win. In each of the last two seasons the AL has edged the NL by a single run, winning 3-2 in 2006 on Michael Young's two-run triple in the top of the ninth, and 5-4 last year. The NL has won the last two games at Yankee Stadium, however, held in 1977 and 1960 (the inaugural Bronx matchup in 1939 went to the AL), and still leads the all-time series by a tally of 40-36-2 over the AL, thanks primarily to streaks of 11 straight wins from 1972-82 and eight straight from 1963-70.

Now the flow of power has changed its course, and the American League has hegemony, not only in the All-Star Game and World Series, but over the long haul of interleague play as well. The junior circuit put up a .591 winning percentage against the NL this season, and if the AL turns a lead over to its bullpen tonight, that interleague advantage is almost assured of being manifested once more in the final score. The AL All-Stars of course boast Francisco Rodriguez, who carries a ridiculous 38 saves with him into Yankee Stadium, but K-Rod is arguably just the fourth-best reliever that the junior circuit can trot out. Here'a a rundown of the best firemen in the business:


Name                    IP    SV/OPP     RA    WHIP    K/BB   ARP  WXRL
Mariano Rivera         42.1   23/23     1.06   0.64   50/ 4  16.4  3.41
Joe Nathan             39.2   27/29     1.13   0.93   46/10  13.4  4.36
Joakim Soria           43.0   25/27     1.67   0.72   46/ 9  11.4  2.90
Francisco Rodriguez    42.0   38/41     2.36   1.26   41/26  12.2  3.70
Jonathan Papelbon      40.2   28/32     3.54   0.96   51/ 7   8.4  1.53
George Sherrill        39.2   28/34     4.08   1.41   43/24  -1.9  0.72

Sherrill is the clear outlier, and the statistics state that the Orioles representative should have been Nick Markakis or Brian Roberts, but even so it can be argued that the other five make up as good a relief quintet as has ever been assembled. The Rivera-Soria-Nathan troika has been absolutely untouchable in the first half. Compare that group with the relievers that the NL has in its employ:


Name                    IP    SV/OPP     RA    WHIP    K/BB   ARP  WXRL
Brad Lidge             40.0   20/20     1.58   1.13   55/19  13.7  4.36
Billy Wagner           39.0   22/28     3.46   0.95   45/ 9   3.3  1.09
Brian Wilson           37.1   25/27     4.58   1.53   40/20   3.3  3.11
Carlos Marmol          52.1    3/ 5     4.30   1.03   70/25  10.8  2.48

Lidge has been excellent, but Wagner has blown four multi-run leads in the last month; Wilson has not pitched well despite his strong save percentage; and Marmol (filling in for the blistered Kerry Wood), perhaps due to overuse, has given up 15 runs in his last 9 1/3 innings. The National League elected to employ more starting pitchers than relievers, and appears to have a slight advantage in that department: the eight senior circuit starters have an average SNLVAR of 3.95, compared with 3.63 for the AL's six. First-time All-Star Cliff Lee was a fine choice to start for Terry Francona's crew, as he leads the league with 4.6 SNLVAR.

As far as the position players go, an uninformed outsider comparing the rosters and their accompanying statistics would probably guess that the National League was the dominant squad. Consider this position-by-position breakdown (with the starters in italics) along with each player's first-half MLVr and a few notes:

Catcher
AL: Joe Mauer (.249), Dioner Navarro (.108), Jason Varitek (-.167)
NL: Geovany Soto (.227), Russell Martin (.173), Brian McCann (.322)

Over the last three seasons, a trinity of top talents has emerged behind the plate in the National League. In 2006 McCann hit .333 with 24 homers and a .572 slugging percentage in his second season; last year Russell Martin earned Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and All-Star starter honors; and this year it has been Soto grabbing the top backstop billing. Last season Soto was participating in All-Star week as a member of the World team in the Futures Game, and tonight he will become the first NL rookie catcher to start in the All-Star Game. All three of the NL's elite stack up with Mauer, who is at the head of a much more thin class of AL backstops; the group's overall weakness this season is evidenced by the selection of Varitek, who was chosen by the players.

First Base
AL: Kevin Youkilis (.311), Justin Morneau (.279)
NL: Lance Berkman (.576), Adrian Gonzalez (.194), Albert Pujols (.549)

Youkilis is having a career season, and Morneau is putting up his typical numbers, while Berkman and Pujols have been the two best hitters in the major leagues this year other than Chipper Jones, and Gonzalez has somehow managed to hit 22 home runs while playing in Petco Park. Gonzalez is just eight behind his total from last season, which was also the most by any Padres player since the team moved into its new home for the 2004 season. Pujols has walked twice as many times as he's struck out this year (61 to 30) while slugging .600, something only four players have done over a full season in the last 50 years: Barry Bonds ('02,'03,'04), George Brett ('80), Gary Sheffield ('96), and Frank Thomas ('93).

Second Base
AL: Dustin Pedroia (.145), Ian Kinsler (.350)
NL: Chase Utley (.307), Dan Uggla (.378)

Both Utley and Uggla are on pace to hit over 40 homers, a plateau reached by only three second basemen: Davey Johnson (43 in '73), Rogers Hornsby (42 in '26), and Ryne Sandberg (40 in '90). Uggla is also slugging over .600, something which no keystoner has done since Hornsby in 1929. It's the AL duo, however, that enters this game with the hotter bats: since June 14, Pedroia is hitting .441/.468/.678 in 127 plate appearances, while Kinsler carries a 25-game hitting streak into the Bronx, three off the franchise record set by Gabe Kapler in 2000. Kinsler has knocked in 55 runs from the lead-off spot and scored 84, 15 more than Pedroia, who ranks second in the AL. Kinsler is also leading the league with a .337 batting average, vying to become the first AL second baseman to win a batting crown since fellow Ranger Julio Franco hit .341 in 1991.

Third Base
AL: Alex Rodriguez (.379), Joe Crede (.049), Carlos Guillen (.114), Evan Longoria (.177)
NL: Chipper Jones (.600), Aramis Ramirez (.241), David Wright (.229)

Jones has fallen below the .400 mark, but is still having a historically great season. Just 18 other players in the last 50 years have put up an MLVr of .600 or better in at least 300 plate appearances, and just one other third baseman has done so: George Brett in 1980. Jones will be making his first All-Star appearance in seven years, having last gone to the showcase in 2001. What stands out in examining Jones' All-Star attendance record is that he was somehow left off the team in 1999, the year he won his only MVP award, as well as the Silver Slugger at third base. Jones that year was truly deserving of his hardware: he led the National League with a VORP of 104.8, nearly 20 runs ahead of second-place Jeff Bagwell (85.4). One might think that he had a mediocre first half and came on like gangbusters in the second given his absence from the festivities, but that is not the case: while he did hit better down the stretch, his pre-break line of .313/.422/.589 was plenty good enough. Matt Williams (47.1 VORP) was voted in by the fans, while Phil Nevin (28.5) and Ed Sprague (20.1) were the NL third-base reserves. Since the first All-Star Game in 1933, There have been ten other players to win an MVP award in a season in which they didn't make the midsummer classic:


Player           Year Team   Note
Hank Greenberg   1935  DET   Knocked in 170 runs in 152 games
Don Newcombe     1956  BRO   Won Cy Young, 27 victories
Dave Parker      1978  PIT   Made team year before and after
Willie Stargell  1979  PIT   Co-winner of MVP with Keith Hernandez
Kirk Gibson      1988  LAD   Won Silver Slugger for left field
Robin Yount      1989  MIL   HOFer and two-time MVP, just four-time All-Star
Terry Pendleton  1991  ATL   Only All-Star game came the next year
Juan Gonzalez    1996  TEX   two-time MVP, just three-time All-Star
Justin Morneau   2006  MIN   12 AL players had higher VORP
Jimmy Rollins    2007  PHI   J.J. Hardy named as NL All-Star reserve at SS

Shortstop
AL: Derek Jeter (.026), Michael Young (.075)
NL: Hanley Ramirez (.376), Cristian Guzman (.103), Miguel Tejada (.009)

Amongst playing-time qualifiers for the batting title, there are five NL shortstops with a higher MLVr than Michael Young, who leads the junior circuit. Jose Reyes (.213, second to Hanley Ramirez) got jobbed; he deserved to be the third NL representative rather than Tejada, whose adjusted OPS+ has fallen for a fourth straight year (131 in '04, then 128, 126, 109, and a below-average 96 this year). Guzman, the lone Nationals representative, will play in his second All-Star game, the first coming in 2001, when he busted out for a .477 slugging percentage. Guzman isn't slugging as well this season, but he is leading the National League with 126 hits. This is the first All-Star game for Hanley Ramirez, who didn't make it last year despite finishing with over 20 runs of VORP more than the next-best shortstop (89.5 to Jimmy Rollins' 66.1). Presumably, the voters/players/coaches factored in Ramirez's defense when making their selections. There is some evidence that his glove work has improved a bit this year, and the offensive superiority simply can't be ignored. Ramirez last season had a higher VORP than any NL shortstop in the last 50 years, and he is on pace to better it this year.

Outfielders/Designated Hitters
AL: Josh Hamilton (.284), Manny Ramirez (.257), Ichiro Suzuki (.053)
Milton Bradley (.468), J.D. Drew (.369), Carlos Quentin (.222), Grady Sizemore (.257)
NL: Kosuke Fukudome (.092), Matt Holliday (.371), Ryan Braun (.203)
Corey Hart (.147), Ryan Ludwick (.333), Nate McLouth (.239)

Neither Fukudome nor Suzuki deserved the starting nod based upon the first half each put up, but regardless of the numbers, it certainly adds to the event to have such obvious examples of the expansion of America's pastime worldwide. Fukudome is just the third Japanese position player to be named an All-Star, after Ichiro and Hideki Matsui; in 2000, Ichiro and Matsui started at the outfield corners for the AL. Fukudome will shift over to center field tonight, yielding his customary right-field spot to Holliday, who is in turn shifting from left to accommodate Ryan Braun in his first season as an outfielder. Holliday has never before played right field in his major league career, having spent all of his time in left. This all means that the NL starting outfield will feature two players out of position and a third who was a third baseman last season. The senior circuit's entire outfield has two All-Star appearances combined (both belonging to Holliday), because like Fukudome and Braun, Hart, Ludwick, and McLouth will also all be playing in their first midsummer classic. Hamilton, Bradley, Drew, and Quentin are all first-timers, as well. Bradley's appearance is remarkable, considering that he came back early from a torn ACL last September and now leads the AL in both on-base percentage and slugging.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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