BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Texas Rangers (4th) @ Florida Marlins (9th)

The Rangers are hitting home runs at a clip that will land them in the neighborhood of 250 should they keep going like this. Here are the top of the pops from the last decade:

264: 1997 Mariners
257: 1996 Orioles
250: 2005 Rangers (approximate)
249: 2000 Astros
246: 2001 Rangers
244: 2000 Blue Jays
244: 1999 Mariners
242: 2004 Yankees
242: 2004 White Sox

Do the Rangers have what it takes to withstand a 13-percent league-wide downturn in homers and post one of the better team home run totals of all-time? Playing where they do, yes. I’m still not convinced we’re in a genuine home run crisis, by the way. Homers are down from last year–especially in the American League, but there have been National League seasons in the recent past that are right in line with what’s going on currently (1.02 per game in ’05). 2003 registered 1.05 and 2002 just 1.01.

The conclusion that many seem to want to reach is that the steroid abusers (or “aficionados” if you’re a fan of the practice) have given their needles away to charity or sent them to the special collections department at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and gone clean. The trouble is the big picture numbers don’t quite fit that scenario.

Home runs per game spiked in the American League in 1999-2000 and in the National League in 1999-2001. (In the last ten years, though, the highest per-game figure was in the American in 1996. The Isolated Power (Slugging Average minus Batting Average) numbers for both leagues follow a similar pattern, as you would imagine. The American League is at a 10-year low, but not exorbitantly so. The .151 figure is about 10 percent lower than the 1996-2004 high of .168 in 1996. The National League’s IP follows its home run rises and falls for the most par–as you would suspect. They’re also at .151 which is where they were in 2002 and slightly higher than the 1996-98 figures.

What happened, then, in 2002? The 1.01 HR/G in the NL that year was practically the same in the storied homer season of ’98. Were masses of players going on and off steroids in the National League throughout the last ten years while the American Leaguers abused fairly consistently from 1997 to 2004 before turning their needles into ploughshares just this year?

Is it really all that simple? Of course not–which is why I, for one, can’t look at these number sequences and make out any kind of pattern. If the National and American Leagues had separate drug policies, then perhaps I could begin to buy into the notion that the baseball world was a juice bar that just went dry.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Baltimore Orioles (1st) @ Cincinnati Reds (28th)

Last year, the Orioles won 78 games and the Reds 76, yet here they are, two months into the season, meeting in the weekend’s biggest mismatchup. Consider that they weren’t so close last year to begin with. The Reds were outscored by nearly a run per game and won quite a few more than would have been expected. The Orioles, on the other hand, scored more than their opponents but underperformed by a few games. The real dichotomy in their records last year was something more like 12 games or so.

Having said that, the Reds are soon going to find themselves in the same position as that of the Rockies, that being a team for which no self-respecting pitcher will wish to toil. Conversely, the Reds have the best team secondary average in baseball.

Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts is leading the league with an EqA of .380. How does this stack up against the very best seasons ever registered by the 16 men who made the Hall of Fame primarily as second basemen (including Roberto Alomar)? Pretty damn well:

.376: Rogers Hornsby, 1924
.357: Joe Morgan, 1976
.350: Nap LaJoie, 1901
.348: Rod Carew, 1977
.330: Jackie Robinson, 1952
.329: Charlie Gehringer, 1937
.329: Roberto Alomar, 2001
.327: Eddie Collins, 1914
.320: Tony Lazzeri, 1929
.317: Bobby Doerr, 1944
.312: Ryne Sandberg, 1992
.308: Billy Herman, 1943
.305: Red Schoendienst, 1953
.293: Nellie Fox, 1957
.291: Frankie Frisch, 1923
.285: Bid McPhee, 1892
.265: Bill Mazeroski, 1960

While it seems unlikely that Roberts will hold at this level, if he could somehow, he would certainly be in some excellent company. Ditto for Alex Rodriguez, currently second to Roberts in the American League with an EqA of .361. Running the same list for Hall of Fame and near-HOF third basemen:

.368: George Brett, 1980
.358: Wade Boggs, 1987
.356: Mike Schmidt, 1981
.344: Eddie Mathews, 1955
.343: Paul Molitor, 1987 (played third in over half his games)
.333: Ron Santo, 1964 & 1966
.321: Home Run Baker, 1913
.321: Stan Hack, 1942
.321: Darrell Evans, 1973
.311: Freddie Lindstrom, 1930
.308: Brooks Robinson, 1964
.305: George Kell, 1949
.293: Pie Traynor, 1930
.291: Jimmy Collins, 1898

Rodriguez would finish second on that list. Moving over to shortstop, we find Roberts’ teammate, Miguel Tejada, cranking at a clip of .348. The same list for shorties with a few obvious additions:

.371: Arky Vaughan, 1935
.346: Alex Rodriguez, 2000
.343: Honus Wagner, 1908
.341: Lou Boudreau, 1948
.340: Nomar Garciaparra, 2000
.337: Cal Ripken, Jr., 1991
.337: Derek Jeter, 1999
.336: Robin Yount, 1982
.324: Ernie Banks, 1958
.321: Hughie Jennings, 1898
.318: Luke Appling, 1936
.313: Joe Cronin, 1938
.309: George Davis, 1893
.302: Pee Wee Reese, 1947

(The rest–Luis Aparicio, Rabbit Maranville, Phil Rizzuto, Ozzie Smith, Travis Jackson and Joe Tinker–are under .300.)

So, within the confines of one division, we have the possibility of some of the best seasons ever by a second baseman, shortstop and third baseman.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another on the Prospectus Hit List): Milwaukee Brewers (14th) @ Philadelphia Phillies (15th)

This weekend affords the National League Easters an opportunity to go over .500 by an additional 15 games. If all five clubs sweep, they can be that much closer to the dream of the all-plus-.500 division. Not that it should be a groupthink type of goal, but there is something to be said for being able to claim the flag of an all-.500 division as opposed to one with a doormat, a soft touch and a whipping boy.

MOST OVER-HYPED MATCHUP (opponents getting more ink than they really need): Boston Red Sox (10th) @ Chicago Cubs (6th)

I was watching the Blue Jays-Cubs game on Wednesday afternoon and this question occurred to me: just why do the Cubs need interleague play? They would sell out Wrigley Field if they were hosting a team of poorly-trained ball-playing chimps. Interleague play brings far less to them than it does to most other teams.

Does interleague play have any intrinsic value beyond giving us something to talk about? Is that enough in and of itself?