BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Boston Red Sox (3rd) @ New York Yankees (6th)

Game 1:
Aaron Small goes tonight for New York against David Wells. If you’re not big in the memory department, you might have completely forgotten the beginning of his career, which took place over a decade ago. You might even think he’s a rookie, or a phenom or something–but he’s not. He’s 33 years old and has picked the exact right time to have the best run of his career (although he did go eight straight relief appearances without allowing a run in 1997). Prior to tonight, he’s started and relieved in five games apiece. Among limited-duty pitchers in 2005, Small is faring very well:

VORP Leaders in pitchers with 15 games or fewer

VORP: Pitcher, Team (G/GS)
25.7: Jae Seo, Mets (9/9)
24.3: Zach Duke, Pirates (10/10)
23.0: Felix Hernandez, Mariners (7/7)
16.9: Aaron Small, Yankees (10/5)
15.3: Mike Hampton, Braves (12/12)

As you can see, Small is the only hybrid on the list. Because of this, he has pitched the fewest innings of the group, trailing next-lowest man Hernandez 51 to 44 2/3.

The one Yankee core player who has made very little noise this year is Jorge Posada. He is having what may prove to be the second-worst year of his career. Bernie Williams is having the worst year of his career, but the rest of the Yankees with any kind of track record (Hideki Matsui, in year three of his career, is not included here) are all holding their own against their established performance levels:

Yankee: 2005 EqA/Career EqA, +/-
Jason Giambi: .348/.329, +.019
Alex Rodriguez: .347/.322, +.025
Gary Sheffield: .312/.318, -.006
Derek Jeter: .302/.301, +.001
Jorge Posada: .271/.295, -.024
Bernie Williams: .264/.305, -.041

(For the record, there are men in the Hall of Fame who’ve had worse careers than Williams. His career is shaping up to be quite symmetrical, with the rise, peak and descent all coming where you would expect.)

In a lineup that is advancing in age, it stands to reason that not everyone is going to show signs of that aging at the same pace. Posada’s decline is understandable, albeit sudden and it is likely that he has another good season or two in his future. Rodriguez is the youngest of the group shown above and is hitting as well as he ever has. Do not listen to any arguments that he has not pulled his weight this year. Were he playing shortstop instead of third base, he would be posting one of the best WARP3 numbers of his career.

Game 2:
Tomorrow’s Red Sox starter is Curt Schilling (facing Shawn Chacon). He is a man in danger of experiencing one of the worst season-to-season drops for a pitcher in recent times. Since 1972, only Steve Blass (from 1972 to 1973) has fallen off worse than Schilling has from last year to this.

The biggest drops:

PITCHER (Drop Year: VORP) High Year Decline
Steve Blass – (1973: -48.9), 49.5, 98.4
Curt Schilling – (2005: -6.7), 72.9, 79.6
Hideo Nomo – (2004: -23.2), 56.2, 79.4
Steve Carlton – (1973: 17.5), 95.8, 78.2
Jose Lima – (2000: -14.8), 61.2, 76
Esteban Loaiza – (2004: 2.8), 78, 75.2
Dave Stieb – (1986: 2.2), 77.1, 74.9
Juan Guzman – (1997: -0.9), 73.1, 74
Bert Blyleven – (1990: -6.2), 65.5, 71.7
Roy Halladay – (2000: -36.8), 34.6, 71.4

Like Schilling, a number of these pitchers experienced injuries in their drop year. Blass’ is the most famous, or, as is probably more appropriate when discussing an injury, infamous. As you can probably guess, none of them pitched more innings in the drop-off year. Some of the drop in their VORP is attributable to the reduced workload and some of the reduced workload is attributable to the precipitous drop in VORP. Carlton, Lima, Loaiza and Stieb all threw at least 75% of their previous season’s totals. Blyleven pitched a bit over half. The rest were under 100 innings. (For his trouble, Halladay got shipped to Syracuse.)

Owing to his injury and his sojourn to the bullpen, Schilling has the lowest percentage of innings pitched compared to the previous season. He’s currently at 26.1 percent of his 2004 total but will eclipse Guzman, Blass and, perhaps, Nomo with a few more good starts.

Let’s do a reduction on the Red Sox of 2005; one of those deals wherein you selectively build a case as to why they shouldn’t be where they are:

They haven’t gotten almost as much out of their secondary first basemen as they have out of the man who has gotten the majority of the playing time there. They cut their second baseman. Their ace left via free agency and their ace-in-the-hole hasn’t pitched 60 innings yet. Their new ace has been more lucky than good. Their shortstop hasn’t really earned his huge salary. Their closer went down for the count. Their rightfielder has missed a considerable amount of playing time. Their bullpen, with very little exception, has been terrible. They’ve been picking and shucking spare parts with amazing regularity and most of them have contributed very little.

Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? Doesn’t sound like a team that could even hope to finish .500. (You could do a very similar reduction of the Yankees, too.) People make these sorts of selective evidence presentations all the time when arguing. It’s what they don’t say that you should be thinking about. In this case, it’s the Sox having the top-ranked players at designated hitter, catcher, left and centerfield.

Game 3:
When considering baseball of the last decade, it’s not often that one conjures Randy Johnson and Tim Wakefield in the same thought, but they’re opponents on Sunday and, most things considered, fairly evenly matched in 2005. Their RA+ is nearly identical at 1.06 to 1.05 in favor of Wakefield. They’re about tied in innings per start. Wakefield has had the better deal in the chancy world of BABIP, though, with an average about 40 points below Johnson’s.

Speaking of aging, Johnson turns 42 tomorrow. He misses pitching on his birthday by a day. He’s done it five times before and his birthday appearances are a microcosm of his career as a whole. His first two birthday starts came in 1989 and 1992 and he lost both, walking eight in the second outing. His last three came in 1999, 2000 and 2004 and have resulted in just three earned runs allowed and 29 strikeouts.

It will be interesting to see how much longer after Johnson retires Wakefield will continue to pitch. He’s three years younger than Johnson but could, given the track record of many of his knuckleballing ilk, outlast him by half a decade beyond that.

Last year, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera finished one-two among American League relievers in VORP. They’re not that high this year, but they’re still hanging in there.

VORP: Best American League Relievers
32.1: Huston Street, A’s
27.6: Mike Timlin, Red Sox
25.6: Rivera
25.5: Pete Walker, Blue Jays (includes four starts)
23.3: Andrew Sisco, Royals
23.3: Cliff Politte, White Sox
22.4: Julio Mateo, Mariners (one start)
22.4: Gordon
22.1: Jesse Crain, Twins
21.1: Neal Cotts, White Sox

Gordon had the best VORP figure of any Yankee pitcher last year, reliever or otherwise. Only a handful of teams find themselves in that situation this year. They are:

Boston: Timlin, 27.6 to 25.6, (Matt Clement)
Kansas City: Sisquatch, 23.3 to 9.6, (Runelvys Hernandez)
Colorado: Brian Fuentes, 20.1 to 12.4 (the departed Shawn Chacon)

The fact that both the Yankees and Red Sox have done this in the past two years shows that, while it’s not an ideal situation, it is by no means the end of the world.