Before we get into this weekend’s matchups, here’s some news about a contest I’ve devised.

How many box scores do you think you look at in a given year? There are 2,430 regular season games. Think you look at half of them in box score form? A third? All? Chances are, you’ve looked at a lot of box scores in your lifetime. If you’re 30, it’s probably something like 10,000, don’t you think?

With all this exposure to box scores, you probably think you have a pretty good handle on what the most common lines are in the traditional AB-R-H-BI layout? Is it 4-2-2-1? 3-0-2-2? Thanks to Keith Woolner, I have in my possession the numbers from 2005 and would love to share them with you but decided to make a contest of it instead. There will be no prize for this other than the satisfaction of seeing your name in print as the winner. Here’s what you do:

Send to my email address at the bottom of this column your guess as to the 10-most common box score batting lines. Make your ballot look like this:

  1. 5020
  2. 4322
  3. 3101
  4. 2011
  5. 1112

…and so on through 10. Include your name and city. (If you make your ballot at all confusing I will disqualify it.) I’ll score it this way:

  • Everyone starts with 100 points.
  • For every guess you put in the exact correct spot, you get 10 points.
  • Every incorrect guess will result in a subtraction of points representing how far off your guess was. For instance, if you picked 4322 as #2 but it was actually #8, you’d lose six points. I have the counts through #20, so if you’re #1 pick is actually the #20 occurrence, you would lose 19 points. Well, you would except that I’m going to cap the maximum loss at 15 for picks that appear in the top 20. Any of your picks that do not appear in the top 20 will be dunned a penalty of 20 points each. (If you really, really mess up, you could end up with negative-100 points.)

A perfect score would be 200 but if you get a perfect score then I’ll know you got into somebody’s database. That won’t do! Just guess–it’s more fun that way. I’m going to set the deadline as midnight tomorrow night (Saturday, April 22). Any ballot received after then will be void. Results will run in Tuesday’s Prospectus Matchups column.

Yes, we barely mention two of the stats represented in these lines anymore, but this isn’t a test of relevance, it’s a test to see how you absorb information over a period of time, or something.

Good luck!

Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Chicago Cubs (6th) @ St. Louis Cardinals (9th)

The down-and-outfields.

The Cubs outfield looked pretty dodgy heading into 2006 with only Matt Murton having any hope of representing properly for the unit. So far, things have progressed to form: Murton has played better than the other two starters, Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones, although not drastically so. Pierre is in mid-season form while Jones has yet to get it going, having only played in nine games to this point. Cubs outfielders have combined for a .269/.306/.380 showing. That’s fairly close to the bottom of the bigs.

As bad as the Chicago outfield looks, more surprising is the complete lack of production from the St. Louis outfielders. With Jim Edmonds having a hiccup to start his year and lesser light Juan Encarnacion stumbling out of the gate, it’s been up to So Taguchi and rookie Skip Schumacher to pick up the slack and they haven’t. Taguchi is better than he’s shown so far but we may be seeing Schumacher’s best shot at getting a career off the ground burning on the runway. If John Rodriguez could just lay off the shrimp, he deserves a lot more playing time–at least against righthanders. In all, the Cards outermen have put out at .204/.258/.309, the worst in the National League and better only than Texas overall.

The difference between the St. Louis and Chicago outfields is that the Cardinals will move up–at least to the middle of the pack, while the Cubs will stay low unless they make a significant personnel change. The good news for St. Louis is that the team is off to a good start in spite of this situation. The Cubs were not counting on their outfield to supply much of the team power–that was going to be the responsibility of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. With the loss of Lee for the foreseeable future, however, the team is going to have to find some punch somewhere.

Now that we’ve established that Albert Pujols is perfect, we’ll probably have to look back on 2002 as “the year Pujols lost it.” In the context of his career so far, it was a disaster. He failed to reach .400 in OBP or .600 in slugging that year–and it wasn’t just because his batting average was deflated. His Isolated Power that season was also a career low of just .247. Years from now, scholars will scour the period documents, wondering why Pujols only managed a measly WARP3 of 8.7 when he was into double figures in all his other seasons. It will become one of baseball’s great mysteries.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Cleveland Indians (4th) @ Kansas City Royals (30th)

Get used to seeing the Royals in this space in 2006; either here or in the Worst Matchup category. It’s going to be a long road for this team with many humiliations to come. Scott Elarton seems to have staked his claim to the Roger Craig emeritus chair. He kept the Royals close enough to win in his first three starts before having a rough go of it Wednesday against Chicago. Perhaps watching his opposite number, Javier Vazquez, mow down the Triple A-flavored nonet sent up to support him was more than he could bear.

The Royals have loaded the bases just three times this year. They’ve generated one run from those three situations. By contrast, the Reds have 11 official at bats with the bases loaded and have generated 22 runs. (They also have some sacrifice flies.) Not loading the bases is not the end of the world. The team with the fewest bases loaded situations in 2005? Your World Champion Chicago White Sox. But even they had 79 official at bats with sacks juiced. It’s hard to picture Royals getting half that many.

There is no truth to the rumor that the four clubs in the American League Central have a contest going to avoid being the team that has the worst head-to-head record with the Royals. For the past two seasons the Tigers have had that indistinction, going 8-11 in 2004 and 10-9 last year. If Detroit is to jump up into the crowd, tacking on three more wins against Kansas City is a good place to start. If the other three hope to fight off Detroit, they need to add a win over the Royals to their 2005 total. If all that transpired, the records against Kansas City would look like this:

White Sox: 14-5
Tigers: 13-6
Twins: 14-5
Indians: 14-5

That’s a nice foundation on which to build the four-team race the game so desperately needs. For the Royals part, that would put them at .276 against their own division, meaning they’d have to go at least 29-57 against their other opponents to clear 50 wins on the season. The Royals have accumulated enough sorry players that any amount of bad luck will be enough to send them over the edge. Losing potential rotation anchors Zack Greinke and Denny Bautista out of the gate are blows that would make even the best teams uncomfortable. For a team with the margin of error the Royals have established, their losses have been tragic.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Tampa Bay Devil Rays (21st) @ Texas Rangers (22nd)

In last night’s game against the Red Sox, Rays manager Joe Maddon about burst a vessel arguing that Manny Ramirez had indeed swung at a third strike that would have ended the sixth inning. Replays showed he was justified in his contention that Ramirez had broken the plane with his bat. In your estimation, how many times do replays show otherwise? Not very often, is it? I saw one a couple weeks ago where the batter actually managed to hold up and not break the plane. It is memorable to me because it is so damned rare. When a first or third base umpire is petitioned to interject a decision in these situations, the safe call is always going to be strike. That’s why Maddon–even if he happened to be watching a hot dog wrapper float by during the pitch–had a high probability of being on the side of truth in his argument.

Is there still hope the Rangers can make some more coin on the Travis Hafner trade of December 6, 2002, or is it time to close the books? Certainly, the individuals they got in exchange for Hafner (and Aaron Myette) were not able to compensate for the prodigious production he has come to represent, but, perhaps, in a labyrinthine fashion, the trade will not seem as one-sided as it does now.

First of all, Myette proved to be no of value to the Indians. He pitched briefly and poorly in 2003 and was shuttled off to the Phillies in mid-season for Lyle Mouton, a 34-year old outfielder who hadn’t been in the majors for two years at that point and who would never return there for Cleveland or anybody else. So, all the production headed north has come from Hafner. So far, he has contributed a total of 17.8 WARP1 since coming to the Indians with seemingly much more to come.

As for the players that went the other way, there was a time when Einar Diaz was a fairly-well anticipated catching prospect. He appeared to have justified that anticipation in 2001 when he hit 34 doubles, put up a decent batting average and got hit by enough pitches to compensate for his low walk rates. The following season he cracked a rib and posted a negative VORP, making him tradable to someone who thought of those things as inconveniences rather than signposts on the way to Backupcatcherland. His first year in Texas he rebounded slightly to post a WARP1 of 1.4. That nearly matched Hafner’s 2003 mark of 1.8. Most of what little value there was came courtesy of his defense, though. Offensively, he was below replacement level.

The other player coming to Texas was Ryan Drese who spent the majority of 2003 in the minors but had a pretty good season in 2004. He posted a DERA of 3.86 which, given the rest of his career makes one think he was running between raindrops. It was business as usual last year and the Rangers just up and dumped him. So, his contribution is limited to what he did in 2004 minus his transgressions in 2003 and 2005.

While Drese was shipped out unceremoniously and without benefit of compensation, the Rangers were able to flip Diaz to the Montreal Expos for Chris Young. He had a nice short debut in 2004 and pitched very well in 2005, making up at least some of that Hafner ground.

So, through 2005, the score on the trade looked like this:

Cleveland: Hafner: 142.3 Total VORP, Myette: -5.5
Texas: Diaz: -5.7, Drese: 29.0, Young, 29.7

That’s 141.8 to 53.0. So far this year, Hafner has added another 15.7 to the total while the Rangers sent Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. Unfortunately for Texas, Eaton has landed on the disabled list while Young is off to a good start. How to account for things from here on out? Does Eaton’s production when he returns simply stand in for Young’s (Diaz twice-removed)? It’s not that simple. With Adrian Gonzalez and Terrmel Sledge also going along for the ride, the accounting gets pretty tricky.

As with a lot of trades that appear one-sided, it’s not so much that the Rangers got rid of Hafner (after all, Mark Teixeira is on hand) it’s who they got in return that has been problematic.