Best Matchup (opponents with best combined chances of making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report): Atlanta Braves @ Boston Red Sox

It’s a bit ironic that the first pitching opponents of the weekend’s Best Matchup are perhaps the most obscure duo to square over the course of the next three days. In the Braves corner we’ve got Anthony Lerew, versus Devern Hansack of the Red Sox. Lerew is making his third major league start, and Hansack his second (at the age of 29). While you might want to suspect a conspiracy of inexperience, I’d like to recall something I said last time out: in the course of a season, that every team is going to give at least a handful of starts to pitchers with questionable credentials. No, this is not Tim Lincecum versus Roy Oswalt by any stretch of the imagination, but you’d like to think that one of them is going to give six strong. If they both do, then you’ve got a story.

The Red Sox attempted the fewest steals in baseball in 2006 with 74; Cleveland with 78 and Oakland with 81 weren’t far behind. This season they’re swiping a bit more and succeeding a lot more, having grabbed 25 of 29 so far, the second-best success rate in the bigs behind Minnesota. This is primarily the work of two men: Julio Lugo is 12-for-12, and Coco Crisp is 8-for-9; the rest of the team is a pedestrian 5-for-8. Their opponents have been equally proficient (19-for-22), which leads me to this: now that the major league average is up to 75 percent, up from 68 percent at the turn of the century, you’d better have a really good excuse for getting caught stealing these days.

We usually think of ground ball/fly ball ratios in terms of individuals–especially individual pitchers. We understand that there can be great discrepancies between individuals based on style and location. It’s kind of strange to think of entire teams as being prone to hit more grounders or fly balls, however. Last year, the Red Sox hit more fly balls than anybody, 1,916, and hit the second-fewest grounders. Of late, the Sox have usually been among the more fly-hittin’est teams. As you would expect, teams on the extreme end of the flyball spectrum score more runs than teams on the extreme grounder end of things.

Looking at the five clubs on either end of the dial over the 2002-2006 period, the difference is that the Sky Captains average 814 runs per season, against 727 for the Earthbeaters. These numbers have to be qualified, of course–the fly-ball hitters are dominated by American League teams (21 of 25), and the grounders are dominated by National (19 of 25), so naturally there is bound to be a run discrepancy of at least 40. It’s probably safe to say that an extreme groundball-hitting team is going to score 35 to 40 runs less than an extreme flyball-hitting team.

Let’s look at the teams that go against the norm. These are the clubs whose run production was counter to their position on the extreme end of things:

Most productive extreme groundball teams, 2002-2006 by runs scored
833: 2004 Rockies
819: 2002 Diamondbacks
813: 2006 Rockies
805: 2005 Cardinals
801: 2006 Twins

Least-productive extreme fly ball teams, 2002-2006 by runs scored
667: 2002 Orioles
693: 2005 Astros
729: 2005 Orioles
735: 2006 Astros
736: 2003 Angels

Remember that this also doesn’t take into account home parks, so it’s probably no surprise that the Rockies show up as one of the more productive groundball teams.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined chances of making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report): Kansas City Royals @ Colorado Rockies

If you were picking the weekend’s Matchups based purely on Defensive Efficiency, this would still qualify as worst:

  • Best: Yankees @ Mets (1.468 combined – White Sox @ Cubs is a close second at 1.460)
  • Worst: Royals @ Rockies (1.358 combined)
  • Biggest Mismatchup: Blue Jays (.727) @ Phillies (.690)
  • Closest Matchup: Twins (.696) @ Twins (.699)

Something occurred to me after Troy Tulowitzki‘s unassisted triple play: what other sport on earth has an event so incredibly unique? Not only is it rarer than a lock of Matt Lucas’s hair, it’s also a devastating defensive occurrence. I’d be willing to entertain suggestions as to occurrences that equal or better the UTP, but I’m guessing they will fall short in the harsh light of side-by-side comparison. It is things like the unassisted triple play that are part of baseball’s inherent superiority to other sports.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in chances of making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report provided one team has little or no chance): Cincinnati Reds @ Cleveland Indians

This weekend’s opponents with the biggest gap in chances of making the postseason are actually the Mets and Yankees, but, for two reasons, I decided to modify the parameters to eliminate that as the choice. For one thing, at 24 percent, the Yanks still have a decent shot at getting to the postseason–sixth-best in the American League at present. For another, you can probably find a couple words about that series written by other folks if you look hard enough.

Let’s say that before the season started, someone told you the following would be true about the Reds six weeks into the season: Adam Dunn would be exceeding his career EqA by nearly 20 points; Ken Griffey, Jr. would have 9.2 percent of the team’s plate appearances and would have their highest VORP; Brandon Phillips would improve on last year; Alex Gonzalez would be slugging .475; and Josh Hamilton would be off to a running start. What would you think? That their playoff odds would be at 8.3 percent?

The Brewers‘ hot start has had a big impact on the Reds’ low playoff expectation number, certainly. The team’s defensive efficiency isn’t helping either. Only Tampa Bay, Colorado, and Florida have lower team defensive efficiency ratings than the Reds. Predictably, three of Cincinnati’s starting pitchers are among the league leaders in BABIP among those with at least 35 IP: Kyle Lohse is seventh at .341, Matt Belisle is ninth at .336, and Aaron Harang is 14th at .320. The non-production out of the third base slot has been a problem, but lots of teams succeed with offensive black holes at one and even two positions.

The top five defensive teams in baseball right now are a combined 104-93 (.528). The bottom five are 84-111 (.431). Does this 100-point gap hold up over the course of a season? It has over the past five years. Combining the won-loss records of the top five defensive efficiency teams from 2002 to 2006 and comparing them to the bottom five from the same years, we get this:

Top 5: 89-73 (.551)
Low 5: 72-90 (.448)

Can a team succeed with a poor Def-Eff? Can a team fail with a good Def-Eff? There have been some of either of late. First, the failures: these teams were all top five finishers in defensive efficiency and it did them little good in the long run.

63-99: 2004 Mariners
63-99: 2003 Devil Rays
70-91: 2004 Devil Rays
71-91: 2004 Mets
81-81: 2002 White Sox

Fifteen of the 25 top-fivers won at least 90 games, however, with nine of those coming out on top at least 97 times. There have been very few teams who have overcome a bottom-five finish in defensive efficiency to even post a .500 record. These are the only six of the last 25:

101-61: 2003 Yankees
92-70: 2004 Astros
92-70: 2004 Twins
86-76: 2006 Red Sox
84-78: 2002 Astros
83-79: 2005 Marlins

The bottom five list is missing the infamous 2003 Tigers, but it does contain six other 100-loss teams.

Closest Matchup (opponents among well-positioned teams whose chances of making the playoffs most closely resemble one another according to the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Odds Report): Los Angeles Dodgers @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Time for my annual anti-interleague play rant…oh man, the top of my skull is so mushy from beating my head against this wall for years that all I can do is keep saying the same things over and over again. These are arguments you’ve heard a thousand times before and which make perfect sense in a universe where sense matters. That’s not baseball’s universe, though. They’ve convinced themselves that interleague play is partly responsible for the revenue boom currently washing over the game. We know–and by “we” I mean right-thinking individuals who agree with me–that that is not the case. We understand that great sacrifices in competitive balance have been made in order to create the circumstances in which the Dodgers can play the Angels a few times a year. We know that isn’t worth it. We also know there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well shut up and make the best of it.