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BEST MATCH-UP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): Oakland @ New York Yankees

    Who needs starting pitchers? They’re like the pace car at Indy: They get the thing in motion before the real guys come along to finish up the job. At least, that must be the rationale around Yankee Stadium these days. Only three teams in all of baseball find themselves in the predicament in which the Yankees are in–their best starting pitcher has a lower VORP than their highest-ranked reliever. The Yankees actually go this one better in that their two best relievers are rated higher than their best starter.

    The other teams in this boat are Kansas City, where Jaime Cerda is currently ahead of Zack Greinke by the heart-stopping count of 12.5 to 11.5, and Philadelphia, where Ryan Madson is besting Randy Wolf and company. The Yankees are blessed with the two highest-ranked relievers in the game at this moment: Mariano Rivera (28.5) and Tom Gordon (28.2). Their highest-ranked starter is Javier Vazquez at 25.3. Is this a problem?

    It is in that the Yankees are clearly the least-prepared starting-wise of all the teams with serious playoff possibilities. (One could make that case for the Phillies as well, but the counter to that is that unless the Phillies get more out of their starters they won’t have to worry about the postseason.) For New York, the addition of Esteban Loaiza is not going to upgrade the situation much. He is a big step up from the regrettable Jose Contreras–but then, when you’re considering a pitcher with the 402nd-best VORP in the game, so are a lot of people.

    Currently, the first 28 VORP positions among pitchers are occupied by starters. Only seven of the top 50 are relievers. So, in order for a reliever to usurp the top spot on a given team, it takes either a bullpen season of monumental proportions combined with a mild depression by the starters, or a complete meltdown by the starting staff. In either case, chances are it’s not a good sign. For instance, in 2003, the top four Reds pitchers in terms of VORP were all relievers. No good can come of that.

    How rare is it for a playoff team to be so arrayed? Since 2000, only the Twins’ installment from two years ago managed to do it. J.C. Romero clocked in at 36.7, just edging out Rick Reed for the high spot on the team. It’s a good bet that Vazquez and perhaps even a healthy Kevin Brown might overcome Gordon or Rivera for the top spot on the Yankees by the end of the year. If they don’t, what does that mean for the Yankees’ hopes in the playoffs? We’ve seen that having a well-positioned front three doesn’t guarantee success. (The 2002 A’s trio of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were 1st, 9th and 11th in VORP in 2002 and they did not get past the first round.) Having a front three that barely registers in the top 100 like the Yankees, though: is that a passable obstacle in a short series?

WORST MATCH-UP (worst combined record with both teams being under .500): Seattle @ Baltimore

    The Mariners have the worst Home Runs to Home Runs Allowed ratio in baseball. The bottom three:

    Seattle:   .61:1
    San Diego: .69:1
    Montreal:  .74:1

    The top three:

    Boston:  1.58:1
    Yankees: 1.30:1
    Mets:    1.29:1 (barely beating out Texas so far)

    Seattle’s starters are certainly doing what they can to buy them their place at the bottom. Jamie Moyer has surrendered 29 homers, Joel Pineiro 21. Rookie Travis Blackley has contributed nine bombs in just 26 innings. The bullpen has done its part in limited exposure as well. Eddie Guardado has served up a homer in each of his last three outings, bringing his season total to eight (he gives the M’s a reprieve after hitting the DL with a bum left elbow and shoulder). About the only Mariner pitcher who wasn’t giving the courtesy treatment was Freddy Garcia, but he’s long gone.

CLOSEST MATCH-UP (opponents closest to each other in won-lost records): Philadelphia @ San Diego

    I’ve spent some time in this space recently ballyhooing (yes, I ballyhoo–what of it?) the Mets and their near-historical base-stealing percentage. As of this writing they are copping at 83.5%, the second-greatest achievement rate ever. It would be remiss not to mention that the 2004 Phillies are also threatening to become one the few teams to ever steal at an 80% clip. Leading the way are Bobby Abreu and his splendid 26-for-27 mark, Jimmy Rollins at 19-for-23 and Doug Glanville with a small but helpful 4-for-4. Actually, “leading the way” is the wrong way to phrase it. The running of the rest of the team has been a negative, as those players are a combined 12-for-22. If the rest of them would stay put, the three pace-setters should be able to hold above the magic 80% mark. (Note: “magic 80% mark” is a registered trademark of the Made-Up Statistical Threshold Corporation.)

    Coming into the season, Abreu’s career mark was .726, so he’s really stepping it up in 2004. Rollins debuted with a 46/8 rookie showing but has been slipping ever since. What he’s done so far this year puts him back on track. Glanville has had a successful stealing career, coming into 2004 with an .816 record. He’s at 90% over the last three seasons, given more limited attempts.

    Getting back to Abreu, his VORP is at 59.2, good for fifth-best in the majors and fourth-best in the National League. He is playing so well that even the most ignorant MVP voters will have to recognize him somewhere on their ballots. This is not something they’ve done in the past:

    Year: Place/Voting Points
    2003: 27th/3
    2002: no votes/0
    2001: 16th/9
    2000: no votes/0
    1999: 23rd/6
    1998: no votes/0
    Total points: 18

    If the Phillies continue to flounder, though, what’s to become of the possibility of Abreu’s first-ever decent MVP showing? After obvious choice Barry Bonds, Cardinals Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen are definite top-fivers. If the Braves carry on as they have, J.D. Drew‘s stock is going to rise, as is that of Adrian Beltre of the first-place Dodgers. Jim Edmonds will also be due some large-pointed votes. Todd Helton currently has the second-highest VORP in the league and will be marginalized by voters owing to his teammates’ lack of quality, but probably not to the point that he will be kept out of the top 10.

    Where does this leave Abreu? Perhaps as low as seventh. If the Phillies recover, he could get into the top five. Independent of team performance, he’s top-five material.

MISMATCH-UP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): Montreal @ St. Louis

    It’s time for the Cardinals to start lining up the rotation for October. Let’s compare the Cardinals’ starters to those of the other three teams who would make the playoffs if the season were to end today. These are their major league ranks in VORP:

    Russ Ortiz, Atlanta: 15th
    Jake Peavy, San Diego: 20th
    Brad Penny, Los Angeles: 21st
    Jason Marquis, St. Louis: 28th

    Odalis Perez, Los Angeles: 26th
    Jaret Wright, Atlanta: 34th
    Chris Carpenter, St. Louis: 36th
    David Wells, San Diego: 46th

    Jeff Weaver, Los Angeles: 56th
    Brian Lawrence, San Diego: 61st
    Jeff Suppan, St. Louis: 83rd
    John Thomson, Atlanta: 167th

    Woody Williams, St. Louis: 101st
    Jose Lima or Kaz Ishii, Los Angeles: 114th & 121st
    Adam Eaton, San Diego: 170th
    Mike Hampton, Atlanta: 175th

    When you look at it like this, it’s downright ugly, isn’t it? These are the teams with the best records in the league, remember–and look where the fourth-best men are all ranked. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Why do teams kill themselves to get a fifth starter? Wouldn’t placeholders do just as well?

    One thing that stands out on this list is that the Dodgers upgraded their top starting slot by acquiring Penny. Yes, you have to give to get, but I think the Dodgers got better in their transaction with the Marlins.

    The name you don’t see on these lists is Matt Morris and that’s because he has the lowest VORP among St. Louis starters. (He’s got the lowest Ball-In-Play-Batting Average of the group to boot.) Naturally, he’ll get his turns in the playoffs regardless of his final standing on the staff. Morris turns 30 next week but, for some reason, it seems like he’s been around for 12 or 15 years. Why is that?

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