BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): St. Louis (5th) @ Atlanta (10th)

Once in a while, the feng shui of the universe is properly aligned and we are rewarded with an interesting pitching matchup like tonight’s, which pits two of Oakland’s former Big Three against one another. That both are with good teams and could well see each other again in the postseason offers that much more backstory.

Both Mark Mulder (19th) and Tim Hudson (4th) entered the season in the all-time top 20 for winning percentage. Understanding that won-lost records are not the greatest indicators in the world, it is still pretty cool to look at a pitcher’s career line and not see any seasons with double-figure losses, which is the case for Hudson.

Four of the five active pitchers in the top 20 are with new teams this year, as both Pedro Martinez (3rd) and Randy Johnson (20th) have moved along. Only Roger Clemens (13th) stayed put among the quintet. Clemens has been inching up the list for the past four seasons, during which he went 68-22. Prior to that, he’d posted a pedestrian .644 career percentage; through 2004, he had improved to .667. If the Astros don’t start scoring for him, though, he won’t move past Jay Hughes, a pitcher whose career was brief but resulted in one spectacular season (1899) and enough wins to put him on the all-time list. (After he was out of the bigs, Hughes won 12 in a row in the Pacific Coast League in 1903.)

How will the five sit on the all-time list when 2005 is over? Hudson stands a pretty good chance of leap-frogging Martinez, although both the Mets and Braves appear capable of shutting off the run support on any given night. Mulder appears to be in an excellent position to move up. With a loaded offense behind him, he could rack up an impressive ledger with the 2005 Cardinals. Right above him on the all-time list are Sam Leever, Christy Mathewson and Larry Corcoran. Of course, movement on a percentage list is very different than movement on a counting list, in that it can go south in a hurry. The third man of the former Big Three, Barry Zito, knows this all too well. He began the season in 31st place, just ahead of Grover Cleveland Alexander. After his rough start, he’s fallen all the way to 70th, behind Monte Pearson.

The little things that happen in April are as just as big as the little things that happen in September. Remember that, should the Braves win the division by one game. There was a minor occurrence in Tuesday night’s game against New York that could prove to be Atlanta’s salvation. With one out in the home sixth of that game, Cliff Floyd hit a ball to left field that fell close enough to the line that Brian Jordan had to hustle for it. Floyd jogged to first and only started busting it when he got near the bag. He made a big turn and probably still could have made it to second, but chose the safe route and went back to the bag. That decision wasn’t the problem–it was his failure to hustle out of the box that proved the inning’s undoing. After a flyout, David Wright singled to right. Had Floyd actually run after hitting the ball, he would have scored easily on Wright’s hit. Instead, he scurried to third, where he was stranded when Ramon Castro struck out.

We can abide failure to execute, but we should not have to abide a failure of effort. Lord knows that Floyd’s teammate Jose Reyes has about 65 things he needs to learn about hitting, but say this about him: He hauls it out of the box when he makes contact.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Toronto (23rd) @ New York Yankees (22nd)

If you take away the two masterful Mondays past of Alex Rodriguez, you find a player with a line of .233/.283/.372. Would you accept your player winning the Triple Crown by beating the soul out of a ball only on Mondays if he was a .233/.283/.372 player the rest of the week? No, you wouldn’t. Eventually it would drive you to madness.

The Jays’ Reed Johnson leads the majors in getting hit by pitches. This might be his niche. He tied for fourth with 20 his rookie year (2003) and tied for 17th last year with 12. Hitting Johnson is a big mistake for a pitcher–and not because he’ll get mad and make you pay the next time he comes up. On the contrary, it’s a mistake because if you don’t hit him, he’s pretty easy to get out. Johnson had the second-lowest VORP among players with more than 500 plate appearances last year. (Joe Crede was lowest.)

The Yankees have two games left in April, but it’s already too late to salvage the month. At best, they will finish at 11-13. At worst, 9-15. In any case, it’s a very rare sub-.500 month for a Joe Torre-managed Yankees team. This will mark only the fifth time in the ten years of the Joe Torre era that the club has failed to break even in a month:

11-17: May 2003
10-15: June 2000
13-17: August 1996
13-17: September 2000

Their other worse months are at or over .500:

13-13: May 2000
14-13: April 1997
15-14: August 2001
11-10: April 2004
15-13: May 1999
15-13: September 1999

So, if the Yankees lose tonight and tomorrow, they will have their worst Torre-era record in hand (.375 winning percentage). At best, they will have their fifth-worst monthly record. Is this, to paraphrase the cliché, a sign that the apocalypse is upon them? Nope. The American League East could well be a depressed unit. As such, a depressed Yankee team could take it, as in 2000, when they posted three of their worst six monthly records. The 2005 season won’t be a repeat of that year, but it might not require the upper 90-win total to secure it, either. In that case, one month at .400 ain’t no thing.

(Check out Sunday’s Yankees-Jays matchup, as it’s the feature game for Jonah Keri’s next Prospectus Game of the Week).

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Cincinnati (25th) @ Milwaukee (24th)

Reds pitchers lead the National League in home runs allowed, which is not surprising, given their home park. What is surprising is that they’ve allowed more on the road (17 in 11 games) than at home (16 in 10 games). They’ve yielded the most road homers in the league. By way of contrast, the Cardinals have only allowed two, though in 10 fewer games. Eric Milton has been bombed seven times away from Great American, while surrendering a modest three homers at home. The Brewers won’t get a crack at him in this series, though.

Somebody needs to tell Sean Casey the season is under way. (Casey and Milwaukee’s Lyle Overbay are one-two in GIDP so far.) Austin Kearns and Ken Griffey, Jr. have started slowly as well. Actually, considering the lack of contribution from that trio, the Reds are holding their own pretty well.

Just to put some perspective on the list of worst Yankee monthly records shown above, here are the top 10 Brewers monthly records over the same period of time:

16-8: April 1998
17-11: June 1996
15-10: June 2004
16-12: August 2003
16-12: July 1997
14-11: September 1996
15-12: September 1999
15-12: June 1998
13-11: April 2001
14-12: July 1999

If you take the best six of these months and create a Milwaukee superseason from them, what you get is a team that wins 96 games. Between 1996 and 2004, those 96 wins would have put them ahead of the Yankees just three times and would have tied them once.

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