BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Mets (10th) @ Atlanta Braves (7th)

Since the Grand Reawakening of the Atlanta baseball franchise, they have lost the season series to the Mets just twice: 1997 (5-7) and 1995 (5-8). Heading into 2005, they held a 42-game lead on New York in head-to-head matchups since 1991. They’re up on them again this year so far and won’t see Pedro Martinez in this series.

Here’s a surprise: the Braves are succeeding in spite of having the worst closer in baseball. No, I meant that ironically–it’s not a surprise at all. It’s not a surprise that the wheels came off the Dan Kolb cart (they weren’t on that tightly to begin with) and it’s not a surprise that a team can get by without a great closer. It’s very hard for a closer to succeed when he’s walking more batters than he’s striking out. Ask Danny Graves, just put out to pasture by the Reds. Kolb’s WXRL is the worst of any closer, including Graves and better than only non-closers Byung-Hyun Kim and Scott Dohmann of the Rockies. One would think that the braintrust of Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone could come up with a clever bullpen strategy that would obviate the need for a traditional closer.

Save leaders–and closing for a team like the Braves puts a pitcher in an excellent position to be one–simply don’t walk more men than they whiff. In fact, since saves started getting counted in 1969, not a single league save leader has ever done so. Here are the five who came closest:

Pitcher (Year Team) Saves, K:BB – Ratio

Ron Perranoski (1969 Twins) 31 saves, 62:52 — 1.19
Ron Perranoski (1970 Twins) 34 saves, 55:42 — 1.31
Dan Quisenberry (1980 Royals) 33 saves, 37:27 — 1.37
Wayne Granger (1970 Reds) 35 saves, 38:27 — 1.41
Sparky Lyle (1976 Yankees) 23 saves, 61:42 — 1.45

The only pitchers of recent vintage in the “top 20” on this list are Jose Mesa with 1.64 in 2002 and Antonio Alfonseca with 1.96 in 2000.

While this matchup features the two highest-ranked teams, we shouldn’t leave the National League East without mentioning the Most Valuable Player of the season’s first quarter: Bobby Abreu. It’s a fool’s errand to think that this is the year he will finally get some notice from MVP voters, but it would be nice if somebody noticed he has cut the fat completely from his game. He hasn’t been caught stealing yet in 13 tries. He hasn’t hit into a single double play. He’s seen more pitches than anyone in the league. Combine that with a VORP of 31.2 (second only to Derrek Lee of the Cubs) and you have a player who is basically operating at peak capacity. Sadly, it’s in the vacuum of a season in which the Phillies will have to leapfrog at least three of the teams in their division if they are to make the postseason. Sounds like another MVP vote hose job for Mr. Abreu in the offing.

BEST AMERICAN LEAGUE MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Boston Red Sox (6th) @ Toronto Blue Jays (12th)

The AL East: where scoring is Job One. Current rankings in runs scored show AL East teams in four of the top five spots in the League with Tampa Bay in seventh. The balance of power is decidedly eastward in 2005, which is not a big surprise. Here’s an update on the average Prospectus Hit List rankings for each division:

10.8: AL East
11.0: NL East
13.0: AL Central
18.8: NL West
19.5: NL Central
20.3: AL West

A real split has formed with there currently being no middle ground between the upper three divisions and the lower three. The biggest surprise is the AL Central being among the haves.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Seattle Mariners (24th) @ Baltimore Orioles (1st)

The previously unpredictable Bruce Chen is currently Baltimore’s second-best starter (behind Erik Bedard) and that has got to be more than a little disconcerting for the Oriole faithful.

Has a team ever won a pennant on the back of its pinch hitting? Not bloody likely, although it might make some difference, I suppose–like if pinch hitters managed 20 game-winning hits in one season or something preposterous like that. It certainly doesn’t in the American League. This year, the Orioles have sent only 10 pinch hitters to the plate. They’ve gotten one hit and two walks. The best pinch-hitting team in the league is the Devil Rays, who trail Baltimore by 13 games. The White Sox are 3 for 27 in the pinch. The worst pinch-hitting team in the National League is St. Louis, a team that could well win their division by 20 games. The Royals are 1 for 25 as a team, which essentially means they could send up their pitchers to pinch hit and get the same results. Joe McEwing has the only pinch hit, so consider that the next time you say he brings nothing to the team.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Oakland A’s (26th) @ Tampa Bay Devil Rays (27th)

The A’s were, as far as I know, the first team to post player OPS on the scoreboard at their stadium. How ironic it is, then, that they are currently last in baseball in that particular stat. They trail fellow division-mates Los Angeles/Anaheim and Seattle, as that AL West trio brings up baseball’s rear in combined On Base Percentage and Slugging Average.

I was watching MTV Cribs on Sunday and there was a segment with former A’s outfielder Jermaine Dye. His house–or “crib” as the kids say–is the size of a casino on a lesser Indian reservation. There was the requisite game room and the requisite home theater along with the requisite brace of luxury and vintage vehicles. Each room had a flat screen television. It was a nice place, really–not too gaudy or overstated and I guess I’m happy for him because he came across as a nice enough guy, but I couldn’t help thinking, “this is what you get for 611 career RBI?” What a strange world we have created. Anyway, the A’s should get a tape of the show and watch it to see how some of the $30 million they gave him was spent.

Just for the heck of it, what if you had to draft an All-Star team from the five current worst teams in baseball: Oakland, Tampa Bay, Colorado, Kansas City and Cincinnati (26th through 30th in the Prospectus Hit List)? Using VORP by position, I think it would look a little something like this:

Catcher: Toby Hall, Tampa Bay – 13.1 (3rd)
First Base: Mike Sweeney, Kansas City – 21.2 (3rd)
Second Base: Ryan Freel, Cincinnati – 10.7 (8th)
Third Base: Joe Randa, Cincinnati – 11.7 (9th)
Shortstop: Clint Barmes, Colorado – 20.1 (3rd)
Leftfield: Adam Dunn, Cincinnati – 23.3 (2nd)
Centerfield: Alex Sanchez, Tampa Bay – 10.8 (7th)
Rightfield: Bobby Kielty, Oakland – 9.2 (11th)
Designated Hitter: Matt Stairs, Kansas City – 11.0 (6th)
Starting Pitcher: Aaron Harang, Cincinnati – 15.6
Starting Pitcher: Rich Harden, Oakland – 11.9 (Disabled List)
Starting Pitcher: Shawn Chacon, Colorado – 11.7
Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke, Kansas City – 8.2
Starting Pitcher: Jeff Francis, Colorado – 7.2
Reliever: Huston Street, Oakland – 9.2
Reliever: Andrew Sisco, Kansas City – 8.3
Reliever: Justin Duchscherer, Oakland — 7.9
Closer: ?

Here’s the deal with the closer for these five teams: the choice isn’t very clear. Danny Graves of the Reds has the most saves with 10, but he was just designated for assignment after putting his hand into some shape other than that which is required to throw a baseball and then showing it to the crowd. His ERA at the time of his demise was 7.36. Octavio Dotel has seven saves but has been famously unpredictable this year. The Royals, Rockies and Devil Rays have an unbelievable 15 for 40 record in save situations in 2005, so it seems unlikely that any of their tribes will represent at the council fire. Danys Baez has probably pitched as well anyone with at least three saves (he has four) on these five teams.

As for the starting pitching, we can put it into perspective in this way: while there are no teams currently boasting five starters with better individual VORPs than this quintet, there are four teams that boast four: the White Sox, Marlins, Braves and Nationals (matching first against Harang, second against Harden and so on). The White Sox come the closest, with Orlando Hernandez at 6.5 just missing Jeff Francis at 7.2.

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